Check out this image from an Amazon notification that I received during the holiday season.  It included imagery of the product (some black pajamas), a map of my neighborhood that indicates the location of my house, the current location of the delivery driver (the Santa sleigh), and a caption telling me Santa (aka Amazon) was just seven stops away and would deliver my package before 2:15pm.  It is interesting to see how much information Amazon provides as part of their customer experience, especially when compared to the data we observe in ServiceTrade. Amazon knows that it is almost impossible to give the customer too much information, and yet most commercial service contractors completely ignore this lesson.

Currently, fewer than 2% of ServiceTrade work orders include a notification to the customer that the technician is en route.  The feature is an easy one for technicians to access, but they just don’t do it. It’s a shame, because Amazon is not a fool. They know that customer loyalty stems from winning the information arms race.  Customers LOVE to know what is happening, especially if it involves zero effort on their part to dig the information out of the supplier. If it is simply offered as part of the service experience, it creates positive feelings about the service brand.  The notification creates a dopamine response from the anticipation that something good is about to happen. That little jolt of feel good neurotransmitter goes a long way in justifying higher prices during the next contract negotiation.

How easy is it for you to measure the number of digital records you transmit to your customers as part of your service experience (marketing impressions per service or MIPS)?  Do you hold technicians accountable for generating en route notifications, before and after videos and pictures, deficiency records documenting equipment failure risks, review requests to boost search engine optimization?  If not, why not? ServiceTrade measures all of these MIPS so that it is easy for you to monitor your success in sharing rich service records that keep the customer engaged and delighted in your work. Amazon knows there is no such thing as too much information.  Isn’t it time that your service business took that lesson to heart?

Shelley Bainter asked me to write this blog post explaining why I decided I needed to write The Digital Wrap and Money for Nothing in support of ServiceTrade’s marketing strategy.  It’s a great question. Interestingly, the books are mostly an extension/expansion/elaboration on a collection of blog posts and research that I along with Shawn Mims delivered in connection with ServiceTrade marketing activities.  There are two fundamental reasons that I write, and the books are just an outgrowth of those.

The first fundamental reason I write is because it helps me lead. I believe the best way to prove you are sane enough in your thinking to lead an organization is to commit your most important thoughts to coherent prose.  It did not surprise me at all when I read that Jeff Bezos banned Powerpoint in executive meetings at Amazon and instead required all important decision matters be committed to six-page memos with narrative structures.

If you cannot tell the story you want others to believe and commit to action, you are not prepared to lead. So I use writing to organize the ideas I want ServiceTrade to embrace and extend to our customers as our value proposition. It proves to myself that I am coherent in my thinking, and it gives my executive team something to debate, debunk, or improve for their own narrative purposes with their teams.

The second reason that I write is because I am a big admirer of the trick that two other MIT alums pulled with their company, Hubspot.  Long before Hubspot had a product that was worthy of market leadership, the two founders, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, had a concept that was worthy of market consideration.  They coined the term and wrote the book Inbound Marketing. It gave the new company, Hubspot, standing in the market prior to the product Hubspot having any significant leading features. Customers will invest in leadership ideas and demonstrate patience with the product if they see a bright future. Halligan and Shah demonstrated leadership and bought their company mind share that they were later able to convert into market share as the product matured.

Similar to inbound marketing for Hubspot, the concept of a digital wrap for ServiceTrade is new and novel among service contractors seeking technology solutions to enhance their business.  The digital wrap gives ServiceTrade something cool to share with prospects in order to challenge their notion of what it means to be competitive in a world dominated by digital experiences from Amazon, Uber, Netflix, Apple, and others.  How am I going to compete with an online customer service experience when my customers are comparing me to these mega digital experiences? ServiceTrade has a novel concept called the digital wrap that enables scalable and memorable online customer engagement.  Writing the books gives our small company standing in the market because we are talking about something unique, differentiated, and important.

You don’t have to publish books to benefit from these reasons that I have adopted for writing. Use the concept of narrative memos like Bezos does to force you and your management team to organize your thoughts into ideas that can be acted upon.  Build compelling stories about your unique capabilities to share with customers in the form of blog posts or videos. It is easier for a customer to consider your product when they see or read a story that compels them to change their assumptions because they believe you are predicting the future.  A good story helps them buy into your value.

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We’ll give the first ten readers to respond a copy of Billy’s new book, Money for Nothing. Send your request and mailing address to  shelley.bainter@servicetrade.com

You won’t make your customer feel good if you provide convenience, transparency, and avoid bad surprises. Those are the bare minimum to meet their expectations.

From my last blog post:

Dr. Feelgood, from the 1989 Mötley Crüe single, was a drug dealer who got the name because he made his customers feel good. This kept his customers coming back for more. Do you make your customers feel good? It doesn’t really matter if you do a good job for them. If you don’t make them feel good about it, they won’t come back for more.

