Money for Nothing

In 1985, Marc Knopfler, the front man for the band Dire Straits, overheard a guy in an appliance store grudgingly admiring the MTV rockers performing on the store display TVs. Knopfler memorialized the reflections he overheard in the grammy winning, number one hit song “Money for Nothing” later that year. The song opens with the lyrics:

Now look at them yo-yos that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free

He goes on to declare “them guys ain’t dumb” and that the rocker “is a millionaire” while lamenting that he has to “install microwave ovens, custom kitchens” and make “deliveries” to get paid his meager wage. Now the truth of the matter is that not every rocker gets paid like a rock star, and those that do are paid handsomely for delivering hits that their fans love. If you are a service contractor, how can you get paid for delivering hits instead of delivering labor? How can you get paid “money for nothing” by becoming a rock star for your customers?

If the only time you get paid is when your customer needs your techs to show up and install, repair, or deliver something, you are destined to get paid like the guy in front of the TV instead of the guy on the TV. The graphs below illustrate the dilemma you face in a business model that requires skilled labor to drive revenue.

Customer demand is always lumpy. If you staff at a level that matches peak demand, you will deliver great customer service, but you will be losing money during the periods when your crews are idle.

Graph of lost profit to maximized customer service
If you staff to optimize for profit, you will certainly lose customers (and revenue opportunities) during peak demand when you cannot deliver the repair.

Maximize profit and lose customers
The ideal situation is one where you can shape the customer demand curve in a manner that allows you to staff for great customer service while also maximizing profit.

So how do you do this? How can you shape the demand curve? How do you get customers to pay for “hits” instead of paying for “performances?”

For your customers, your “hits” are actually not “hits” at all, but instead just plain old boring outcomes where nothing ever breaks and all the labor you deliver is for planned maintenance instead of emergencies. Never an emergency. Never a disruption. Never an outage. Money for nothing.

Customers want predictable outcomes for predictable fees, and you can get paid “money for nothing” (i.e. no breakdowns) if you can deliver on a “no drama, just results” program. It is unlikely that you can be perfect in this scenario (i.e. nothing ever breaks), but you can certainly adopt an approach that minimizes the breakage while maximizing the profit and the customer service. Here are the elements to consider:

Offer a preferred customer service plan. Preferred customers “subscribe” to your proactive maintenance plan (for an annual fee) in exchange for lower, preferred rates and guaranteed response on “demand” work. To do this program well, you need to have a very strong understanding of their existing equipment and its condition, a periodic inspection and preventative maintenance routine, and a waiver for any equipment that represents a high risk to the plan. Generate a good, strong contract from the equipment records you collect in the survey of the customer’s facility (with exactly what you service and what is excluded) and collect the annual fee up front as a fair trade for the lower rates.

During your routine inspections and maintenance, any deficiencies you note that represent risks need to be immediately turned around to the customer with a preferred rate quote for remediation. If the customer declines the quote, the equipment is automatically excluded from the preferred rate plan, and higher rates for future remediation now apply.

Develop a monitoring and early warning system for high-risk situations. Certain equipment you maintain may be prone to expensive failure modes. Look for solutions to generate early warnings and preclude expensive and dramatic failures with low drama, scheduled repair and replacement. These solutions do not necessarily need to be extremely high tech. For example, if you know that a sprinkler section may be prone to freeze in very cold weather, just tag that location with a freeze warning that automatically sends the customer an email reminder to engage auxiliary heating. When the pipes burst at your competitor’s locations, you buy Google ad words that night and use the high drama to add your competitor’s customers to your preferred maintenance plan.

Consider offering warranties for important equipment. This further extends the concept of preferred rates with a “pay in advance” mentality for a “guaranteed hit.” In this case, the preferred rate is “zero” in exchange for the “pay up front” warranty fee. Aggressively monitor and maintain the important equipment to be certain you avoid warranty losses. You will not win on all of them, but a data driven approach with strong maintenance discipline will usually result in “money for nothing” for you along with a happy customer.

Being a rock star requires talent and hard work, just not necessarily the hard work of skilled labor installing “microwave ovens, customer kitchens [and] deliveries.” Instead, it is the hard work of selling a program that pays “money for nothing” when you get paid up front to deliver boring outcomes with no drama instead of relying on high-risk demand work where great customer service and high profit present a difficult, if not impossible, balancing act.

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