Where is so much new and supposedly improved software available today that it is difficult to choose the right package for your business. Where do you begin? Becoming a software "junkie" - constantly looking for the latest package to improve the efficiency of your business - is a common hazard for many in the service business. Unfortunately, some of the software doesn't live up to the vendors' promises, or the software is difficult to use or implement into your business. Other programs are isolated to only a few functions of running your business. It's easy to find programs limited to scheduling or accounts payable and receivable - but it's another matter to find fully integrated systems that are tailored to your company's needs.
Service business owners have also found out the hard way that software support is important. When the company has
inadequate support services, or issues updated versions, making yours obsolete, you could be left without help or face
spending far more than you intended for upgrades. Choosing the right system with the right amount of support can be
a formidable challenge. I will review some of the criteria that I have used in selecting software vendors and the
requirements for a good system. Today, there are no easy choices that meet all the desired attributes, but I think I can
give you some guidelines to avoid some of the headaches I have seen in the business.
The Sourcehe first criterion I suggest looking at is the source of the software itself. Frequently, a company wants or needs certain features for its own operations and goes to great lengths to design a custom system. The software probably meets its needs. Since the company is happy with the program, it decides to try to recoup some of its development costs by offering the proprietary software as a saleable product. Now mind you, this is not a software company; it is a service company. It suddenly finds itself in a new business - selling and servicing software. The plan to generate revenue from selling copies of their operating software seems to be working. However, there is one problem: A bunch of customers are calling with questions on how to use, modify or update the software.
Of course, the business was never prepared to actually become a software company. It is a service company. Consequently, it's swamped with calls and quickly overwhelmed with support tasks. Soon there are many disappointed customers. If customers run their businesses the same way (and don't need much support in adopting new software programs), the plan to market the company's proprietary software works well. But there are two potential problems:
- 1) The customer has to follow the operational procedures inherent in the software - when, in fact
he may be in a different type of service business altogether; and
2) The customer is dependent on a company not principally in the software business for training or support.
My recommendations here are basic: first, purchase software from companies that are in the software business, not just selling a customized product. Then make sure the company has adequate resources dedicated to the software package training and support. The next step is to ask yourself if the software allows you to run your business based on fundamental principles for success.
In previous columns I have stressed the importance of producing specific reports to effectively manage service operations. Determine if a given software package can give you the reports you need. Cost information, inventory control procedures, dispatching and payroll data all need to be incorporated in a fully functional system. That integration requires an understanding of the business you are in that goes beyond the usual accounting or job-scheduling software. Let me give you some more specific examples of what I mean.
One of my goals in running a service business has always been to minimize the number of people it takes to do a
good job running the administrative functions. Many companies I've seen have way too many people involved in
their administrative duties. That's expensive. For example, many people duplicate work by manually handling an
invoice or re-entering it in a computer more than once before they are finished with it.
Date TransferIdeally, the data should be entered one time. The customer's information should be entered in the customer service department, where the call is taken. That data should be linked to dispatch. From there it should be forwarded to the technician so he knows what the customer needs and where they are. Ideally, this process occurs through the use of a pager with alphanumeric capability. A system that links the technician to the office that supplies the data is also effective. Even a wireless data transmission system will work. Anything that gets the data to the technician without the use of a company-wide broadcast can work. (Broadcasting to everyone leads to second-guessing of the dispatcher's decisions by technicians.)
Combining the data transfer with an efficient flat rate system lets the technician confirm that the job was completed, list the parts used and any add-on work that was performed. At the push of a button, a quick call or by using a remote terminal, the technician forwards the data needed for proper administration. Simple code numbers from the flat rate system can suffice. Here's an example: "Task 5577, add-on A2299" is entered by the technician. When the information is received back at the company office, the dispatcher knows the technician is ready for the next job. In our system the dispatcher simply hits "P" for page and the next bit of customer information is forwarded to the technician.
At the same time, the accounting people receive the key information they need. They see that a certain job was
completed and - since it is in the flat rate system - they know exactly how much to pay the technician for the job
and which parts were used. They also have a record of the customer who received the service work. There's more:
The warehouse is also notified of the parts used, so employees can set them out to replenish the technician's truck
inventory when he returns to the warehouse.
ManpowerAn efficient system requires fewer employees to run smoothly. All of the above processes can be completed for all service calls in a 50-truck operation with only three people in accounting and one dispatcher. It is easy for a few people to handle all the tasks necessary - with the right support system.
The key is to use a hardware/software system that matches the business operations that make sense for your company. This minimizes the number of times data is entered and lowers the number of people it takes to keep track of all the accounting, inventory and payroll data you need. If you eliminate the handling of paper in your office you gain one more advantage-you reduce errors. Obviously if three people handle paperwork, such as invoices, the chances are greater that someone will make an error than if the data is entered once, electronically. There's little chance of someone misunderstanding a technician's scribbled notes, part numbers or tasks if they have all been automatically placed in the system.
An automated system eliminates another common problem - technicians hanging around the office waiting for
paperwork to be processed. When it is all automated, they have no need to distract the people in the office and
wander around drinking coffee. They don't need to return to the office frequently. When they do, their parts are ready
for them; payroll has their work hours and incentives; everything is taken care of. The best part is there is no
additional data entry. The process of turning in invoices has been completely automated, and even the parts needed
to replenish their truck inventory have been entered into the computer system.
ProductivityIncreased productivity is what we are really looking for. That is what all these data transfer and storage systems offer. Look for a system that is fully integrated into your whole management system and provides ample training and support. Streamline your office procedures to minimize the handling of paper. Try to enter data only once. Isn't that what computers are for - to help us store and transfer data?
Despite our wishes, software - or any automated system - will only speed up the systems we have in place. If our management systems are out of date and awkward to use, we are asking for trouble if we expect software to fix the problem. So get your recordkeeping and control systems in order first, and then work on automating them.