Obviously, commercial service contractors shouldn’t give their customers illicit drugs, but they can stimulate the same brain receptors that release dopamine, the feel-good hormone that drives positive reinforcement in the human biological reward system. Unfortunately, that same reward system has negative reinforcement mechanism called cortisol, the stress hormone, that’s easily triggered by bad customer service. Understanding what triggers these hormones is fundamental to creating an amazing customer experience that reduces stress, gets customers hooked to your brand, and differentiates your company from the competition.

In my previous post, I dove into the three stressors that trigger cortisol in your customers: inconvenience, uncertainty, and bad surprises. This week, I want to shift gears and talk about the three dopamine triggers you can take advantage of to make your customers feel good. Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to elicit a dopamine response in your customers than a cortisol response because the typical triggers like sex and drugs are not tools you get to use. Instead, you’ll have to rely on subtle psychological triggers that require finesse to provoke.

Good Surprises

Our brains are wired to be delighted by good surprises. Neuroscientists from the Baylor College of Medicine conducted a research study in which volunteers played a computer game where they were presented with a red and blue deck of cards with the objective of accumulating as many points as possible by determining which deck contained more “reward” cards. They could select to flip the top card of either deck to receive a reward card that gave them points and triggered the cha-ching sound of a cash register, or a card that would remove points from their accumulated gains. Over time, they would learn which deck gave them more reward cards so they could accumulate points faster. Researchers modeled the volunteers’ expectation of reward based on their selections to classify gains and losses as expected or unexpected. On average, an unexpected reward resulted in highest release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone.

Take advantage of this psychology and provide facility managers with the great surprise of an amazing customer experience. While all of your competitors manage their service cycle and customer service with calls, paper, and ad hoc emails, you’ll stand apart when you offer a convenient, novel experience that includes online summaries of services with rich media, automated notifications (MIPS), and the ability to leave reviews. Here’s what a facility manager told a service contractor about the online service reports (Service Link) he receives that include loads of pictures, videos, and audio notes pertaining to the services:

“I love this feature and report. Your competition has nothing like this.”

The unexpected surprise of a better experience made him feel good. Now, this novelty will wane, and that’s OK. After the novelty is gone, you’ll have set a new precedent for a great customer experience that your competitors can’t touch. Their approach will feel inconvenient and uncertain. As I discussed in the first installment of this blog post, that’s a formula for the stress hormone cortisol – and a bad customer relationship.

Storytelling

Everybody loves a good story. Entire books, like Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, are dedicated to the science of great storytelling. Gottschall tells us about an experiment performed by Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, found that our bodies release more oxytocin, the hormone that causes empathy, when we consume information in a story format as opposed to a simple factual summary. College students were offered $20 to take part in a study where they were presented with either a story about a father and his dying child or a factual summary about the impacts of cancer on children. After the presentation, the students were asked if they wanted to donate any or all of their $20 to a cancer research institute for children. Students that were presented with the story had significantly higher levels of oxytocin in their blood and, on average, donated more money. A good story with a classic arc makes us empathize with the main characters. We feel how they feel.

After the novelty of your shiny new customer experience wears off, you can take advantage of this empathetic trait to trigger dopamine by telling your customers the story of the challenges your team overcame. Start by introducing the hero, your technician, with an en route notification and an in-person greeting when they arrive. Next, show customers the challenges that the hero faces with pictures and videos of the equipment issues. How ever will the hero succeed? Present a solution with an online quote that shows how your tech will save the day and an explanation of the bad outcomes that will occur if they don’t act. Those unfavorable outcomes are the villain that add tension to the story. Most importantly, show your customers exactly how the hero saved the day with pictures and videos of the repaired equipment. When you properly craft this story, your customers will empathize with the main character, your technician, and receive a hit of dopamine from the happy ending that avoided the perilous bad outcomes.

Anticipation

Interestingly, our bodies often reward us with more dopamine when we anticipate a reward than when we actually receive a reward. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist, performed a study on monkeys that were trained to, after given a signal, press a button 10 times to receive food. The monkeys’ dopamine levels rose immediately after the signal, but subsided when they were done pressing the button. The anticipation of the food released more dopamine than the reward of the food itself. When the food was only dispensed 50% of the time, their dopamine levels doubled in comparison to what they were when then the food was dispensed every time. Just like a slot machine, the mix of anticipation and uncertainty about the reward yielded a significant dopamine release in the monkeys.

You’ve already shown your customers that you’ll give them a hit of dopamine when you show up with a novel customer experience and a great story. That’s their reward. Now, all you have to do is train them to anticipate it. Teach them to anticipate a feel-good experience when you give the signal of an appointment reminder or en route notification. You’re not going to have an exciting story for every service. For example, routine maintenance work and inspections where your techs don’t find any issues don’t make for an enthralling story. That’s OK. As the monkeys show us, you don’t have to deliver the reward 100% of the time. Instead of a mediocre story on every job, tell them an incredible story, full of challenges and and successes on the jobs where your techs save the day. The important takeaway is that you should give your customers the signal on every job in order to elicit their anticipatory dopamine response.

