Software Puts the Punch in Scheduling Service and Maintenance

Integrators know repeat sales can be the easiest and most gratifying. The customer has a comfort zone with the integrator and both parties have established mutual trust. Repeat customers who go for new services or upgrades are also stickier; they most likely will stay with a company they are satisfied and happy with.

The challenge for the integrator, then, is how to keep that relationship blossoming. Customers appreciate being aware of updates, maintenance schedules and service intervals. The latest generation of software programs not only helps integrators dispatch technicians and price service or maintenance competitively but also smoothes the sales process.

“Software helps you schedule your time and people,” said Mike Miller, vice president of Moon Security Services Inc., Pasco, Wash. “You’ve got to have it.”

Miller said he loves the software because information is always within view and readable. “Time is not wasted looking for it,” he said.

Before going to their current software, they juggled three databases; before that, it was a card file with service calls organized by month. Their SedonaOffice version has brought them a long way, organizing service calls by date created, date scheduled, problem codes, technician scheduled, city, priority level and even which branch handled the ticket.

“If we want to do 20 fire inspections in September, by the end of July we want to know which customers we need to call, what our pricing will be and which technicians will do the calls,” Miller said. “Then we get the customers scheduled.”

Scheduling, organizing and more
These days, said Michael Marks, co-founder of SedonaOffice, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, scheduling is only one piece of a complicated puzzle. “Software should provide efficiency and knowledge,” he said. “When you get into scheduling, the big picture is work order and service order management,” Marks added. Work orders are new projects that may take days or weeks; service orders maintain the customer base and may be handled at the rate of three to five per day.

“What is missing is the holistic view of the integrator’s marketplace,” said John Graham, executive vice president, Solutions360 Inc. The firm has offices in Downers Grove, Ill., and Newmarket, Can. “Too many integrators are having their lunch eaten by guys who never were in the security space before,” he added, pointing to the pure computer operators, telecommunicatins outfits with VoIP expertise and CRM gurus.

With good software, integrators can manage the customer relationship from the day the sales person drops off a business card through estimates, installation, service calls and contract renewal, Graham said.

“Before, we were small enough to know the job and know the right guy to send,” said Harty Norris, chairman of Norris Inc., South Portland, Maine. “As things get bigger, you have to manage your business better.”

Norris uses a combination of Project System from Dove Net Technologies LLC, Frederick, Md., and Microsoft Outlook. “We make work orders with Dove Net and we e-mail out of Outlook to our techs’ BlackBerries,” said Norris.

Project System is a business operating software for contractors that does estimating, proposals, service tickets, inventory, purchase orders, billing, job costing, electronic service tickets, scheduling and other functions to boost productivity, according to Tony Nasca, president of Dove Net Technologies.

“Our system caters to both small and large companies. Our average user count is about nine employees with the highest being 80,” Nasca added.

Whether purchased in a single package or as modules, today’s scheduling software handles all of those aspects. Some packages even display billable conditions—allowing the dispatcher to let customers know that a service call after 5 p.m. falls outside normal contract hours and will incur separate additional billing, or that their service contract expires in 30 days and needs to be renewed.

Remote scheduling and GPS
GPS-enabled scheduling programs show the location of the nearest technician and allow dispatch to set reasonable expectations when scheduling calls.

“Integrators need to know their profits on a project throughout the life of the job,” Marks said. Fifteen years ago, managers relied on spread sheets. At the end of a project, they added the numbers to see if they made money. “A five percent swing in labor revenues on a large job can cost you your profits,” he added.

Software today schedules labor by task within each phase of the job. Rates for CAD engineers, designers, pre-wiring, installation and trim-out can be computed. Most integrators offer clients a flat rate fee for a job. While the customer knows the project will cost $125,000, for example, the integrator needs to know how much each phase costs and account for resources as they are used. This helps with the current job and also with future projects. After any call, the business owner can see in real time exactly what the scheduled call cost and what it returned to the bottom line.

Knowing your work backlog is important, too, Marks added. “If you have 10 installers doing 40 hours work every week, and you have 4,000 hours of work pending, then you have a 10-week backlog,” Marks computed. Software will break that figure down by skill sets and resources.

Who can afford such a program? “The tipping point for an integrator is about $5 million a year,” Graham said.

Return on investment
A company that invests in software and follows it up with solid policies and procedures can reap sizable benefits. However, as Marks noted, the key is making use of the software on a daily basis and using its features as part of the company’s regular operations.

Dove Net’s “Kall Scheduler” sets up reminders about whatever event an integrator wants to schedule. “I have clients who use this to schedule maintenance contract visits,” Nasca said.

Returns can be substantial. One integrator that went to full-featured software for its technicians went from 3.2 service tickets per day to 4.1 service tickets each day. Not only does that mean one more happy client served by each technician every day, but it means a $50,000 annual return on investment. That figures to a 500 percent on the $10,000 spent on software with remote tracking and GPS.

Another $8 million integrator rolled out a $75,000 software package to its 15 technicians using Q360 from Solutions360 and added $150,000 to the bottom line the first year simply by tracking time spent by the technicians and billing clients more efficiently.

At the upper end, an integrator that automated accounts payable saved $24,000 a year. Technicians were able to bill as they left the job site, speeding cash flow by two weeks and eliminating “Oops, I forgot” or “We don’t remember that call” pitfalls. Paper invoices too often end up in truck gloveboxes rather than on the accounting department’s desk. Instant electronic communications eliminates that hassle.

However, all of the vendors agree that it is up to the integrator to ensure units and software are properly used. That means writing and following policies and procedures and being sure to input data accurately.

“Review your accumulated data monthly or yearly to see if you are charging enough for services provided or should be raising prices,” Miller advised.

Tony Nasca added that integrators should ask potential vendors about on-site installation, training and technical support. The best outlets provide full technical support including 24/7 after-hours support for emergency recovery.

“Our software gets us to our jobs on time. Techs are not waiting for assignments. I think we do a good job of that,” Norris said. However, he added that he always is looking for a system that will integrate and automate the whole package for all phases of his business: fire alarms, access, key cards and more.

“Software alone will not change your business. It is a tool. It has to be set up properly with good policies and procedures and operational tasks,” SedonaOffice’s Michael Marks said. “It is an enabling technology, not a panacea.”

Above: Q360 is a single unified professional services automation software package from Solutions360 which includes project management and service dispatch scheduling. Screenshots courtesy Solutions360.

Virtual Software
Most integrators want a software package that will follow their technicians to the field and allow them paperless, real-time access and updates from the system. With Internet access available almost everywhere, that dream is within reach.

SedonaOffice’s Michael Marks said he sees inexpensive $500 to $1,000 tablet devices like the iPad enabling workers to be in touch all the time without coming back to the office. While the Windows mobile phone usually has a tiny display, tablets are available that are browser based. Companies like HP, Dell and Samsung are also working on versions.“Your iPad can be platform neutral and browser-based,” Marks noted.

Many developers echo Solutions360’s John Graham, who said they prefer to be “platform agnostic.” Web portals remain the access of choice. Graham said he is not sure if the iPad will take over the service market since most technicians are not looking for fancy display but plain information. “The Android is the real up-and-comer,” he commented.

However, any technology–when multiplied by the number of in-the-field workers–can become expensive. This is reinforcing the continued popularity of the BlackBerry as a rugged, simple portal.