I have been a professional software developer since 1993, but I didn’t start out that way. I was a plumbing contractor for 16 years before I became a self-taught programmer who designs software for plumbing and HVAC contractors.
I speak with many small-shop contractors who tell me how software has improved their lives. But I also know a lot of people still resist the pressure to computerize. In the interest of motivating these people, let’s see how specialized software can help even the smallest of shops.
Most small shops work both in the field and the office. These folks have to make a choice between billing, estimating, writing proposals or putting in billable hours. The more time they spend in the office, the less they get to earn. Software makes finding information easier, so paperwork is faster. For example, enter the customer address once, and after that the address goes into the invoice or any other document by finding the customer’s name in a menu.
Need to know who owes you money and contact customers who are overdue? Software can show contractors overdue accounts and put contact information right on the desktop - even autodial the customer’s phone.
Software can help contractors decide how much to charge. Software that includes pricing can help contractors sell materials at a fair price. The selling price of anything must include enough profit to cover overhead or the company loses money. Sound simple? Many contractors are surprised to learn that they lose money on materials. When they rely on their memory or guess at their costs, that spells trouble. Without accurate prices or a method for building in adequate profit, they’re costing the business on every item they sell. It’s sad how widespread this is.
OK, if there are so many benefits to using software, why are smaller shops slow to adopt it? Unfortunately, there is very little software designed just for these types of contractors and much of that is pretty expensive. So, a lot of folks try generic accounting packages on the word of their accountant. However, they have to spend so much time shoehorning this type of software to meet their needs that it defeats the reason they bought the software in the first place.
It’s very frustrating when the key features required by plumbing and heating contractors are missing from these generic packages. What they need is software designed just for this industry. Here’s a list of features contractors really need:
One of the major hurdles small companies have in implementing software is learning how to use it. But a lot of training really shouldn’t be necessary.
Most people are fairly familiar with computers nowadays because Windows has imposed a similar way of working with most software. If users are not familiar with Windows, there are always quick classes available at community colleges. They can even pick up one of the “Windows for Dummies” books or videos to give them some pointers.
Good software is pretty intuitive and features plenty of built-in help screens. With little hints that pop up to explain what buttons do if you click them, most people are able to manage just fine. If the manual is well-written, users should be able to find most answers there.
However, all software encounters problems from time to time, and users need to be able to get a fix from an expert when they need it. You should be able to call a support number and talk to a real person if you have questions.
I hope this will motivate folks who have given up on finding the perfect software for their business because, believe me, it’s out there! Search the Internet, and look in the back of this magazine! Change your life for the better with software designed to fit your contracting business.