Keeping on the leading edge of software is taxing, but essential.

Call me an old fogey, but I remember when we ran service businesses by paper and pencil- no software. Although, I don't see how we ever kept track of the data we needed to make the business run, in some ways those days seem easier and carefree - no decisions to make on software.

If you are like me, you, too, can remember all the different software and hardware packages we've transitioned into and then out of to make the business work. We went through the same long process with hardware. When was it going to end?

I started with a $30,000 box using the old eight-inch floppy disks with an A drive and a B drive. That machine only ran the accounts receivable records. Accompanying it was a printer that zoomed along at four pages per minute. It seemed like a real technological advancement.

Wanting to keep on the leading edge of technology I decided to develop a custom software package (now most of us consider that pure folly). I thought it would speed our data processing and pay for itself. Unfortunately, it was expensive and lacked the kind of support we needed.

I even started a new company called EZ Systems. We sold about three dozen systems before we were hit with the news of the IBM PC computer system, making the old big disk drives and collateral equipment obsolete.

Once the PC was available, the challenge switched to keeping up with the latest in memory, storage and, of course, more software. My first IBM PC sold for $12,000, including a color monitor and (at that time) an incredible 256 K of random access memory (RAM).

From then on it has been a whirlwind of progress with more memory, more storage and faster processing. I had to admit I couldn't keep up. So I did what many of us did - and probably should have done earlier - and that was to return to minding the business. I focused on ways to grow the business and fine-tune our financial records and management decision processes. Leave those software decisions alone.

Focus On The Business

Although predictable, it always amazes me that when I focus on the business, sales and profits both increase. Soon we were running a good-sized service business with margins that were among the highest in the industry.

With a successful business I still was seeking the answer to our software needs. Dramatic changes in PC configurations slowed and we were not tempted to discard our hardware and software every time a new development was announced in service business data processing. We were able to try many good software programs, which we then recommended to participants of our training seminars. Many companies were enjoying the best in data processing they had seen for years.

As you have no doubt noticed, keeping up with the latest and greatest (in anything) is usually costly and can disrupt your day-to-day business operations. However, wanting to automate many of the processes in our operations we continued the search. After all, the more automated a process becomes the lower the overhead cost, and the fewer personnel you need to accomplish those operations in your business. (For example, inventory control, invoicing and payroll tasks can be automated to a large extent, reducing costs, plus you often see an improvement in the accuracy of your records.)

Unique Business

I recognized that one limitation of many software programs that must be overcome is its direct application to the way we run our businesses. The service and repair business is in many ways unique. Comparing our business to a more traditional retail business produces some obvious differences.

For instance, we do not display inventory for sale. We would have to have a huge warehouse to stock every single item our customers might need, even over a relatively short period of time. Whereas a store has items on the shelf and it's easy to see and keep track of what needs replenishing.

A retail establishment may have the advantages of joint advertising by the mall location or as part of a franchise chain of stores.

To service our customers we have to send out a technician in a truck in all kinds of weather, carrying unique parts, tools and equipment. The technician has to be trained, often licensed, and dispatched. His efforts have to be managed; he has to be directed where to go with the required materials.

Not all businesses need to worry about the call-taking aspects of the service and repair business. Customers come to their location in other businesses. Not so with our business. Call-taking operations need information processing as much as any other area of our business so the customer's information is readily available to the service technician. You'll need good software set up for that aspect of our business.

Reworked Software

Due to the unique aspects of our business, we find that much of the business software is actually a reworked package, originally designed for other types of businesses. In those cases, it is difficult to have adequate support for the special circumstances that occur in the service business not typical in other types of business. Having good telephone support and Internet access to data is an important part of what we have found is needed to keep software packages up to date and operating smoothly.

If the software is not easy to learn, that will also increase your cost of operation. Employees have to be able to reference training and support so they can competently use the program to do their job. I should also mention that the cost for training and support needs to be economical. Otherwise we defeat the purpose for using it in the first place: more accurate data for decisions and a lower cost of operations.

Ideal Solution

If I could pick one action that I would like to avoid it would be to (again) change software programs. But there is something new out there that integrates all the software a unique service business like ours will need.

Now, many businesses are happy with what they have and frequently use some of the popular accounting programs, like QuickBooks for their record keeping, particularly accounts payable and general ledger activities. So any new software would, ideally, work in tandem with those programs.

Some of the other tasks that would be nice to have integrated into such a program would include: client tracking and history, truck usage, caller ID and GPS location of trucks.

All of those functions and compatiblilites are finally available. A new package called Thunder Pro software actually encompasses all of the unique aspects of the service business: call taking, dispatching, trucks, inventory, financial management-the whole business - and it uses the power of QuickBooks for the accounting side of the program.

The only other way to develop such a comprehensive software package is to be in the business for years and apply real-life situations to the operation of your software. And when you put them all together you have more than another software package. You end up with what we now call a service management system, because isn't that what is needed anyway?

I don't like change, but it looks like we have another level of data management finally available. Feel free to contact me for more information.