In 1984 I was seventeen years old and working as an usher in a movie theater when the science fiction thriller The Terminator was released. It was a surprise hit, and I must have seen the movie a couple of dozen times. In case you are not familiar with the movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a human-like cyborg, a Terminator, sent from the future with a mission to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the future resistance leader that is fighting the Terminator’s artificial intelligence master, Skynet. Aside from the obvious standout qualities of Schwarzenegger’s physique (a former Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia) and the incredible strength demonstrated by the cyborg, the Terminator looks and even acts somewhat human. To remind the audience that the Terminator is actually a very sophisticated computer, director James Cameron sometimes displays the action from the perspective of the Terminator.

In these “look through” scenes, the audience is presented with a screen that is apparently the field of vision of the Terminator. The film color quality is replaced with mostly red, white and black imagery. Superimposed on the imagery is a bunch of scrolling text gibberish and some highlighted, flashing square boxes to call attention to certain data elements the Terminator may be analyzing – a person’s body size for suitable clothing, weapons in the hands of potential antagonists that must be foiled, etc. Of course, if the Terminator was really a sophisticated computer cyborg, there would not be an internal display barfing computer gibberish onto a screen in a manner that was readable by humans. Computers do not need human-readable text to operate on data the way humans need it. The computer would simply be ingesting external data via the cyborg’s camera eyes and his microphone ears along with any other external sensors for temperature, pressure, odor, and what not. Based on this observed data, the Terminator would be making judgments and taking actions that would have a high probability of creating a path to accomplish the mission – the termination of Sarah Connor. All of this would be happening without a human readable screen display.

Why am I talking about The Terminator? Why is the detail of the Terminator’s view of the world as depicted by the movie director important? I am talking about The Terminator to illustrate the point that artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IoT), big data, and all of the other alphabet soup puked up on a daily basis by technology media and vendors hyping their products is generally nothing more than the collective, gradual evolution of computers. In 1984, James Cameron could imagine a computer that understands and speaks natural language, sees real-time imagery, reacts to its environment, and takes actions to accomplish the mission. To portray the Terminator as a sophisticated AI being, Cameron showed the audience a visual model that generally represented what computers looked like to the masses in 1984 – a somewhat low-resolution screen with digitized text scrolling on it with an occasional selection option that would become highlighted if you tabbed a cursor to it (remember, the mouse was a new thing in 1984 as the first Apple MacIntosh computers just shipped that year). Cameron could not assume that the audience would make the leap to his futuristic interpretation of an AI-enabled cyborg, so he showed the audience a 1984 computer interface to make certain they got the connection. All this stuff in the media about AI, IoT, machine learning, big data, blah, blah, blah is just the real world catching up to what James Cameron predicted would happen way back in 1984.

Today we are talking to our phone to have it dial our best friend. We are issuing verbal commands to our Alexa assistant to have it order pizza or play our favorite music. Our Nest thermostat is monitoring our habits, such as when we come and go, along with our preferences for ambient temperature in order to take actions regarding raising and lowering the temperature where we live. These common applications of AI would have been totally foreign and inconceivable to a movie audience in 1984. But James Cameron had a vision of what artificial intelligence could potentially accomplish in the future, and he did a really good job presenting that vision to the audience in a way that they could understand it. Let’s do a quick reset on some over-hyped terms – AI, IoT, and big data.

Artificial Intelligence – AI is just the trend toward computers ingesting more diverse data in more formats (i.e. images, audio, natural language, pressure, temperature, humidity, etc.) to enable analysis that leads to judgments and actions related to accomplishing a mission or objective. Because AI is more of a trend than a definitive end-state, AI can simply be classified as Hofstadter, a famous AI scientist, describes it – “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.” More accurately, AI is simply the leading edge of new capability for computers to operate more intelligently on a broader diversity of data.

Internet of Things – IoT is simply a trend where more and more things are connected to the Internet to send or receive data or to act upon data received. Historically connections to the Internet were people staring at screens (and increasingly listening to audio speakers) and entering data or responding to data received. “Things,” whether a cyborg like the Terminator or a $10 temperature sensor, don’t need screens (nor keyboards or a mouse or speakers) to send and receive data or to act upon data received.

Big Data – Big Data is simply the collection and analysis of data sets that are too large for humans to effectively parse, analyze, and extract intelligence from using simple programs like Excel. Ever cheaper storage and computing cycles lead to ever-increasing data collection, storage, and analysis. Again, big data is simply a trend and not a definitive end state.

