Before running out to buy the latest new software, make sure you know what you need to get the job done.

Tracy, a contractor, is greeted by the enthusiastic sales rep at the tool emporium.

“Looking for some tools today?”

“As a matter of fact, I am. I just landed a really big job and I need some of your best stuff.”

“Great! You should check out our 3 horsepower belt sander. One customer told me that after using it on some cabinets, he was able to smooth out the high spots in the concrete of his garage floor.”

“But … ” Tracy tried to slow down the pitch with no success.

“This particular model is called the Atomic Wolverine. The 3 horsepower, 220 volt, three-phase motor develops so much torque that right out of the box it consistently wins the open-class belt sander drag races. With it’s digital controls and 7-disc CD changer, this sander will have you looking for rough stuff to smooth off everywhere you go.”

“Sounds great,” said the contractor, “but I’m a plumbing contractor, and we have a bunch of pipe to put in.”

“No problem!” replied the super sales rep. “The Atomic Wolverine comes with attachments for cutting, sanding and reaming copper, steel and titanium tubing. It can even roll grooves on up to schedule 20 steel (import or domestic, sizes 2 inches to 4 inches). Once you’ve put the pipe in place, you can connect the belt drive compressor (also optional) to pressure-test your new system.”

“Sweet!” Tracy was on the hook for sure.

“I knew you’d like it, but you’ll love it once you see the optional four-wheel power cart attachment, which will carry your fixtures and supplies anywhere on the jobsite. I also recommend the stair climber attachment for even more mobility. And did I mention that it also has a time-card function which can track up to two dozen employees’ start, quit and lunch breaks throughout the day?”

“I gotta have it!” Tracy fumbled for the AmEx card.

Three weeks later we find Tracy’s job shack door propped open with the fully loaded Atomic Wolverine. It took a college degree to figure out how to configure all the attachments and features. Unfortunately, nobody on the jobsite had a college degree (not that having a degree is a bad thing, it’s just that everybody on this job preferred actually getting things done).

The last straw came when Tracy looked out on the jobsite to see one of the plumbers trying to trade it for a mapp gas torch just so they could sweat some copper.

Tracy had purchased a top-of-the-line tool with a vast array of capabilities but, in the end, it didn’t help get the core job done. The time wasted in trying to make it do everything resulted in the job falling behind schedule, a fact that really stung when considering the size of the investment.

Then, there’s the cash-flow problem: Tracy still needed tools for the job but now that the tool budget has been depleted, there’s only room for second-rate equipment - slowing progress even more. There may be contractors who would greatly benefit from the Atomic Wolverine, and perhaps at another point in time, even Tracy could get better results from it. But right now, the Atomic Wolverine is a despised monument to allowing techno-lust obfuscate the job at hand.

There’s no such thing as an Atomic Wolverine belt sander and I hope there’s no such thing as a contractor who would let a tool rep set up him or her with a bunch of tools without even knowing what sort of work is to be done. But when a contractor moves from the field to the world of the office, the tool definitions get cloudy. We may know that there’s a job that needs to be done, but we don’t know exactly what that job is or how it needs to be done.

Ask The Right Questions

Since many contractors suffer from techno-lust when shopping for office automation and dispatch software, let’s explore that process. Keep in mind that this is an exercise in the thinking process, not simply a way to shop for technology.

There are dozens of software tools that tout their ability to streamline dispatch, customer service, accounting, inventory management and, yes, even pricing. All of the systems on the market share a couple of things in common: First, every contractor software system on the market has been beneficial, useful and possibly even profitable for someone. Second, every system out there has been, or will be, an “Atomic Wolverine” for someone else. In other words: No system can please everybody, no matter how happy it makes somebody. This is not a bad thing or a good thing. It just is.

Sometimes, avoiding an Atomic Wolverine is just a matter of asking the right questions. As Stephen Covey says in “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” - “Begin with the end in mind.” Here’s an example of the right question: How can I make sure that every customer is served? Here’s the wrong way to ask that question: How much does your dispatching software cost? Price can certainly be an issue, but first we need to make sure we’re doing the right tasks.

The basic elements are: receive a customer’s request for service, assign that request for service, then make sure the service request was completed. This function can be performed with little more than a legal pad and a No. 2 pencil. When the call comes in, the call taker must write down the relevant information. Next, the information can be assigned to someone to do the work simply by writing the service person’s name next to the job request. Once payment has been received for the completed work, draw a big x across that item on the note pad. Simple? Yes. Foolproof? Not exactly but pretty close. Efficient? Very much so.

What does it take to make this super-simple dispatch procedure function properly? Diligence, decent hand writing, a note pad and a No. 2 pencil. Problems start showing up when the number of calls coming in are more than can be kept on two or three pages. Software might help but so would index cards and a few card racks. Stick the incoming calls in one rack, move them over to racks designated for each service person as the call gets assigned. Move the index card to a filing system once the job is completed. It’s still fairly simple, still fairly foolproof but the fundamental requirements continue to be diligence, penmanship and something to write on.

As your call count grows, so does your list of questions. Can we save money and/or make more sales by assigning jobs to techs based upon their abilities as well as driving time from the jobsite? How do we know if this customer is a dead beat? How will we know if we’ve already serviced this problem before?

These are good questions but they’re extraneous to the original quest of taking care of a customer’s request for service. So far, the cost for software is zero. You still have some simple options - making notes on each tech’s card rack, adding map grids to the job cards, etc. You don’t have to have software just yet but there may be times when it would be quite handy. You may eventually end up with various colored cards and a big magnetic wall map with markers for each truck.

The process is getting more involved and at this point, diligence and attention to detail reign. When you start encountering problems with the low-tech system, you begin to look for ways that a high-tech system can improve the process but the core job remains - take care of customers - and the core standard remains - be diligent and accurate.

Setting up a dispatch process is not the central focus of this exercise. Learning to identify what is important for your company is. Do you have to start the process with a No. 2 pencil and a “Big Chief” tablet? Not necessarily, but you do need to understand your goals and processes before you go shopping. Once you have figured out the right questions to ask, you’re equipped to spar with the Atomic Wolverine software rep instead of becoming another bewildered owner of the most sophisticated whatever-it-is that ever was invented.

Once in the habit of developing your questions based upon the needs of your business, you’ll be better equipped to shop for trucks, office space, advertising and perhaps even belt sanders.