How ServiceMaster Gains Advantages From Intelligent Risk

From home cleaning to pest control, Jamie Smith helps his team of innovators bring new convenience and advancements straight to your home.

ServiceMaster is a major entity in the diverse and fragmented home services industry, a field in which venture capital constantly pushes smaller competitors to disrupt how those services are delivered. But the Memphis-based company is fending off competitors by being its own biggest disruptor.

Jamie Smith, ServiceMaster’s chief information officer, is leading the charge in stoking these disruptions within the company. “We want to push things forward and stay one step ahead,” he says. “That’s why we encourage a culture of constant learning.”

These progressive initiatives have contributed to ServiceMaster transitioning to a digital-first approach. “We want to interact when, where, and how the customers want,” Smith explains. “When consumers experience a homeowner’s dilemma—with which we’re all familiar—we want to be the number one choice for essential services to solve those dilemmas.”

ServiceMaster offers a complete suite of home and commercial services, including home warranties, residential and commercial inspections, furniture repair and restoration, cabinet refacing, home and commercial cleaning, disaster restoration, termite and pest control, and more. Beyond these varied services, Smith notes that the company is also in the midst of centralizing its operations, including IT. As a result, he is leading the charge to leverage the brainpower within each brand to create innovation across the entire enterprise. One of his initiatives aimed at achieving this is a meeting called Big Room Planning, which is held every ten weeks and has the participation of more than 200 development team members, business leaders, and the executive leadership team for two full days.

“Big Room Planning is where we plan and commit to the next program increment of work,” Smith explains. “It is truly high bandwidth communication, aligning teams and eliminating literally hundreds of smaller meetings that would otherwise be necessary. There’s a halo effect of having people who don’t normally work together cross-pollinate in this way. The impact is huge. You see teams sharing best practices and applications to enhance another project, you have collaboration coming from different places, and you get rich ideas that really move the company to the next level.”

One example was a convenient photo checkout system created by the American Home Shield unit that is now being used by other ServiceMaster divisions. Another is a move toward one single address validation software bundle versus different versions for each division. “The upside of all this sharing has been tremendous,” he says.

Smith makes sure everyone at ServiceMaster has an opportunity to innovate. About a year ago, for instance, he started organizing hackathon events twice annually, which are open to all employees and allow them to submit original ideas. “It’s basically like a mini Shark Tank, where ideas are all up on a board,” he says. “Instead of a council of elders voting, teams work on ideas and pitch what they want to work on.”

The first hackathon included seventeen teams working for an entire day on multiple ideas. “These are all ideas that will really move the needle, future-looking things that wouldn’t normally get funded through a return-on-investment process,” he says.

One team at the first event created a virtual reality program for the Terminix division that helps train new employees to identify problem areas in the home. “We also saw a cool mobile component that used artificial intelligence to identify different kinds of bugs,” he says. “Employees get time to work on these ideas and bring them into the real world.”

Winning ideas are then fed into the core development approach, where teams work in ten-week program increments, which Smith notes are then broken into five two-week “sprints.” These efforts have already yielded a new mobile service for American Home Shield, a project which allows customers to request service. “In today’s world, the phone is the remote control of individuals’ lives,” he says. “We want to meet them where they are. That service was developed in under a day, and we saw an immediate benefit when we took it to market.”

Smith also makes sure to point out that ServiceMaster gains plenty of value from the hackathon ideas that don’t necessarily pan out. Many, he says, are so forward-looking that the company needs time to catch up with the vision. That doesn’t mean he and the company shouldn’t continue to push the envelope.

“Innovating is about making a lot of small bets,” he says. “We need to fail more often so that we can find the right ideas. My expectation is that there are more great ideas out there; it’s just not the right time. But until we actually build it, we won’t know for sure.”

Smith says he also recognizes that innovation can come from outside the company, particularly from customers. “One of the great things about digital is that the feedback is immediate,” he says. From analyzing customer usage of its various apps, for instance, ServiceMaster learned that orange “request service” buttons received better conversions than buttons of any other color, including red. That not only led to ServiceMaster apps using more orange buttons, but it also drove an initiative to infuse orange into the company’s branding efforts. “You tend to think inside out when you’re too close to something,” he says. “Doing these kinds of user experiment studies gets us closer to knowing how a customer uses things.”

Smith says ServiceMaster also leverages crowdsourced user experience testing. That’s how the company discovered that many customers didn’t realize kitchen cleaning was included in Merry Maid’s core cleaning package. Now, they make it clear in Merry Maid’s marketing and branding.

But discovering solutions is only the beginning. Thanks to the infrastructure Smith has put in place, employees have a clear path to go the distance with their innovative ideas. As a result, the company is deploying more innovations to production in six weeks than they did in six months under the waterfall approach they had been following. “The output is tremendous,” he says. “We can meet business expectations and be very responsive to what we see in the marketplace and what our customers need. The time it takes to get them into customers’ hands is negligible.”

At the core of all this practical innovation is Smith, an entrepreneur at heart who started his own business while still in college, instilling that independent, envelope-pushing spirit at ServiceMaster. Intelligent risks, he says, are what ServiceMaster is all about. “As you get to the cutting edge, you don’t have all the answers. But you have to put yourself out there and try,” he says.