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Finding Commercial Software That Fits the Bill

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When he heads to the ACCA’s IE3 Show in March, Lon Johnson plans to do some shopping. With his wish list in hand, the president of Pro-Tech Mechanical in Lansing, MI, will be checking out software companies that can meet his company’s current commercial needs.

“I want to go to Nashville this year to research and interview software companies, because that’s a location where the majority show up,” he says.  “You can get good information and leads.”

Johnson currently uses Total Officer Manager by Aptora, which he purchased in 2013. “At that point, it was our best option as a commercial contracting company,” he says. “We reviewed several other companies.”

What sold him four years ago, he recalls, was the wireless dispatching function. “We could create work orders and attach them to technicians, who could use their tablets to create a paperless environment. We had too much paper shuffling going on.  We do national account work, which requires a lot of paperwork for every call.”

Pro-Tech, which has been in business since 2005, has 15 employees.  The 100-percent-commercial HVAC and refrigeration company does about $2 million a year, of which 90 percent is service and 10 percent is retrofit and install.

To handle that business, Johnson is seeking software with certain features and attributes, including:

Built for commercial. According to Johnson, much of the HVAC software on the market is designed for residential and then altered for commercial, which can create problems. “Most residential is burn and turn, meaning you go out on one service call that lasts a few hours or one day,” he explains.  “Rarely is it multi-day.  The technician checks in, he checks out, and the job is done. With commercial you might be there multiple days or weeks, and a lot of residential software does not have the ability to neatly lump that all together. It gets messy when you get multiple days and people on projects.”

Upload photos.  High on his priority list is the ability to upload photos directly to individual work orders. “While residential technicians can work directly with homeowners and show them the part being replaced, we don’t have that option,” he says. “We may be dealing with a client in New York, and we’re in Michigan. The technician has to take pictures of everything, which is often required for national commercial accounts. They want pictures of the heat exchangers or compressors or filters that you replaced.”

Right now, he says, his technicians use Dropbox and attach the pictures to a work order number or email the photos to the dispatcher, who forwards them to the client. He hopes to avoid those additional steps.

Accounting functions.  According to Johnson, some software programs for commercial contractors don’t have their own accounting functions. “We want something that is a one-program stop, so we don’t push data to QuickBooks or a second-party accounting software,” he says. “We want all in one. We want accounting, dispatching, everything. It makes it a lot easier.”

An Evolving Decade

For over a decade, Matt Freund, president of Comfort-Air Engineering, San Antonio, TX, has relied on Davisware to fulfill part of the software solutions required by the 53-year-old company. Starting out as a DAS-based system, Davisware now handles the company’s dispatch, purchase orders, time stamps, and remote tablets.

“The dispatching software allows us to review a customer’s maintenance and service history, as well as equipment serial and model numbers,” he says. He points out that links within it allow technicians to access maintenance manuals while they are out on jobs.

The all-in-one aspect of the software has simplified purchase orders, he says.  “If you need to buy a part for a unit, it’s all done within the same work order. We can order materials and build the work order.”

The company, which has 135 employees performing commercial and residential, construction, service, and plumbing work, uses two different modules by FastEST, Inc., for estimates of ductwork and piping.

“We really don’t print drawings anymore,” he explains. “Everything is online, whether it is PDF file or AutoCAD file. It’s faster and easier to review electronically than paper drawings. Availability of electronic documents in the field really helps, because you can look everything up on your tablet. You don’t have to go to a set of drawings, roll them out, and read it. You can read them on the tablet.”

The modules, FastPIPE and FastDUCT, have been through various evolutions since he purchased them last year.  Accuracy, he says, depends on how well you measure the ductwork and understand your material and labor costs. “If you have it set up correctly and do your takeoff correctly, it should be accurate.”

Portal Provides Transparency

Luckinbill, Inc., in Enid, OK, chose Penta Technologies because of its integrated accounting system, as well as its construction management and service management functions that provide invoices, purchase orders, and extensive reporting on business activities, says Trevor Miller, vice president and chief financial officer.

“We went live in October 2015,” he explains. “Our business is roughly half construction and half service. Each area has very different requirements. We wanted cloud-based software that could handle both, offered a customer portal, and would be very stable. We also wanted software that provided a device-based application for our service technicians. Penta offered all those features.”

Miller gives high marks to the software’s seamless update process. “What makes it relatively simple is that we have VMware virtual servers that are hosted in the cloud at Amazon Web Services, and Penta Technologies manages our servers for us. They can take a snapshot of our server, apply the upgrade, test it, and allow us to test it in a nonproduction environment. When we’re ready, we can take another snapshot and apply the upgrade and go live. We usually have them start on a Thursday or Friday afternoon so it doesn’t impact production.”

Another favorite feature is the customer portal, which allows customers to log on and view inspection reports, any problems that have been discovered, service calls, invoices, and equipment lists. “It really adds quite a bit of transparency to the operation,” he says. “Building managers are very busy so, we want to be able to give them a quick snapshot.”

Luckinbill, which started out fixing floor furnaces in 1939, has expanded it operations to include construction projects that range from installing water and sewer lines for municipalities and developers to refurbishing dams.  The company employs 200 to handle its $30 million annual volume, of which $19 million is HVAC-related.

Advice From the Pros

When searching for commercial software, these three contractors offer four tips:

  1. Think long-term. “Don’t buy something that may not fit your needs in the future,” Freund says. Of course, he adds, you first need to know where you want to take your company in the next five years.
  1. Make a list. “Prioritize your software needs, because I have found that each type has strengths and weaknesses,” Miller says. “You want to match up your priorities with a software’s strengths, and you might have to compromise in some areas. If you go into a software purchase thinking ‘Oh, well, I’ll talk to the company and make it do Task A,’ that’s probably going to be difficult and expensive.He points out that customization can create a snowball effect. Customizations affect future upgrades, and all of a sudden you become a special case, which can be costly. The more you can use the software as is, the better off you will be.”
  1. Watch the software in action. After you get references, Miller recommends that you take your team members and spend a couple days at one of the references so you can ask detailed operational questions. “There’s a world of difference between what you see on paper and how somebody actually uses the software,” he says.
  1. Choose quality over price. Johnson remembers feeling inundated with various facts and figures the last time he was searching for a software partner. “You get so overwhelmed with information trying to find the perfect fit, you just want to settle for the best cost option,” he says.Don’t do that, he urges. “Software is not something you want to go cheap on. You want something top of the line that will work. Software that automates and streamlines processes and makes you paperless can be a huge step forward.”
Margo Vanover Porter
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Technology

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