Software use surges as service companies grow more computer savvy.

Technology's presence in the contracting industry has grown overwhelmingly in the past few years. Now it seems conventions rarely pass without at least one technology forum or software seminar. And try to make a break for the bathroom at a trade show without running into a vendor selling the latest software advancements. Page through the ads and classifieds in this issue of PM and count the boom for yourself.

Despite these signs of change, contractors have had a stigma tied to their trade; the last army defending itself against the technology craze devouring the rest of the world. But if conventions, magazines and trade shows haven't proven the troops have fallen, PM's latest software survey offers additional proof.

The survey was sent to 1,000 PM subscribers to determine how they are using software in their businesses and the satisfaction level they are receiving from their respective software packages. Statistics are the result of a 12 percent response rate.

PM used responses from those responsible for their company's software decisions. Many of these respondents represent smaller service companies, with nearly 65 percent employing less than five technicians and 70 percent owning five or fewer vehicles.

Software Use

Good software is an effective organizational tool, so it's no surprise a whopping 79 percent of respondents use theirs for general office management. About another 47 percent said they have a computerized estimating process at their business, and almost 46 percent reported software aids in their company's service management.

Many respondents fully intend to grow these numbers. Nearly 42% of those who lack estimating software now plan to implement it within the next year. Just under 17 percent want office management to be computerized in that time frame as well. Inventory control also leaped in planned use, with 27 percent intending to computerize this facet of their business within a year.

Vehicle tracking technology, despite rapid advancements, is slow to capture the industry. Just over 3 percent of respondents said they've computerized this aspect of their business. A little more than 11 percent, however, plan to take advantage of GPS vehicle tracking within the next 12 months.

Decision Time

Investing in software is a hefty decision. First, consider the financial aspect. About 16 percent said they invested anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 to improve their company's hardware and software, and another almost 14 percent fronted $20,001 to $50,000. Nearly half of all respondents reported spending up to $10,000 on their computer system in the past five years.

Choosing the right software also is such a pivotal decision because it has the potential to launch a company's profits over time. Therefore, it's important to understand who contractors are letting influence their knowledge and decisions regarding software.

Nearly 58 percent said their decisions to invest in software hinged on software demonstrations. Industry colleagues helped another 53 percent of respondents make software decisions, and almost an equal amount (nearly 52 percent) relied on specialized trade magazines' ads and reviews. Just under 81 percent said they keep up on software trends by reading advertisements placed in trade magazines.

While these outside influences undoubtedly are crucial, the decision ultimately rests on a company's own evaluation of what it's looking for in terms of software's price, rating, availability, after-sale support and technological leadership. While it seems that price would be the greatest obstacle in software implementation, only 36 percent of respondents reported it as a very important factor. After-sale support ranked highest (almost 76 percent) as a very important factor, and a little more than 63 percent said the same for a product's quality rating.

Customer Satisfaction

Once the decision has been made and the money has been spent, the big software question is, how happy are you? Almost 79 percent responded they are satisfied with their vendors' support after purchasing the software.

Surprisingly, just over 58 percent said their software vendor offered to provide training as part of the package. Nearly 47 percent of those who opted for training reported a two- to five-day training period, and more than half (just over 54 percent) said the software training took the amount of time they expected.

Forty-four percent of respondents said their software sometimes has had "bugs," or computer glitches, but another almost 42 percent said they rarely experience those types of problems. On the upside, when problems do affect the system, 88.5 percent said their vendors are somewhat supportive to very supportive.

As for day-to-day management of computing needs, 12 percent of respondents employ a dedicated, full-time computer specialist to manage their computing needs. Almost 72 percent said they rely on their staff to maintain computer operations.

The Future

The fact that software and other technological advances have made such steep gains in the industry is remarkable, but room-for-improvement areas must not be overlooked. Service companies could benefit from increased Web site development, as only a little more than 33 percent have company Web sites.

Web sites can be used as excellent marketing tools, allowing customers 24-hour access to the company. Some service companies already have taken advantage of the Internet by posting pictures, work details and other critical consumer data on a company Web site.