Over time, computers will progress to read a broader spectrum of inputs, make more sophisticated judgments, and take an increasing variety of actions that lead to desired outcomes. No one was talking about AI in 1984 – no one in the mainstream media anyway – because the topic was confined to a small group of computer nerds at top technical institutions like Stanford and MIT. Yet the director of The Terminator could imagine a future where a computer becomes so powerful that it can measure its environment in a humanlike manner, make judgments based upon those measurements, and take intelligent actions to execute a mission – in this case, the termination of Sarah Connor. It is unlikely that anyone who saw The Terminator in 1984 remembers the on-screen effects that Cameron used to connect the audience to the idea that the Terminator was a computer. I bet everyone who saw the movie remembers the Terminator’s mission, however. What was the mission? To terminate Sarah Connor of course.

Whether an innovation can correctly be labeled as AI (or with any other overhyped term of the day) is far less important than whether the innovation helps accomplish the mission. The Terminator’s mission was to terminate Sarah Connor, and the Terminator was extremely well suited for carrying out the mission (although it actually failed in this case). Defining the mission that you would like to accomplish with AI, IoT, big data, etc. is actually much more important, in my humble opinion, than the actual technology you select to achieve the mission. Have you thought about the mission that you want to accomplish using technology?

I believe the mission you are generally attempting to accomplish through technology is to maximize customer equipment performance while eliminating equipment failures so that your customer experiences the least risk, expense, and disruption in their business. The reason that technology is important as an enabler of this mission is because it is generally cheaper and easier to manage (sometimes) than people. If you accomplish this mission, your customer will spend zero dollars recovering from disruptions (lost output, spoiled inventory, damaged property, emergency services) while maximizing the amount of money they spend with you relative to other suppliers.

I will continue this topic next week with real-world examples of how AI, IoT, and big data are being used by service contractors today. I’ll also have some advice to make sure that what you’re building is more like a high-performing Terminator than a cobbled-together Frankenstein monster.

“When we started with ServiceTrade we had one pipefitter. Now we have five.”  When Mary Krinbring of AAA Fire Protection in Seattle told us that in September 2015, everyone on our end of the phone’s eyes opened wide at that 500% growth.  “Tell us more, Mary…”

Mary Krinbring, AAA Fire Protection. November 2017.

When AAA Fire Protection joined ServiceTrade in August 2014 they were bogged down with paper processes and wanted to go digital. They adopted ServiceTrade to speed up the time it took to send Invoices to customers.  

Mary told us that they didn’t use ServiceTrade for quoting at first because they felt like they had it covered. But after learning how ServiceTrade’s built-in quoting could help them turn regular inspections into more repair jobs, they gave it a try. Mary attributes their need for more pipefitters to the nice workflow that converts deficiencies into quotes for repairs.  Before long, they were having a hard time keeping up with their repair opportunities and added an estimator to create repair quotes for their expanded pipefitting team. Mary reports that using ServiceTrade has increased their quote volume by at least 50%.

Today, AAA’s pipefitting department has more than doubled again and the company has achieved 20% growth. Mary sat down with us at the 2017 Digital Wrap Conference to explain why she thinks that ServiceTrade and a Digital Wrap helped AAA break through barriers that were holding them back from reaching the growth they’d been working hard to achieve.

AAA Fire Protection is dedicated to smart growth and using technology to keep their customers around. ServiceTrade is proud to be their partner.

“What skilled labor shortage? We don’t have any trouble hiring service technicians. We’re covered up in job applications.” That’s what a ServiceTrade customer told Billy Marshall, our CEO, on a recent visit. This customer figured that the economy was tanking because there are so many techs applying for work at his company. Billy just shook his head. “Nope. Everyone else is struggling to hire skilled labor. Your Digital Wrap is recruiting new techs for you.”

Your truck wrap has always been a recruiting tool. Just by performing the day-to-day work and driving around town, your technicians and the trucks they drive market your brand to potential customers and employees. A Mercedes Sprinter with a well-designed wrap is going to leave a good impression, right? A beat up, 15-year-old Ford Econoline with a few decals designed in the 90s, not so much. But, you already knew that.

What our customer and most service companies don’t realize is that a Digital Wrap works the same way. Just by performing the day-to-day work and generating online content for your customers, your technicians, equipped with technology, can market your brand to potential customers and employees. A well-designed website that shows up on the top of Google search results thanks to hundreds of great reviews collected by technicians is going to leave a good impression, right? A 15-year-old website that looks like it was designed before the .com bust, not so much. But, you probably already knew that.

Modern buyers and workers find and judge the companies they want to work with online. If you can’t be found on Google, strike. If you don’t have good reviews, strike. If your website looks like hot garbage, strike. You’re out of consideration. But, if you do have a great Digital Wrap, the customers and job applications will come to you. Selling and recruiting will get easier because people want to work with a premium brand they can trust.