 

Just like Dr. Feelgood, you can keep your customers coming back for more. Instead of drugs, you can use consumer psychology to hack their evolutionary reward system to prevent the release of cortisol and evoke the release of dopamine. If you succeed in making your customers feel good, your service brand will be impervious to the competition and your customers will be happy to pay you more for the premium experience you give them.

happy amazon customer receives amazon box delivery

Several dozen books (at least) have been written about the Amazon phenomenon, and I could probably go on and on myself about the lessons that can be drawn from its success. The lesson for the service contractor is that making your customers feel good about your service will likely lead to greater riches for you and your company. Jeff Bezos is the richest guy in the world, and he has been pretty clear that his success comes from innovations that make the customer feel good about doing business with Amazon. Many of these innovations are directly applicable to a commercial service contracting business, and you should take inspiration from them to deliver your own version of “feel good” customer service features.

Pictures and video. Amazon understands the psychology of human decision making. Images impress us.  They help humans understand their environment and make decisions. We are more easily impressed by images and stories than we are by bullet points and descriptive prose. I challenge you to find anything for sale on Amazon that does not include at least one picture. Generally there are several, and Amazon gives you tools to zoom and pan to get a better view of the details that might interest you. It is easier to feel good about a purchase when we can see the images that reinforce our buying decision. Increasingly video is also becoming a part of the purchase review because it combines imagery with a story about the product.

Reviews. Reviews are the stories other customers choose to share about their experience with the product. Like images, stories are a powerful learning mechanism for humans. By reading stories, we get comfortable with the experience we can expect from the product. We also understand any trouble we may face through these review stories. Reviews further empower the customer as well because a poor customer service experience and a bad review is often the catalyst for a company to correct the problem. The ability to hold the company accountable to a good experience through a review process gives the customer more comfort at the time of purchase.

Convenience.  One of Amazon’s first innovations was one-click purchasing.  They applied for and were awarded a method patent on this invention back in 1999. Amazon famously sued Barnes and Noble when they copied the innovation. Amazon had streamlined the purchase process by eliminating the hassle of checkout, and the company was not going to stand by quietly when their fiercest competitor attempted to copy this convenience innovation. Now the company offers a mobile app (of course) so customers can easily browse and buy from their phone.  Additionally Amazon provides multiple delivery and gift options, smart speakers that let you buy with Alexa commands, push button buying using a little connected clicker called a Dash button for common items like laundry detergent, and many more buying innovations. The company is even experimenting with flying drone delivery. Eliminating all of the barriers between your customer’s money and your bank account just makes sense.

No Hassle Returns. Amazon never argues with a customer regarding a request to return an item so long as there is some reason for the rejection (fit, color, quality, whatever). They make returns easy with a self-service process from their website. Customers feel better about placing an order when they know they can return the product if something is not right.

Mobile experience. Amazon enhances convenience with their mobile app because shopping is always available. Most customers are never more than three feet from their phone, and therefore I believe mobile is worthy of its own feel good category. Because my smartphone has a camera and a microphone, I can take photos (or scan barcodes) to search for products as well as giving verbal commands. I can also manage every aspect of my relationship with Amazon through my mobile device, which means I can manage it anywhere and anytime.

Feel good by doing good. The Amazon Smile program allows me to select a charity to receive a donation from Amazon equal to .5% of my qualifying purchases when I begin my shopping at smile.amazon.com. Do you imagine that a customer feels good when they begin their shopping experience by typing “smile” and then direct a contribution to a favorite charity when they buy something? It is easy to feel good when your vendor helps you do good.

Notifications and visibility. Amazon gives customers a number of ways to track their orders and their order history with the company. Any shopping activity, whether resulting in a purchase or not, generally results in some level of follow up from Amazon. If I place an order, Amazon continuously informs me of the status from a “thank you” order confirmation. They send a shipment notice plus an arrival notice. If I shop and do not order, Amazon often follows up with deals on items that I viewed hoping to push me over the edge to actually buy the product. After I receive a purchase, I am generally offered an opportunity to review the purchase, and I will typically be offered several complementary items. Beyond these notifications, Amazon tracks my purchases so that I can reference that information to make decisions regarding future purchases. All of this attention and account visibility certainly helps the customer feel good about their relationship with Amazon.

Subscription membership. Amazon offers customers a subscription program called Prime. Prime bundles all manner of Amazon services and benefits into a subscription program for which customers pay an annual membership fee. The subscription offers access to a library of books and music along with lower costs (usually free) for shipping and guaranteed two-day delivery for any purchases. Statista, the online statistics portal, estimates that Amazon had 95 million US Prime members as of June 2018.  That amounts to nearly seventy-percent of US households participating in Prime. It feels good to be a member of a club with a wide range of benefits and a subscription business model with its predictable and guaranteed cash flow is a powerful foundation from which to build a dominant brand.

Commercial service contractors should take a lesson from Amazon: making customers feel good about your services will likely lead to greater riches for your company. The best part is, many of the innovations that make customers feel good about doing business with Amazon can work for you.

