More and more plumbing and heating service companies are computerizing their businesses, especially office management systems.

The computerization of plumbing and hydronic heating contractors' office management systems - including accounting, billing and payroll - and the implementation of global positioning system (GPS) vehicle tracking programs recorded the two biggest jumps in computer software purchases since 2000.

This is according to PM's latest “Software Editorial Study,” where we surveyed 1,500 subscribers to determine how they are using software in their businesses and the satisfaction level they have with their respective software packages/vendors. (We had an 8 percent response rate.) This same study was conducted in the summer of 2000 with a 12 percent response rate.

Nearly all respondents (94 percent) reported computerized office management systems, up 15 percent from 2000, and 11 percent said they had installed GPS systems (up 7 percent from 2000). Service management systems, which include dispatching and scheduling, were cited by 33 percent of respondents, down from 46 percent in 2000. Another big drop was in inventory control systems - 25 percent in 2005 compared to 33 percent in 2000.

Regarding GPS tracking, 88 percent of respondents do service work, but most (about 71 percent) are smaller companies with less than five technicians and 75 percent have five trucks or less. About 12 percent have between six and 10 trucks, and nearly 7 percent have 11-15 trucks. Only 4.5 percent reported more than 20 trucks. This is pretty consistent with the state of the industry in 2000; only 70 percent of the respondents' companies had five trucks or less and 18 percent had between six and 10.

In either year, only 9 percent of companies provided portable computers or personal data assistants to their field service personnel.

But service management and inventory control seem to be important areas for these contractors in the future. When asked what areas of their businesses they planned on computerizing in the next 12 months, four areas were at the top: service management (34 percent); inventory control (30.2 percent); and office management and estimating, both at 26.4 percent.

The top four areas in 2000? Estimating (42 percent), inventory control (27 percent), and project management and service management, both at 23 percent. While companies had plans for these software installations in 2000, expectations may not have lived up to the reality of the economy slump of the last five years.

Not surprisingly, only 41.6 percent of respondents reported having a company Web site, up from 33 percent in 2000.

Decision Influences

Computers and their software packages are pricey items, especially when you get into whole-office systems, so a lot goes into the buying decision. More than half of the respondents said they spent less than $10,000 in their overall computer systems (hardware and software) in the last five years. This is consistent with the 2000 figures, where 49 percent of respondents spent that amount. About 20 percent spent from $10,000 to $15,000, up from 16 percent in 2000.

What factors influenced our readers' software purchase or specification decisions? The three that were considered very important were product quality rating (92.6 percent), after-sale support (90.8 percent) and upgrade availability (87.6 percent).

In 2000, the top three factors were product quality rating, after-sale support and technological leadership (upgrade availability was not one of the factors given).

The factors that actually helped them to make the final decision on which software to purchase were ease of use (74 percent), recommendations by industry colleagues (64 percent) and compatibility with existing software (63 percent). In 2000, the top three factors were demonstrating software provided by company, recommendations by industry colleagues and reading an ad or review in a specialized trade magazine (ease of use and compatibility with existing software were not given as choices).

Support & Satisfaction

Nearly 65 percent of respondents said that someone on staff manages computer operations, but not a dedicated staff person (71 percent in 2000). Almost 28 percent use a contracted computer company (17 percent in 2000), and about 4 percent employ a dedicated, full-time computer specialist (12 percent in 2000).

Almost 59 percent of respondents said their software vendors have been very supportive in helping them resolve software problems; 35 percent said they were somewhat supportive. These figures are consistent with the 2000 study.

Of the almost 60 percent who said their vendors provided training, 43.6 percent said it took two to five days of training on a particular software package (47 percent in 2000). About 16 percent reported six to 10 days of training (2000: 13 percent), and nearly 24 percent reported more than 10 days of training (2000: 21 percent).

About 58 percent said the training took the amount of time they thought it would; 29 percent said the training took longer. In 2000, 14 percent said it took longer, while 32 percent said the training took less time than they thought it would. In both surveys, “bugs” or computer glitches occurred sometimes or rarely.

The majority of respondents (nearly 84 percent) were altogether satisfied with the support received from their vendors after a software purchase (78 percent in 2000).

A complete copy of the survey can be purchased for $95. For more information, contact Cory Maxwell at 248/244-6415,