What’s your brand promise?  A brand promise is a powerful, shorthand way for companies to tell their customers what to expect. They’re what makes a company different and better than their competition, and a good brand promise gives you permission to focus intently on living up to that promise.

Here are a few popular examples:

Geico: 15 minutes will save you 15% or more on auto insurance


BMW: The ultimate driving machine


Jimmy John’s: Freaky fast


So who do you think you are? What does your company promise to your customers that they can’t get from your competition?

Don’t fret if you are scratching your head right now – it’s not uncommon for service companies to lack a clear, concise statement like BMW’s “The ultimate driving machine.”  

There are a few things you can do to reveal your brand promise. But we’d like to start with what not to do, and that is to offer empty platitudes. Have you ever uttered any of these phrases?

We have better techs.
We give better service.
We work harder.
We care more.

It’s ok if you have because you aren’t the only one — by a long shot. Benign statements like these are hard to prove and are meaningless to the customer. While it’s nice that you work hard and care about doing quality work, it isn’t unique to your business and it isn’t compelling to your customers and prospects.

Gain Perspective

The best way to determine your brand promise is to step into the shoes of your best customers. What do they want? Why do they love working with you?

  • They want a better program designed to fit their needs
  • They don’t want any hassle
  • They want to see the value in your relationship

Be Unique

How are you different and better than everyone else who does what you do? At ServiceTrade, our mission is to make commercial service contractors more important to their customers to grow their business.

At BMW, it’s to create the ultimate driving machine. BMW shoppers know that they’re looking at an automobile that offers a driver’s experience, not granny’s slow, comfortable ride around town. Jimmy Johns does everything it can to be freaky fast. Even to the point of limiting their menu to a single option for mustard or cheese. (Did you know that? Dijon or provolone – that’s it.)

What makes you unique isn’t a question you can find the answer for in Google. It takes introspection. Involve your team in this project of self-discovery.

Get Uncomfortable

And, finally, get ready for some uncomfortable conversations. You’re definitely going make some customers unhappy if your brand promise doesn’t match their values. You may even lose some deals. But it’s worth it to focus your business on delivering the type of profitable work that is in your sweet spot. Uncovering your brand promise will help you win more of the customers you want and help keep them for longer.

Who do you think you are? Spend some time to figure it out.


Also read:

Build a Services Brand that is Worth Something


This blog post is adapted from a 2017 Digital Wrap Conference presentation by ServiceTrade Director of Marketing Shawn Mims.

Registration is now open for the 2017 Digital Wrap Conference. Last year’s inaugural conference made it clear that commercial service contractors need a forum to exchange ideas for how to run their business, and that’s what we’ll do at DWC17.

Conference details:

  • Sunday, November 5 – Tuesday, November 7
  • Wild Dunes Resort
  • Isle of Palms, SC near Charleston
  • Visit for more information

This year, there will be two full days of Digital Wrap content for you to absorb in sales, customer service, dealing with the skilled labor shortage, clobbering the competition, and the other fun challenges that come with running a service business.

Hosted by ServiceTrade, the event is sponsored by companies that offer products and services that are an integral part of a Digital Wrap and efficiently running a service business. These are folks you’ll want to talk with:

  • BuildingReports
  • LeadsNearby
  • Leap the Pond
  • Nuvo Solutions

We’ll convene in the evening of Sunday, November 5th. You’ll be welcomed with a decadent low country feast.

On Monday, November 6th, everyone will join a general session including keynotes, presentations, demonstrations, and panel discussions. Every one of last year’s attendees reported leaving the conference with ideas to implement back at the office – and this is when your new ideas will be born. Lunch is included – and as long as the weather cooperates – a seaside dinner on Monday are included with your registration.

The final day, Tuesday, November 7th will be a full day as well. By popular request, we’ll schedule more time for you to get together with other attendees to talk about your common challenges and to share ideas. This will be a multi-track day so you can pick the topics that you’re most interested in.

Our agenda will conclude around 4 pm on Tuesday. If you can stick around for Tuesday night, we’ll provide transportation to downtown Charleston so you can enjoy the city and its dozens of amazing restaurants on your own. Oh, and we’ll also arrange your transportation back to Wild Dunes at the end of the evening!

Registration is $750 per person. The conference is ideal for owners, leaders, managers and other decision makers in commercial service companies. Check the website for the early bird discount rate and multi-ticket packs.

Any questions? Go to or contact Event Manager Shelley Bainter at 919-825-1562.