Amazon does not settle for “good” in the realm of customer service. It is not enough for the customer to simply get what they paid to receive. Amazon wants customers to enjoy the experience in the same manner as a guest might enjoy a good party. Great brands now want to copy Amazon because Jeff Bezos has become the wealthiest guy in the world due to the crazy success of Amazon stock. Smart business owners want the same value for their shareholders, so they are behaving like Amazon and aiming well beyond the idea of simply satisfying the customer. They truly want their customers to “feel good” about the experience of buying from them. This current obsession with the customer experience is certainly a good thing for customers. Because so many companies are now focusing on innovation in customer service, the bar for “feel good” status is climbing higher every day.

The most popular approach today for measuring customer satisfaction is the Net Promoter Score, or NPS. Wikipedia reports that more than two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 are currently using NPS. Here’s how it works.

Customers are asked a single, simple question:

How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague?

Respondents are then given an option to answer that question with a number rating on a scale between 0 and 10. 0 means that the customer would never recommend the company to a friend or colleague, and 10 means that they would absolutely recommend the company to a friend or colleague.

Next, respondents are categorized into the following groups:
Promoters – those who score the business with a 9 or 10, likely to promote to others
Passives- scored 7-8, not likely to benefit or harm your brand
Detractors- scored 6 or less, a liability for your brand

The final NPS score is calculated by subtracting the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters, with the Passives not contributing at all to the score. As an example, if you were to survey 100 customers and 35 score as Detractors (0 to 6), 25 score as Passives (7 or 8), and 40 score as Promoters (9 or 10), your NPS score would be:

Promoters – Detractors = NPS 40 – 35 = 5

Your NPS for this survey sample is a 5. Anything above 0 is considered to be positive, and a score approaching 50 is terrific.

Now I think all of this is probably a little too simplistic, and you will find lots of scientific criticism for NPS from survey theory experts if you go looking for it online. My opinion and the opinion of all of the other critics is not what really matters in this case. What is important is that two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 are relying on this information in one form or another to help them improve customer satisfaction. A lot of big brands with big budgets are focusing lots of energy on measuring customer satisfaction. The other important thing to note is that this wildly popular tool skews heavily toward “feel good” as the goal for customer service. Only scores of 9 or 10 are credited positively, and anything less than a 7 is negative. I would say anyone that scores a company with a 9 or a 10 feels really good about their experience with the company. So two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 are scheming for ways to get more scores in the range of 9 to 10 because that is the only way to improve their NPS score. That’s a lot of companies with a lot of focus on making customers feel good about their brand.

What does this emphasis on outstanding customer service mean for you? Your business is going to be compared to all of the customer service innovations of Amazon and two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 because they are all “focused like a laser” on customer experience these days. NPS is hot because customer service innovations are hot because customer loyalty is hot because growth is hot because Amazon is hot. Customers are not going to compare you to your “always go low on price” competitor down the street any longer. They are going to ask “Why can’t you be more like Amazon and give me notifications when I am due for service or when the technician is en route to my location?” The customer service bar is going to be set by the sum of all of the best experiences the customer has ever encountered across all companies in both their personal and professional life.

The good news is that most customer service innovations can be observed and imitated if they fit your idea of great customer service for your company. The case of Amazon is particularly intriguing because up until a few years ago Amazon had absolutely no influence over the products customers were buying from them. They were simply a reseller of other companies’ products. Any innovation they delivered to make a customer feel good was not a product innovation but instead was focused solely on the buying experience. In my next post, I’ll discuss the “feel good” customer service themes direct from Amazon that should probably be among the guideposts you use in establishing your “feel good” customer service strategy.

welcome to Missouri the show-me state highway welcome sign

When your salespeople call on customers, what are they pitching? What do they present when they get that rare opportunity to show a high-profile prospect the benefit of working with your company?  While I have not been in the room often when a commercial service contractor is pitching a customer, I have seen hundreds of websites for these companies, and I have been to lots of trade shows where they are exhibiting.  Generally, I am not impressed by what I have reviewed. Mostly I see some version of one or more of the following themes:

We Work Harder!  It sucks to work harder than the other guy.

We Care More!  Not certain what sucks more – working harder or caring more.

Better Technicians Means Better Service!  This is the Papa John’s pizza pitch.  You’ve seen examples here, here, and here of how that’s not working.

We’re a Family Business!  The mafia is a family business too.

We’ve Been in Business a Long Time!  Really?  Why are you still such a small company?

Sadly, the website content for most commercial service contractors is typically a long and rambling word salad that doesn’t add up to much value for the customer.  Generally, Google is not impressed either as most rank pretty low for relevance in organic search results. I imagine the salespeople are equally unimpressed with the company strategy, so their pitch quickly devolves to price:

How much are you paying now?  We’ll get the work done, and it will be cheaper!  Let’s negotiate labor rates and a markup on parts!  We will be there 24/7 when things go wrong! Call us anytime and we will fix your broken equipment by working around the clock until everything is good again!

Competing on price and some vague promises to work harder and care more and fix broken equipment 24/7 and be more family-oriented sucks.  Why should the customer believe anything the sales rep is saying? How can your sales representative make an impression that moves the conversation to valuable outcomes instead of a mark-up on the cost of the labor and parts?  

