Can a single business tool improve customer service, project management and the payroll process? The answer might surprise you.

Picture your project managers generating change requests from the jobsite for immediate customer approval. Would you get paid faster for those changes?

Next, envision switching to electronic time cards, paychecks and pay stubs. Would this save valuable time during the payroll process?

Now, imagine providing real-time service and billing history to your customers online. Would this be a marketable benefit when selling your service work?

Sound far-fetched or futuristic? With a Web portal, all of these things -- and more -- are possible.

Simply stated, Web portals are gateways or entrances to Internet-based information sites or applications. (Think AOL, Yahoo! and online shopping malls.) Because they can serve so many purposes, companies are implementing their own Web portals to provide customized online access to specific target groups such as company employees, project managers and customers.

Why should you consider implementing a portal for your plumbing and mechanical contracting business? Because a portal provides access to critical project management, payroll, human resources and customer service functionality from any computer with an Internet connection.

Let’s take a detailed look at these portal applications and the specific benefits they deliver to your business. We’ll also discuss how these applications integrate with your accounting and service management software to become an Internet extension of your operations.

Project Management

Payment for change orders is directly related to how fast you process change requests. Can you picture how the portal could shorten the change order process and speed up customer billing for changes on a job?

As soon as a potential change to a job is identified, your project manager accesses the portal and logs an incident -- along with estimated costs -- into the system. The change proposal is then printed in a standardized format at the jobsite for customer approval. Finally, the approved change order is immediately returned to the office for processing in the next billing cycle. A process that could take 30-60 days or more to complete is now handled in a single workday.

Purchasing is a process that is often time-consuming and paper-intensive. With your current system, how much time does it take to issue purchase orders? Using the portal, your project manager can easily enter and print purchase orders at the jobsite for prompt distribution to vendors. Once a purchase order is entered in the portal, it is automatically committed for job-costing analysis.

To further streamline project management, the portal can also be used to enter requests for information (RFIs), custom issues (such as owner directives) and daily log entries (like weather or site visitors), which immediately updates the accounting and project management software at the main office.

Paperless Payroll

Perhaps you already provide direct deposit for employee paychecks. Would it make sense to take this further by implementing electronic time card entry and distributing pay stubs online? The portal makes the possibility of a paperless payroll cycle a reality.

Time cards are entered via the Internet, eliminating the need for paper documentation. Job crews and service technicians use the portal to enter their time for job costing and nonjob duties. The entry screens, optimized for ease-of-use by the portal users, automatically download into your pretime card system for review before being processed by payroll.

Paychecks are automatically deposited, negating the need for printed checks.

And finally, paycheck information is delivered electronically to employees via the portal, eliminating the distribution of paper pay stubs. Employees use the portal to view paycheck information, including pay rate history for each check they receive. This access streamlines communication between your payroll staff and employees regarding pay rate questions and time card issues by allowing employees to easily look up how their paycheck was calculated.

Human Resources

Managing your human resources is no small task. Would it be helpful if your office and field staff could update and maintain their own personal contact information such as address, phone numbers, home e-mail, number of dependents, and so forth?

The portal provides an easy way for your employees to keep their personal information up-to-date. Why not remove the burden of updating this information from your HR staff? Make better use of their time by allowing them to perform other tasks, such as screening applicants, conducting performance reviews and logging drug-testing results.

Customer Access

Providing quality service work is only half the battle for plumbing and mechanical service businesses. The other half is providing quality customer service after the work is done. Imagine giving your customers real-time access to their service and billing history online. Can you quantify the value of this with respect to customer satisfaction, repeat business, and the potential for referrals of new customers?

The service history component of the portal empowers your customers to take an active role in monitoring their service work. It gives your customers immediate feedback and detailed information on any service work performed at their site or sites. And they can see what equipment is covered under maintenance agreements and view the billing periods for those maintenance agreements.

When your customer logs on to the portal, they are able to access the service history for the work sites tied to their particular user I.D. They can see all the work orders from a particular time period and can call up an individual work order to see details such as notes, labor, materials used, additional work recommended, and so on. The approval dates and signatures are also available to review. This makes it easy to confirm that an authorized person within their organization approved the work.

Your customer can also view billing and payment history, often answering their own billing questions without having to contact the office. The information accessed by the customer is provided directly from your accounting and service software. They are essentially viewing the same information that your billing staff views when they look up the customer’s service history at the office.

Delivering this key service history information to your customers online provides a competitive advantage. The portal gives you a significant customer benefit to help sell your service work while building loyalty and confidence with your customers who access it.

Is It For You?

Does your business need a portal? Consider this: When implemented, a Web portal provides a personalized, always-available source for obtaining important information and accessing business applications. It has great potential for enhancing communication and allowing employees and customers to take a more active role in streamlining your plumbing and mechanical contracting business.

What’s more, once the portal is set up, offering this functionality online does not require duplicate data entry or extra effort to maintain. Why? Because the portal is an integral component of your accounting, service management and project management software. Data entry done via the portal immediately updates the main office software. Likewise, data entered at the main office is displayed in real-time on the portal.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Would managing projects from the jobsite allow your project managers to do their jobs more efficiently?

  • Would logging change requests as soon as they become known -- and providing the change proposal for instant approval -- increase the speed at which change orders are processed?

  • Are you interested in enhancing your purchasing process?

  • Does the potential for a paperless payroll cycle make sense for your business?

  • Would it benefit your company to allow employees to update their personal HR information directly in your accounting software?

  • Would allowing your customers to answer their own service history and billing questions benefit your accounting staff?

  • Would it be a significant benefit in the sales process to be able to offer online service history to your customers?

If you answered yes to one or more of the questions above, implementing a Web portal just might be something to consider as you take your plumbing and mechanical business into the future.

Also, keep in mind that the information and applications contained within the Web portal are customizable to meet the unique needs of your contracting business. The portal is also scalable; it can grow as your business needs grow.

Are you wondering how to go about implementing a portal? The best place to start is with your construction management software vendor. Find out if they offer Web portal applications or if they intend on adding that functionality in the future. If you are in the market for new software, be sure and discuss your interest in a Web portal before making a switch.