What you need to consider before making your final decision.

For plumbing and mechanical contractors, good dispatch software can make a difference between running a profitable service division and running one that drains company resources. From improved dispatching efficiency and increased technician productivity to better customer service and faster billing, the right dispatch software can positively impact all facets of service work.

The question is, what factors should be considered when evaluating dispatch software? What, exactly, is "good"?

In a perfect service dispatch world, when a call comes in the dispatchers would be able to use their software to review existing customer information, and quickly update that information if needed, or enter new customer information on the fly. Next, creating a work order for the call would be easy - a logical progression. When the dispatcher proceeds to schedule the service, the dispatch board would provide at-a-glance information for quick assessment of which technicians are available and when. The software would provide various ways to communicate with the technicians so that changes to the schedule are handled seamlessly. Finally, the software would provide an easy and accurate way to quickly invoice the customer for work completed.

Let's take a more detailed look at the various items mentioned above and review which software features would be most helpful in meeting the unique needs of plumbing and mechanical contractors.

The Customer Call

When a service call comes in, reviewing, updating, gathering and entering information is the first priority.

For existing customers, you should be able to quickly view their service history and billing information, verify whether an open work order already exists for the site or job, and update information if needed. In the perfect world scenario, you may want to review open accounts receivable items for billing or payment issues before proceeding further.

For new customers, ease of data entry is important. Besides the obvious billing and site information, you should be able to quickly perform a credit check if needed. You also may want to record the call's lead source. Was this call a referral from an existing customer? Did they find your number in the yellow pages? Did they call after seeing signage on one of your service trucks? Recording the call's lead source can provide valuable marketing information as you continue to grow your service business.

Creating A Work Order

Creating a new work order, or revising an existing one, should be easy using the information you gathered from your customer. Features that ease data entry and make tracking your job costs more productive are important. The ability to create user-defined flat rate tasks, such as the installation of a dishwasher or garbage disposal, streamlines your data entry and simplifies quotes. Having the option of treating a work order as a stand alone billing, or associating it with a particular job and including it on your WIP schedule provides flexibility in tracking costs.

Other features to look at include the ease of producing purchase orders associated with a service call and the ability to check inventory for the materials needed to complete the work.

Once your work order is created, a simple mouse click should allow you to schedule a technician to perform the service.

Dispatching Details

Assigning work orders to technicians and time slots will be most efficient using dispatch software that incorporates the latest technology. Wide screen technology provides you with a broad view of the dispatch board for ease of assessing the schedule for any given day. If the software incorporates "drag and drop" capability, you can use the mouse to drag a work order across the screen and drop it into the appropriate service spot. Reassigning a work order to another technician or time slot is just as easy. Simply drag the item across the board and drop it in its new location.

When evaluating software, ask yourself what options you need to optimize your service dispatching. Is customization, and more than one format of the dispatch board, available? Is there a way to indicate which work orders have been completed? Which ones haven't been completed and why? Which work orders need materials ordered? If materials are ordered, is there an easy way to identify when they have been received?

Another option to consider is how to communicate with your technicians. When an emergency call comes in, having paging and e-mail capability within the software makes it quick and easy to communicate schedule changes to your technicians in the field. Providing your technicians with technology increases communication and productivity while decreasing duplicate data entry and down time. Find out if the dispatch software you're evaluating has the capability to communicate remotely with your service technicians via mobile handheld units. If not, find out when, or if, the company plans to develop this capability.

Invoicing Customers

Once service is complete, billing for the work performed is your next consideration. Having the ability to control profitability for each invoice is essential, as is the level of integration within your dispatch and accounting software.

Billing should allow for different labor and material rates, adjustments to flat rate tasks and the addition of other costs associated with the job, such as travel expenses. Detailed descriptions of the work performed, and any additional work recommended, should also be printed on the customer's invoice.

Integration within your software provides a flow of information from one source (work order and dispatch) to another (accounts receivable and inventory). This creates a single-entry system, which ensures the accuracy of your information.

Integration with accounts receivable allows you to invoice your customer immediately for work performed. In the perfect world example, quick billing should translate into faster payment from your customer.

Reporting Requirements

Reporting is also an important component to consider. The reports and listings should provide all the information you need to fully analyze your service operation. You'll want to measure your technicians' productivity and performance, evaluate job profitability, and review history. You may want to print or review listings such as flat rate tasks, technicians, dispatch status and service call lead source.

When evaluating reporting capability, look for variety, detail, customization and sorting options. Also, look at whether or not reports can be viewed on screen before printing to make sure you have the information you want. The ability to file your reports electronically without printing them, or fax and e-mail the reports to another person for review, is a great communication tool and cuts down on the amount of paper shuffled back and forth.

In addition to reports, you should be able to look up on-screen inquiries quickly, using a variety of criteria such as employee, work site, customer, work date, or work order status.

Training & Support

Dispatch software is an incredible service management tool, especially when backed by proper training and support. Training - either on site or by phone - can help you fully use your investment. You'll want to find out what other training tools are provided with your software, such as online help within the software and Web-based help with a searchable database.

Be sure and check out the software provider's support system. Support calls that are handled live provide a quicker response time to your questions than calls handled by a voicemail/callback system. Using e-mail or faxes to submit a support request can be helpful for less urgent questions. Additionally, Web-based support gives you the ability to search for answers to your questions - this is especially helpful during non-support hours!

Necessary Elements

When evaluating dispatch software, many factors must be considered. What, exactly, is"good"? To sum it up, good dispatch software:
  • Meets the unique needs of plumbing and mechanical contractors
  • Assists your dispatching staff to work faster and smarter
  • Helps your technicians receive accurate and timely information about their service calls
  • Allows your accounting staff to quickly invoice clients for the work performed
  • Provides integration with accounting, work order, purchase order, inventory, and other software for single entry of data
  • Meets your various reporting needs
  • Keeps up with the latest advances in technology, and
  • Offers a strong training and support system.
When all of these elements are present, your dispatch software can help you build a successful service division for your plumbing and mechanical contracting business. And in the process, it can assist you in providing outstanding customer service to those who are depending on you.

For More Information

Below is just a sampling of industry-related dispatch software now on the market. Other integrated programs are available

Wintac - www.intacinternational.com

  • A customizable dispatch board comes with Caller ID interface, alpha-paging, street mapping, job drill-down and color-coded TechView scheduling calendar.

  • Its instant sorting/grouping feature lets you search by job date, tech, job type, location, status and more with one mouse click. Dispatch any call instantly. Route and schedule work effortlessly.

    FastTrax - www.ergos-software.com

  • Find a Customer identifies existing customers with a quick search and eliminates the waste of double entries. An audit trail details each job and makes follow-up more efficient. Notes may be entered and accessed when a job is reviewed.

  • Technician Assignment lets you select the most qualified tech for each call based on skill level and geographic location.

  • Overdue Call Queue reminds you to dispatch a scheduled call by flashing its number on the screen. It avoids lost revenue due to forgotten customers.

    For more information on fleet management and other software, check out these Web sites:

      @Road FleetASAP

      Advanced Tracking Technologies Inc.

      Computer Processing

      Automated Integration Inc.