Of course the most important thing the salesperson can do is ask questions and understand the goals of the buyer through some discovery conversation.  The other thing that should be offered is a premium program, but do not expect the customer to buy on the promises and platitudes of a sales rep. Tellin’ ain’t sellin!  Your sales people should be able to show the customer the value of your brand by demonstrating how the program works. I am fond of declaring that all customers come from Missouri, which is known as the “show me” state.  If you can’t show them the value, you will not sell them the program.

So what does a premium program look like? And how can you demonstrate it to the customer in a way that is meaningful to them?  Let’s have a look at some examples from other industries to gain insights into components you should consider.

Amazon Prime – Amazon offers a subscription program called Prime, and nearly 70% of US households are Prime members.  Prime members pay $119  per year in exchange for free two-day shipping, access to a library of movies, television shows, and music, and a free Kindle book every month, among other things.  The most important thing Prime does, however, is put Amazon at the top of the heap when a subscriber considers how to buy the next bag of dog food, or supplies for their kitchen pantry, or Christmas gifts for their friends:

I’ve already paid for Prime, I might as well benefit from the free, expedited shipping!

The program helps keep the Amazon brand top of mind for future purchases, and customers pay for this marketing trick through their subscription fees!  It’s brilliant marketing by Amazon. Amazon allows prospective customers to try Prime free for a month to experience its value because Amazon knows that all customers are from Missouri.  The free trial “shows” the customer why Prime is valuable instead of just “telling” the customer that it will be great if they buy.

BMW Ultimate Care – BMW is a premium automotive brand that delivers what they claim is the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” and Ultimate Care is their premium maintenance program.  You pay in advance, typically at time of purchase when financing is also a part of the conversation. Ultimate Care provides unlimited service consistent with the manufacturer’s recommended service plan.  All parts and service required for recommended maintenance are included at a thirty-percent discount. The program is only available at BMW dealership locations, so you will be bringing the car to the dealership and wandering about reviewing all of the latest offerings of BMW as your maintenance plan is delivered.  

Once again, brilliant marketing.  You pay in advance so that you will certainly use the service that requires you to come to the dealership on a regular basis.  No doubt you will get a loaner for the latest model at the upper end of your price range for any extended service requirements.  The dealership is having the customer pay fees in advance of service to help them deliver a hassle-free experience and market their latest offerings to the customer on a regular basis.

Brandt STORM – Brandt Engineering is one of the largest mechanical contractors in Texas, and STORM is their premium program.  STORM stands for Service, Technology, Optimization, Retro-commissioning, and Monitoring. When the customer buys into the STORM program, Brandt does a top-to-bottom review of the equipment while installing monitoring technology to track key performance data on the critical elements where failure results in expensive disruptions.  Once they and the customer agree the equipment condition is worthy of a performance promise, STORM is initiated. The customer receives regular communication and attention from Brandt engineers and technicians while simultaneously benefiting from lower rates on service requirements and ideally lower utility costs.

The customer is paying Brandt the money they are saving on utility bills and breakdowns as subscription fees in order for Brandt to continuously remind them of the value of the Brandt brand! That trade-off is certainly worth the risk to Brandt of a failure where Brandt must pay the premium (expedited parts, overtime labor, etc.) for recovery instead of the customer paying it.  These risks are minimized through information, and the customer is conditioned that any retro-commissioning recommendations (quotes for new equipment) based upon the data are in their best interest to avoid performance disruptions that fall outside the STORM promise. It is brilliant.

So what are the lessons you should take from these examples?  

1 – Brand the Program. What is your version of Amazon Prime? Ideally the name helps the sales rep to tell the story, to get the conversation going with the customer, and then the customer remembers your brand.  A good name demonstrates your company’s thoughtfulness in how you communicate your value.

2 – Show, Don’t Tell.  Your sales people need to be prepared to give a demonstration of the program.  Amazon gives prospective Prime members a month of free Prime membership to try out all of the benefits.  Do your sales people have a way to easily give the customer your branded program experience?

3 – Promote the Features. Can you enumerate the features of the program?  In a list? Spend some time thinking about the names of the features.

4 – Get Paid for Nothing.  If the only time you send a customer an invoice is when you have a labor or parts line item to bill, guess what?  They are going to assume your value is in the labor and parts instead of the program. The fewer invoices you send to the customer, the better.  Ideally, have them pay annually in advance. It’s better for you and cheaper for them.

5 – Offer a Good Contract. Put in place a master service agreement, a rate schedule, and a service level agreement.  Good fences make good neighbors and good contracts make good customers.

None of these elements of a premium program are rocket science, but it is surprising to me how rarely they are implemented by service contractors.  Do not let shoddy practices in your industry nor weak competitors that always sell on price dictate your business model. The executive management of your company should spend at least fifty percent of their time working on program and marketing innovations that set the brand apart from competitors.  Innovation rarely happens by accident, and it is the key to having a differentiated value proposition.

This week’s post is a continuation of an introduction to AI, IoT and Big Data with the help of the 1984 movie The Terminator. Re-read that post here.

