One of the most recognized “secrets of success and longevity” in the service business, or any business for that matter, is innovation–innovation is the catalyst of growth, the fuel that propels progress. To be innovative you have to think ahead. You have to be willing to make changes–sometimes drastic. You have to be willing to think outside the box.
The world is full of innovators and America has produced more than any other nation on earth. Who can dispute the contributions from Thomas Edison; Henry Ford; The Wright Brothers; Ray Kroc; and one of the brightest icons of our time, Steve Jobs. Countless others, including people like you, have contributed to the plethora of American inventiveness.
As President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address:
“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be or where the new jobs will come from. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution…”
What can we do as individuals to be more creative in our businesses? How can we be innovative? Before we can answer that, we must first define what innovation is; it is the development of new ideas, techniques, and methods that provide solutions that add value to old ways of productivity. In simple terms, it’s “Building a better mousetrap.” And it is rooted in intention because nothing ever gets developed, remade, or created without an intent to do so, and that requires a conscious choice. It heeds the axiom, “Find a need and fill it.”
Don’t think for one moment that you’re not capable of developing some new technique, some new method of repair that can revolutionize the service business. But how? How can we be innovating in the appliance repair business? What can we do as individuals to create new products or new methods of service in a mundane field such as ours–Most of us are bogged down with everyday choirs and responsibilities and don’t have time to think about creative ways to change and grow our business.
Whenever I find myself pondering these questions I’m reminded of a quote from one of my all-time hero’s of business, Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, who said, “When you’re green you’re growing, when you’re ripe, you begin to rot.” Complacency is almost always a hinderance to progress. You have to be continually engaged in forward gear, because if you’re not, your competitors will be, and you’ll get left behind. By continually seeking better ways to grow and manage your business, you’ll be contributing to the overall modernization of the industry.
Let me give you an example, last week I was confronted with a problem in a high-rise apartment in New York City that required a dose of innovation. I was working on a built-in side-by-side refrigerator with dual compressors. The customer complained that the ice maker wasn’t working. The temperature in the freezer was 25ºF–not sufficient to produce ice. After a few preliminary checks I suspected trouble in the sealed system and I was right. It had a partial restriction, the heat exchanger needed replacing. Unfortunately the unit could not be removed from the cabinet it was built into because the contractor built the kitchen around it making it impossible to pull out. My first thoughts were, do I want to get involved? How much time will it take? I didn’t want to leave the customer stranded, that’s not good for business. For lack of space I’ll refrain from the details, but I did find a way to clear that restriction without pulling the unit out. The point I’m trying to make is that I could have given up and let someone else deal with it, but I chose otherwise. I decided to innovate because I’m a firm believer that every problem has a solution. And I wanted to solve it. And you can do the same.
But this story is not about how I innovated, it’s about you and how you can break new ground. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. So ask yourself some simple questions. How can I make this job easier? How can I save time on this job? How can I reduce my workload and work smarter? Where is most of my time wasted? How do I develop new techniques?
Here is a list of some suggestions on how and where to innovate your business.
I developed a database program for my business some twenty years ago using commercially available software called Filemaker. Since then I’ve personally inputted every job I’ve done–some 25,000 records–and can recall the history of every customer at the click of a mouse. I can calculate my profits, my expenses, the number of jobs for any worker in any given period. I can tally my receipts and determine my sales tax and payroll within seconds. And most importantly, I can keep track of my inventory allowing me to take advantage of special buying opportunities from my local supplier. For example, if I know I’m going to use 150 condenser fan motors this year, I’ll buy them by the case, and take advantage of discounts. Most suppliers will discount bulk buying. If needed, I can print reports for any activity within any given period for a visual presentation to compare year-to-year progress.
Since time is money, this is an area where we all can improve. To save time I do my purchasing on the internet. Most supply houses have websites where you can order your parts when it’s most convenient for you. At the end of each day I determine what I need, restock my truck, and place my orders. No need to drive to the supply house, so I save precious resources, i.e., time and money, and parts are delivered to my door. In some cases I’ll call in my orders because sometimes the salesman at the counter is more knowledgable in a certain area and can find something much quicker. This is one area where you can save time.
This is where innovation shines. It’s the one area that I follow religiously and that offers the most bang for your buck, from computers to smartphones to voice mail and even service vehicles. Imagine… you’re driving down the road and your phone rings. It’s a customer needing to set up an appointment. You don’t want to pull over to take the call, that would cause a delay, so you push a button on your dash and through your smartphone your call is recorded, converted to text and sent to your email account. All this with both hands on the wheel. No time wasted, no lost calls and you have a hard copy as a backup. As a bonus your smartphone is capable of storing your entire database of customers so you can look up records while in the field or connect to a video source like YouTube and watch a service procedure. Larger service organizations can keep track of each service vehicles location via GPS and dispatch calls on demand, saving time and money.
I’ve had my share of employees over the years, and I too became bogged down with paperwork, payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, etc. It takes a lot of manpower to comply with government regulations. I had to ask myself is it worth it? I decided that I wanted to scale my business down because I was spending to much time managing it and not enough time making money. I had nothing to loose and everything to gain–I went solo and never looked back. Rather than throw my technicians to the wolves, I assisted them in establishing their own business, and they in turn sub-contract for me when I can’t handle the workload; mostly in the summertime. And there’s always someone available to cover for me when vacation time comes around or I need a little R&R. Business has kept expanding. I was able to pick and choose my calls and the rest I gave away to my sub-contractors. I realize this method may not be practical for larger organization. As a former factory technician for Frigidaire, I saw a lot of waste and many areas that were in desperate need for improvement.
Smaller vehicles mean smaller gas bills, less parking fees, less maintenance. I use small micro cars for the day-to-day workload and when I need to pick up or deliver a large appliance, I use my cargo van. For a more comprehensive analysis on the advantages of small service vehicles see ‘Size Matters,’ Marcone World magazine, September 2012 or visit www.subzerospecialists.com/Blog/TechniciansCorner.
You wouldn’t think there was any way to innovate in the area of customer relations, but think again. Social Media is transforming the landscape. It has revolutionized our relationships with our customers, and all for the better. Now we have to worry about reviews, (and believe me customers are reading them) and using them to determine who they want to do business with. Of all the social media portals the most popular are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Linkedin, Pinterest, and new one’s are cropping up every day. It’s difficult to imagine not using these services in the future. I think it’s imperative for you to get on board now before it’s too late–because if you don’t your competition will. Other opportunities in social circles include referral services like Angie’s List, Yelp, Yext, etc. Today I rely exclusively on referrals from these services and very little on advertising. Print advertising is a dinosaur. Social media is the future.
To wrap things up, the next time you’re on a job and you have a couple of minutes to spare, see if there’s a way to improve it or a way to do it faster. Take the challenge to innovate. Learn something new and share your expertise with others. You can help transform the industry. Be a leader. We will all be better off.