Driverless cars are coming and we are all going to feel the impact. There will be winners and there will be losers. While the transportation industry undergoes a massive transformation and sheds its workforce, service contractors will harness the new technology and available labor. Service companies that are ready will grow. Those that aren’t will be left behind. Here’s what to expect.

Hire from a new labor pool

When semi-trucks, delivery vans, and taxis don’t need drivers and all of those jobs disappear, the unskilled labor pool is going to overflow. With no new demand for unskilled labor and a massive increase in supply, economics tells us that the cost will go down. Hiring low-skilled workers is going to get cheaper and easier. This won’t solve the skilled labor shortage, but you will have a huge selection of candidates to fill entry-level and apprenticeship positions. Prepare for this labor glut by building an effective and scalable training program for new employees.


Reduce fleet management costs

Do you consider your technicians good drivers? Do they speed, accelerate too fast, brake too hard, and get in the occasional fender bender? Of course they do. You don’t have to worry about that with driverless cars. Your driverless vehicles will be involved in fewer accidents, use less fuel, and put less wear and tear on your fleet thanks to their better-than-human driving record.


Simplify parts delivery

Moving parts from your warehouse(s) and parts houses straight to job sites will be much faster and cheaper. Uber already offers a low-cost delivery service in some cities and driverless cars are expected to further reduce prices of local delivery. As I wrote in another blog post, the cost of delivering parts directly to your techs is already a lot cheaper than the opportunity cost of your technicians driving around picking up parts. Driverless cars will only make this option more practical.


Gain technician admin productivity

What are your techs going to do with all that time in the car if they don’t have to drive? Put ‘em to work! They’ll have plenty of free time in the truck to prep for their next appointment or wrap up the administration for the previous job. Turn windshield time into productive time.


Sell the Program

When you show customers how you take advantage of technology to reduce costs and provide better customer service, you’ll stand out from the competition. We call this Selling the Program. Driverless cars are a perfect fit for the program. They’ll enable your company to reduce costs for you and the customer while also opening up productivity for improved customer service. Besides that, how cool do you think it will be to take your customers for a spin in one of your new driverless trucks?


Driverless vehicles will be as transformative as the internet and successful service companies will adapt quickly. Just like the companies today that still use fax and paper to communicate instead of internet-enabled technologies, there will be Luddites and slow adopters of driverless cars. They will get left in the dust. Companies that are prepared will dominate.

Do you charge customers for time spent driving to and from the parts house or warehouse? You shouldn’t. Before you get defensive, hear me out. If your parts house could quickly deliver parts directly to your technicians in the field at a reasonable price, you could charge the customer less and make more profit. Cheap delivery is available now thanks to Uber’s new(ish) on-demand local delivery service, UberRush. How does this result in lower prices and more profit? Let’s run the numbers.

Let’s look at how you currently charge the customer for a small repair that requires a trip to the warehouse or parts house. Let’s assume that you use a $500 part and 4 hours of labor plus an additional hour of driving the 15 miles to and from the parts house. If you mark up the part at 80%, your invoice might look something like this:

Parts $900
Labor (5hrs @ $115) $575
Total $1475

Assuming that you have a low margin on labor (around $10), which is common for parts-heavy service contractors like mechanical companies, and have an average cost of $.50 per mile for travel, you are looking at a margin of $435 or 29.4%

On the other hand, if your parts house or warehouse used UberRush, parts would be delivered directly to your technician in the field. In this case, that would save an hour of drive time.  Additionally, It’s easy to justify passing on and even marking up the delivery fee if you show the customer that you are saving them money:

Parts $900
Delivery Fee $73
Labor (4hrs @ $115) $460
Total $1433

The cost of the delivery fee is $40.50 for a 15 mile trip in New York City based on the current UberRush pricing. Marking that fee up the by the same 80% as our parts yields the $73 price above. All told, the new margin is $470.50 or 32.8%.

The margin increase and savings for the customer are great, but there are two bigger wins this process offers. First, your tech now has an extra hour in his day to perform work for another customer. In the provided scenario, that extra hour could allow for another job to be completed that day. On a broader scale, this could mean an extra job or two per week per tech. The implications for your company’s revenue and bottom line are substantial.

At a high level, adopting technology like UberRush is further ammunition to explain to your prospects and customers why you are different. As I explained in my recent blog post, Beat your low price competitor, Chuck, whenever you can show the customer how you use technology to work smarter in order to avoid using scarce labor resources for their and your benefit, you will have a differentiating sales advantage.

Unfortunately, UberRush is only available in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, but I suspect it will arrive in new cities quickly as they expand their other local on-demand delivery service, UberEats. If you want an email alert when it’s available in your city, you can use this Google Alert. Be sure to change “Raleigh” to your city’s name.