Let’s rearrange the AI, IoT, and big data alphabet soup of technology jargon to come up with a simple question that helps you cut through the hype and delivers some focus for your technology strategy.  I am going to drop a few words from artificial intelligence, Internet of things, and big data to make my point.  Here we go:

“How can you use the Internet to collect data about customer equipment so that you and your customer can make intelligent decisions about services that will minimize risk, expense, and business disruptions caused by suboptimal equipment performance or equipment failure?”

I really don’t care if the data is “big” or “small.”  I don’t care if the information that comes over the Internet is generated by a “thing” or by a person holding a smartphone taking photos of an impaired piece of equipment (although “things” are often cheaper than people as collection devices). I also don’t care if the “intelligence” is artificial or natural so long as it is smart and not dumb. The overall direction of technology, of course, is toward bigger data, more things connected to the Internet, and more intelligence that is artificial versus natural as computing gets cheaper and people get more expensive.

artificial intelligence-big data-internet of things

Now that we have generated a simple test to cut through the hype and focus our innovation lens on practical and actionable solutions, what are some examples that illustrate the potential value of this strategy? How are you currently and in the future going to collect data over the Internet to make more intelligent decisions regarding equipment services that should be delivered to optimize performance? You don’t have to wait for the day that the terminator is a reality.

Real World Example: AI at Work

The favorite workflow of ServiceTrade customers is the recording of equipment deficiencies by technicians using the mobile app and the subsequent online review of a quote by the customer to approve a related repair. Let’s see if this workflow meets the test of our strategy.  

  • Are we collecting information about equipment via the Internet? Yes.
    In this case it is photo, video, audio, and text captured by the technician that illustrates the problem to the sales person in the office and ultimately to the customer.  
  • Are we using intelligence? Yes.
    The technician knows this situation can lead to a failure, otherwise why record it? The sales person also recognizes the problem because of the detailed data set, and she applies the correct quote template for repair based upon prior experiences – how much time, which tools, which parts, etc.
  • Finally, the customer can trust the information to make a good decision because he sees and hears the problem. Just like the “look through” scenes in The Terminator, we know that intelligence is being applied because we can see it happening.  The customer sees what the technician sees.

Real World Example: How IoT Reduces Chaos

Sensors are getting super cheap and the power requirements are getting so small that battery life is often measured in years. Consider fire sprinkler customers that have risk of pipes bursting due to freezing in certain areas of their facility that are not temperature controlled. Setting up a temperature sensor that generates an alert below freezing temperature could easily trigger a response to turn on some space heaters. If the heaters are connected to some sort of “smart” electrical circuit, perhaps they deploy on the signal without any other intervention. This seems like a small thing, but during cold snaps in normally moderate climates, it is amazing how many sprinkler pipes freeze. OK, does it pass the test?

  • Did we collect data on the Internet? Yes, through an ad hoc temperature sensor.
  • Are we using intelligence? Yes, intelligent people know that water freezes at thirty two degrees, and we know that plugging in a space heater will keep the temperature above that threshold.
  • Did our decision and action avoid disruption and maintain optimal facility performance? Yes.  Great, we are off to a terrific start with our AI, IoT, and big data strategy!

Real World Example: Big Data Brings About Better Decisions

Big data is simply a buzzword for datasets that are generally so large that a simple tool like Excel with a human interface might struggle to parse any intelligence from the data. All of the data in ServiceTrade is automatically ported over to Amazon’s Redshift/QuickSight big data analytics platform. A simple analysis will show customers spending habits related to emergency service versus planned services (preventative maintenance and planned retrofits and repairs). During an annual review with a challenging customer that insists on minimal preventative maintenance, you might be able to demonstrate that a similar customer that opts for maximum preventative maintenance is spending significantly less overall during the course of the past 3 years. No one could parse that amount of data in Excel, but QuickSight handles it easily with just a few clicks.  OK, does it pass the technology strategy test?  

  • Did we collect data on the Internet? Yes, all data in ServiceTrade is collected over the Internet because ServiceTrade is a SaaS application.
  • Did we make an intelligent decision to lower expense, lower risk, and optimize performance? Hopefully the answer is yes because ideally the customer buys into your premium program based upon the analysis that indicates lower total costs.

Let’s quickly contrast these straightforward examples of effective and simple technology deployment for achieving a mission with a “technology solution trying to find a problem.” Google, Snapchat, Intel, and a host of other technology heavyweights have spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars on “smart glasses” that combine cameras, heads up displays, natural language recognition, cellular networking, etc.  Some vendors in the contracting space latched onto this science experiment and began selling it as the productivity solution for all of your problems. It enabled customer collaboration, technician training, remote diagnosis, and a host of other benefits (according to the vendors). It didn’t work.

Taken in pieces, elements of the technology make sense. A small, bluetooth camera clipped to the bill of a ball cap with a similar bluetooth earpiece all tethered to the mobile phone will enable the technician to fire up a FaceTime call with a colleague. The two can then collaborate via shared images and a real time conversation to diagnose a problem. The challenge with jamming everything into a new form factor like glasses is that it is a laboratory exercise instead of a solution to a problem. It is Frankenstein as compared to the terminator.  Frankenstein was great science, but yielded only chaos and misery when deployed beyond the lab. The terminator, by contrast, was built for accomplishing the mission in the field.

