Jesse James, Train Robber

Jesse James, Train Robber

I have been to multiple events in the past several months where service contractors from many trades (food equipment repair, fire safety, specialty cleaning) lament the insertion of one or more parties between themselves and their customers.  It seems that when they do not directly influence the terms of service with the customer, including the amount of payment to be received, they do not make much, if any, profit.  It seems to me, then, that the best way to fix this situation is to have a direct relationship with the customer in order to set terms that are profitable.

Jesse James was reported to have said that he robbed banks because “that is where the money is.”  I don’t know if he really said this as the photo here indicates Jesse was also fond of trains, but I do know that in the service contractor world it is the customers that have all the money, and every other party in a transaction only gets what the customer gives.  If you rely on an equipment manufacturer or anyone else to sell the services that you provide, then you should expect that manufacturer to take most, if not all, of the profit associated with that work.  Ditto for any other third party (brokers, aggregators, whatever you want to call them).  If you are not at the table presenting your value when the deal gets struck (whether for new equipment installation and service, or maintenance, or repairs), expect to get the scraps that are left over.  So how do you get invited to the party where all the money is sloshing around and decisions are being made about who gets it?  The customer needs to perceive your company and your services as critical to any decision they make regarding new equipment sourcing and the subsequent maintenance and repair of that equipment.  You need to demonstrate to the customer that YOUR COMPANY IS THE EXPERT and no decision should be made without your involvement.

So, how do you become the expert and how do you demonstrate that expertise to the customer? Some of it is just good old fashioned sales execution – be familiar with the customer’s interests and be active in fulfilling them.  Increasingly, however, folks have less and less time to invest in your sales process.  They expect to interact with your product on their time and on their terms.  Your presentation of value has to be digital, relevant, and readily available when they want it.  The work that you do for them has to generate content that you constantly feed to them online so that you establish a reputation that encourages them to reach out to you when they need advice in your area of expertise.  When your interactions with them serve to both gain their trust and teach them how to make better decisions, you get their attention . . . and their money.

Here are some practical tips on how to get called to the table as the expert when decisions that influence how much money you will make are getting made:

  1. Be in their inbox all the time.  These days, everyone operates out of their email inbox.  Search has become so powerful and prevalent, that folks answer the question “who can help me with X, Y, or Z?” by searching their inbox.  If you are not sending them email “notices” regarding scheduling, delivery, quotes, service history, invoices electronically with interesting content attached, you will lose your relevance to someone who is.  Don’t send junk mail, but information about what you do for them is generally not junk.

  2. Show them “why.”  It is not enough to tell a customer what you did, show them why it was necessary and what to expect in the future.  Show them what happened with photos and audio and video.  Engage their curiosity and their motivation to be better.  Generally you cannot afford “show and tell” in person during the busy day when the technician needs to move along to the next call and the customer just wants you out of their way so they can also get back to work.  When it is electronic, they can access it when they want it – after the shift when everything slows down and they can reflect on it.

  3. Predict the future and offer a better outcome.  Never leave a service call without doing a “sweep” of the area for troublesome signs.  Document them with photos and audio, and then play it back for the customer along with a plan for a fix.  If they don’t respond, and it breaks, you nonetheless warned them and they will see you as someone that can predict the future.  If they do respond, you can fix it during a slow period and they will pay less.

  4. Summarize their relationship with you with data, and offer ways to lower their costs before you are asked.  If you can get efficient in customer service administration, you will have more time for customer service recommendations.  Feed your customer rich reports that show them ways to lessen what they pay you (and others) by changing work practices or equipment vendors.  When you have the data and the means for them to profit from it, they will ask you for it, and you will be at the table when important decisions are made.

If all of this sounds difficult and out of reach, then you better figure out how to be the low cost and most efficient provider of contract labor to third parties.  Commanding a profitable premium means that you have a direct relationship with the customer that pays for your expertise instead of simply being the labor that is dispatched to serve another company’s customers.  What are you going to do to be at the table when each important customer decision is made?

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