Contractors can fine-tune company performance and enhance customer service with this 'profitability tool.'

Good software can be the key to good customer service. Photo courtesy of Dexter + Chaney

Plumbing and mechanical contractors have a unique opportunity to build a growing, profitable business on a daily basis - whether or not the economy is cooperating. Every customer served every day presents an opportunity to create an ongoing business relationship. New construction and service work both provide this opportunity.

The fact that a contractor is performing the work indicates that this contractor is the preferred provider at this time. There may be any number of reasons for that choice, but once that choice has been made, the contractor has the opportunity to secure that customer’s future service work.

It’s that simple: If the customer called the first time, they will call again - if that first job turned out well. From the perspective of growing a business, this is an important - and beautiful - situation. Many other businesses do not present this kind of opportunity. Restaurants, airlines, retail stores and automobiles have many factors affecting the purchase process; these factors often change with each individual decision. No one eats at the same restaurant every time or always flies the same airline.

But why would anyone call a different contractor if the last experience was a good one? Repeat business is a daily opportunity and represents a key to growth and continued success for today’s plumbing and mechanical contractor.

Profitability Tool

How can software help in this situation? Selecting the right software - designed for the specific needs of plumbing and mechanical contractors - and using it properly can help in a number of significant ways. Good software can be a key to good customer service. And it can help a company operate more smoothly and efficiently. The end result is happier customers and lower costs.

Software can assist three jobs that are critical to the success of the plumbing and mechanical contractor:
  • Customer service reps
  • Service techs
  • Project managers
Contractors should view their software as a “profitability tool” employed by those three job classifications to enhance customer service and overall company efficiency.

Customer Service

A customer’s experience often begins with a phone call. For example, a residential customer calls with water on the floor near his water heater. The leak is still small, but clearly there is a problem. The customer service rep taking the phone call needs to gather information from the customer and reassure him by letting him know his problem will be solved - and do it all quickly.

The CSR can ask for one simple piece of information, such as the customer’s phone number, street address or name. Typing this into the software should instantly display the matching customer site(s). The CSR selects the site with a single mouse click and key information is displayed immediately. That includes contact information and important details such as work order history, equipment on site, credit information and more.

On the same screen, a group of alerts should notify the CSR of credit limit and collection issues, specific site-related notations, service contract information, even the existence of open purchase orders for current work at this site. This information is tailored by the user to display the most important elements within a single screen, instantly visible without drilling down to other screens. The CSR has all the information needed to help the customer in a quick, professional manner; all that’s required to obtain that information is the entry of one bit of customer information and a single mouse click.

A second click of the mouse creates a new work order. The CSR may end the call when needed and be ready for the next customer. Or he may continue with the process to specify more information, including dispatching the work order for a specific time and service technician. The work order creation itself should be very flexible. Depending on a company’s specific operations and customers, a wizard can be tailored to step the CSR through the work order to view and gather key information.

The software should provide multiple options for information, including equipment at the site, tasks for each piece of equipment, service contract information, credit check and purchase orders. It should even be possible to tailor the wizard for the specific needs of each CSR depending on the type of customers he handles.

Just the right information is provided to handle any customer’s request, while the CSR’s time and effort to operate the system are reduced to the minimum number of keystrokes and mouse clicks. The result is a professional exchange with each customer in as little time as possible. Customer service is enhanced while each CSR’s productivity is improved; in other words, better service at a lower cost.

Field Service

Now let’s turn to the field where the service tech is performing work for customers. The tech may be armed with an inexpensive laptop computer and wireless Internet connection via cellular modem. The same software package that makes life easier for the CSR should allow the tech to quickly view his schedule and the work assigned to him.

At the customer site, the tech should have immediate access to information on the equipment located at that site as well as the history of work performed prior to this call. This enables the tech to be prepared for the site visit; there are fewer questions for customers and fewer calls back to the office. Since the tech is better informed, the interaction with the customer is more professional.

Once the work is completed, the tech may enter a description of the work performed and may also record parts used and labor. Depending on the customer, he may present an invoice for payment; it should even be possible to e-mail an invoice to the customer. Because time is saved, tech productivity is improved.

Software specifically designed to meet the demands of plumbing and mechanical contractors allows each tech to access just the information he needs. Data entry can be restricted to the information required. And because the office staff and the techs use the same software that shares the same database, any information entered by a tech is instantly available in the office. That reduces paperwork and saves time both in the field and in the office. Once again: Better service to customers at a lower cost.

Project Management

Finally, let’s take a look at new construction, focusing on the subject of change orders - a critical area of job profitability for the company’s project managers. A change order can begin in a number of ways: as a change request by a customer, as an RFI or from the submittal process. Whatever the initial source, the details require documentation and tracking. The contractor needs to know the details of the change as well as the status of the process to have the change approved by the customer and the work completed on the job.

The same software that helps the customer service representative and service technician should enable the project manager to track each change from its inception. In addition to recording and tracking the change, the software should enable each piece of supporting documentation - including scanned documents, electronic files and photographs - to be embedded within the change request. In this manner, an electronic “paper trail” for each change request should begin as soon as the change is identified.

As the change request moves forward, its cost impact and pricing are added to its record within the software. One or more change requests may be combined to create a formal change order for approval by the customer. The software tracks the status of each change order from the initial proposal to the signed, executed change order. If desired, construction costs for any change may also be tracked within the software. Reporting should be readily available on change orders by status, job, customer and project manager.

The software should also offer a tool for managing risk across the company,  automatically alerting management to changes where costs have been incurred on the job but the customer has yet to formally approve the change. In other words, it should be possible to identify all the “Trust me, you’ll get paid” scenarios that are a bugaboo for any plumbing and mechanical contractor.

Project managers can employ the software to offer a more professional representation of their company and improve customer service. Better tracking and documentation also mean that time and effort are saved while collections are more effective.

We have looked at three important jobs: customer service representatives, service technicians and project managers. These functions can each be supported and enhanced by software designed specifically for today’s plumbing and mechanical contractors. This can result in better customer service leading to a healthy, growing customer base while improving efficiency and reducing costs. The payoff: continuing revenue growth and higher profits for years to come.