Your objective is to assemble the terminator and avoid Frankenstein. The examples above clearly indicate that AI, IoT, and big data are already a part of the arsenal of technology you are using for the benefit of your customer. It really is not rocket science, and you really can embrace new innovations if you are willing to explore and set aside the intimidating jargon in favor of a elegant strategy. Your strategy should simply be a trend of collecting more data via the Internet so that you can intelligently make service decisions that optimize the performance of your customers’ important equipment. Any innovation that meets this simple test is putting you on a good path for adding more value. Stay focused on the mission, and the right solutions will present themselves as obvious candidates for your premium service program.

I love asking business owners and managers “Who do you think you are?” I’m not trying to pick a fight. What I’m really asking is “What makes you different and better than your competition?” But that’s a pretty boring question. Generally, those who give me a concise, thoughtful answer run growing and profitable companies. Those who can’t, don’t.

We’ve written a lot about figuring out what makes you different and better than your competition, but sometimes being committed to your unique value proposition leads to difficult conversations with customers and prospects.  Being different will certainly help your company stand out relative to the competition, but it can also feel pretty uncomfortable at times. I will never forget a customer visit with Billy that illustrates just how difficult being committed to being different can be.  We were visiting with Randy and Rebekah Akins, the owners of Aztec Fire and Safety in San Diego California. Randy was on the phone because he could not get to the office that day, and Billy, Rebekah, and I were sitting in Rebekah’s office. Randy led off the conversation with an observation on why he had abandoned his last customer service platform and selected ServiceTrade.

“The last application we used really screwed up our Quickbooks, and the most important thing ServiceTrade can get right is an elegant integration with our accounting application,” Randy declared through the phone speaker.  

Uh oh, I thought to myself.  This is about to get really interesting.  Billy didn’t let it go as I hoped he might.  Randy had just signed up with ServiceTrade the week before, and I guess Billy was pretty confident that Randy had already written and mailed the check because his first response was a verbal punch in the mouth for Randy.

“Well then, you are likely to be disappointed with ServiceTrade if an elegant Quickbooks integration is what is most important to you.  We focus most of our research and development spending on innovations that help you make more money from your customers through great customer service.  We believe making more money and great customer service is far more important than how you send the information to your accounting application.” Billy wasted no time getting to the heart of the conflict, and Rebekah and I stared awkwardly at each other wondering what was going to happen next.  I personally was happy that Randy was not in the room because he seemed to be spoiling for a fight after wasting a year or more on an application and then switching to ServiceTrade to solve what he felt was his most important problem – Quickbooks integration.

My response to the situation.

“That’s a pretty arrogant thing to declare in the first meeting with a new customer.  Basically, you are telling me that what I want is not important and that you guys know better than the customer.  We are going to be very disappointed if you can’t help us with this Quickbooks problem.” Randy wasn’t backing down either.  I felt I should do something, but this experience was like watching a train wreck, and I felt paralyzed. I literally couldn’t speak or move.  Billy continued with “We certainly don’t mean to be arrogant, and you guys are important to us. I hope the Quickbooks thing works, but it might not.  If you stick with us, however, I can promise you in six months you will be thrilled with how much easier it is to take care of your customers, deliver more services, raise your prices, and attract new customers.”

“We have already written the check, and we plan to make every attempt to be a good customer.  I hope you are right because our last experience with technology was a huge disappointment,” Randy closed the door on the fight, and we moved onto more comfortable ground with a conversation regarding the training and data migration plan for Aztec.

Fast forward eight months and Billy and Randy are best buds.  Randy and Rebekah’s business is growing like crazy, and they feel like ServiceTrade has made them stand out in their market.  They are selling more services, earning a premium, and attracting new and better customers to their brand. Billy took a calculated risk in that first conversation because he knew that the best ServiceTrade could do regarding a Quickbooks integration was not going to impress anyone.  Quickbooks is low cost, basic accounting application that is easy to use, but it has severe limitations regarding how third-party applications interface with it. There are no APIs for the desktop version. Besides, having a Quickbooks integration is not what sets ServiceTrade apart in the market. We know who we are as a company, and our mission is to help commercial service contractors use technology to deliver amazing customer service and become more valuable to their customers.  Quickbooks has no bearing on that mission.

Do you know who you are as a business?  Do you know what makes you different and special in your market? Can you confidently tell your prospects that you don’t care about being the low price leader and explain what unique value you can offer them instead? Can you explain why your program will reduce inconvenient and expensive breakdowns in the future? Do your customers know who you are?  Commit to being different, even if it means being uncomfortable, in your early engagements with customers and prospects to overcome the bad habits they’ve learned from your low-end competition.

Service contractors, beware. Blind trust is dead and as the “youths” say, pics or it didn’t happen. Pictures and videos are the new currency of trust thanks to technology that makes it so easy to capture and share them. Social media and modern ecommerce have trained us to expect images as tangible evidence that stories are true and products are real. Asking your customers to blindly trust your expertise without providing visual proof is like buying products online that don’t have pictures. It won’t happen. My wife and I had a recent experience with a Toyota dealership service department that’s a great example where a couple pictures could have made the difference between us being lifelong customers and abandoning the dealer completely.

