6 Ways to Scale a Service Business

In a service business, in essence, you’re selling your time. You’re charging for the time you spend providing the service. There are only so many hours in a day, and eventually the business can’t grow any larger because there isn’t enough of your time to expand it.

You may try to solve that by hiring help. But eventually you run into the same problem. You’re still selling people’s time. And labor is typically expensive, and can put a lid on profits.

The Scaling Challenge

This is an issue that may affect millions of small businesses in the United States, since the majority of the U.S. economy today provides services, and doesn’t produce goods.

And therein lies the challenge. Producing and selling goods can be scalable as a business model. Selling time, as in a service business, can be hard to scale. Yet many businesses today are selling services.

If your plans for your service business involve growing—perhaps creating a business asset that you can sell one day or getting above the $1 million in annual revenue mark—then you should have a business model that will scale.

That’s where the concept of “productizing” a service business comes in. Productizing a service business means adapting your business model to present what you offer as a product instead of a customized service.

It’s not as hard as it might seem to turn a service business into a “product.” However, it may require approaching your business model in a new and innovative way. Here are six elements of a productized service business:

1. Sells One Thing to Many

Turning a service into a product involves adapting the business model so one deliverable can be sold multiple times, instead of only once per client.

Entrepreneur Krista Neher did just that. She was selling social media training sessions one-on-one when she ran into the scalability issue. To scale her business, Digital Boot Camp, she changed the model to sell one training session multiple times, instead of once. She began recording the training and selling the recordings online. She also offered classes at a training facility her company built.

That’s one example of a business owner who figured out a way to deliver the same core services, but as a product that could be sold over and over to many.

Custom services may still be available as a special offering. But the main business model involves selling a “thing” instead of selling custom services each time to a single client.

2. Re-Envisions the Business

In his ebook Breaking the Time Barrier, Mike McDerment, co-founder and CEO of FreshBooks, discusses the concept of thinking bigger about the business you’re in.

The book highlights a fictional example of a dog walker who re-evaluated how she saw her business after she realized she wasn’t making a profit by simply walking dogs. Instead of simply providing dog walking services, she began to envision her business as “running a thriving dog lover’s business.” For pet owners who love their dogs, she offered add-on services and products to enrich their lives and the lives of their dogs, and thereby expanded her business.

3. Doesn’t Charge by the Hour

A services business typically charges by the hour. Even when the service provider charges a flat fee for a project, usually the project fee is calculated based on some number of hours the provider has to devote.

A productized service, on the other hand, can throw hours out the window. There’s a completely different pricing model.

A productized service is sold as a “package” for a set price. Pricing is based on market factors and value of the item being sold—versus an hourly rate plus profit margin tacked on.

4. Clearly Defines the Offerings

To make a profit selling a service like it’s a product (and avoid scope creep, which can eat up profits), you should clearly define what the customer gets with each price level.

Vistaprint is an example of a business providing a service in a clearly defined productized way. Customers can go on the Vistaprint website and chose a design service for as little as $5. What they’re getting for that $5 is a narrowly defined service. Other levels of services are available for higher prices.

Each level is clearly defined in terms of whether it involves merely re-working an existing design, creating a totally new design or getting multiple design concepts to choose from. Each offering has a different price.

5. Has a Published Price List

Many consultants and service providers don’t publish prices. They may want to have an exploratory interview with prospective clients, understand the nature of the clients’ needs and quote a custom fee. This is understandable, inasmuch as they are delivering a custom service.

However, products aren’t usually sold based on custom quotes. Think of an e-commerce site or retail store. There’s usually a price for an item that’s clearly marked; the buyer sees it and buys it.

Readily available pricing information can be crucial if you want to scale from a single sale into thousands of sales. Doing custom quotes can be time consuming and may keep the number of sales down.

6. Creates Recurring Revenue Streams

In his book The Automatic Customer, John Warrillow emphasizes the importance of recurring revenue streams. They lead, he claims, to a less stressful business.

Warrillow writes about the stress of having to create new revenue each month. Subscription-based businesses, on the other hand, can let you go into each new month with customers and revenue on the books.

A productized service business can often be presented as a subscription. Think of your online accounting software or online help desk system. Instead of a one-time purchase of software, today you’re more likely to get a hosted solution that you access online and pay a monthly fee to use.

Productizing a service business may not be for everyone, but it can solve a number of the issues that plague small businesses, such as the inability to scale, stress of constantly acquiring new customers and projects, and limited profits.

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