When we purchased Jessie’s Prius, we bought a package of ten services at a discount from their counter rate. We drop her car off for service every few months and every once in a while they warn us about small issues like bad windshield wipers. Whenever possible, I take care of small issues myself. Changing out a set of wipers isn’t exactly rocket surgery.

We were satisfied with the Toyota dealer until last month when they performed a thorough inspection for the 75k mile service. That’s when the recommendations and repair suggestions came out of the woodwork! We expected some, but this list was just ridiculous. My favorite was that they still recommended new windshield wipers because they weren’t replaced by Toyota last time we brought the car in. They just carried the recommendation over despite the fact that there were obviously new wipers on the car. That particular misstep had me questioning the rest of the quoted work.

If they didn’t look at the wipers, how can we trust that they looked at anything else? There weren’t any pictures that prove that they did. They quoted us for tire alignment but they didn’t include a graph showing the results of the alignment test. They just said “Found suspension in need of alignment based on time or miles.” Then there’s the quote for replacing the brake pads and resurfacing the rotors without any pictures of the pad or rotor wear. The brake fluid is discolored? Show us. Pics or it didn’t happen.

We don’t like getting ripped off. Nobody does. Even the feeling that you might be getting ripped off is enough for someone to consider getting a second opinion. And, that’s exactly what we intend to do. We’re going to our favorite local mechanic who emails us pictures of issues before sending quotes for repair. Taking pictures and sharing them with your customers should be easy. If it’s not, you’ve got a problem. Don’t expect your customers to blindly trust you.

“Money for Nothing” is the concept that you can charge a premium if you offer customers predictable facility outcomes at a predictable price. You should be more profitable when “nothing” happens: no emergencies and no system failures. These bad outcomes are undesirable for the customer and expensive for everyone, especially your company. Even if you charge the customer an exorbitant labor rate or emergency fee, being reactive costs a lot more than your tech’s overtime rate. The uneven labor demand of reactive work overextends your most expensive resource, skilled labor. Read our Money for Nothing blog post and check out Billy Marshall’s presentation, Money for Nothing: How Exceptional Service Brands Earn More Pay for Less Work, for a deeper understanding of the topic.

To understand how a Money for Nothing program works operationally, let’s talk about your technician Dan. OK, you may not have a Dan, but stick with me. Dan is the man. He’s been with you for years and he racks up all sorts of repair work and generates a lot of revenue for the business. He’s great at what he does and is irreplaceable in the face of the skilled labor shortage we’re experiencing. On a typical maintenance call, he may find a small equipment issue that has the potential of manifesting into a severe problem in the future. He reports the issue that makes its way to the customer as a quote. As usual, the facility manager, Stingy Steve, ignores the quote because he doesn’t think it’s all that urgent. Eventually, the equipment fails and Dan has to drop another job and work late to resolve the issue. Even though Dan the Man predicted the problem, Stingy Steve is still frustrated that he has to spend more money and deal with the hassle of an emergency.

That’s a bad customer outcome that could have been avoided. That’s how you lose customers. Dan did a great job reporting the problem and your team did a great job quoting it, but more effort should have been made to convince Steve that the minor repair was the right choice. Measuring the right performance metrics can help hold your team accountable for good outcomes and incentivize them to work harder for your customer to avoid situations like this.

Money for Nothing Metrics – or MnMs, not to be mistaken with M&Ms – are business measurements that will help your facility service organization effectively deliver on your premium service contracts and drive better customer outcomes. But first, what internal metrics do you currently use? Labor utilization summaries? Quote approval rates? Revenue per tech per day? These are valuable KPIs for measuring productivity and revenue, but what about customer outcomes? You can measure retention and customer lifetime value, but those are just the results of your performance. They indicate the overall “stickiness” of your brand and how effective you are at extracting dollars from your customers, but they don’t help you understand how you got there. We know that you can’t improve what you don’t measure, so let’s take a look at some key MnMs.

Suggested Repairs

How proactive is your team when it comes to equipment and system issues? Easy. Just track the ratio of reported, quoted, and approved proactive repairs as compared to more severe, reactive problems. The higher the ratio, the better job your company is doing at preventing future catastrophes. Even though these repairs produce less revenue, they will reduce the chance of a bad customer experience and can be scheduled during slow months.

Emergency Calls and Overtime Usage

How often do your customers have unexpected issues? For most service contractors, the answer is very seasonal, but you still have some control over the volume. More proactivity leads to fewer emergencies and happier customers. Measure the volume of emergency calls and overtime hours used for contracted customers to the total number of contracted customers by month to get a sense of what to expect from month to month. You know you’re doing a good job when that ratio drops for the same month year over year.

 

Hold your team accountable and incentivize them for “nothing.” Just like your program, your team should be making money for nothing: no emergencies, no failures, no bad outcomes. MnMs give you the numbers you need to set goals and realize outcomes.