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Integrate Your Way to a Smarter Business

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Resistance to change shackles small and large businesses alike, especially when it comes to the next generation of information technology.

Get ready. The time has come for HVACR contractors to move up to integrated software that enables faster, surer management of all components of contracting and service businesses.

Contractors from companies that have made the move say that the changes have improved productivity, cost management, cash flow, quality, and other key measures that build competitiveness and profits.

These same contractors also say that a company-wide technology change requires a commitment from the top, determination on the part of everyone to study,train, and make it work, and most of all perseverance in the face of frustration. “This can be a transformational change,” says Ron Shai, vice president for sales with Jonas for Contractors, a Toronto, Ont.-based software supplier that specializes in HVAC contracting and service businesses.

Transformation requires hard work throughout an organization. “To succeed, you have to take responsibility for training everyone in the company to adopt a different way of thinking and working,” continues Shai.

It isn’t only challenging, it is different. Such transformational change is reverberating through the industry as forward thinking members of ACCA work to build smarter businesses with software.

What challenges are they encountering? What benefits have come their way? Take a look at how four ACCA members are faring.

Making The Jump To Integrated Software

Small contractors typically automate with discrete software applications, usually a basic accounting package for the books and payroll and a spreadsheet program to run what-if scenarios. That’s what Envirotech Heating and Cooling of Shawnee, Kan. did up until 2007.

“When I bought the business in 2001, we were using a basic accounting package and cards on a dispatching wall in the office,” recalls James Gallet, president of Envirotech.

In 2007, Gallet replaced the basic accounting package with an integrated application equipped with a number of integrated modules, all capable of sending and receiving data to and from each other. Called Total Office Manager (TOM) from Kansas City, Mo.-based Aptora Corporation the new package handles all accounting and payroll tasks as well as job costing, inventory management, and dispatching; it also maps out the most efficient route to the call.

“I love the dispatching part,” Gallet says. “We don’t need the board anymore and you don’t have to be in the office to see the schedule.”

How tough was it to learn the new system? “My office manager went on leave two weeks after we installed the system,” Gallet says. “Then I filled in as the bookkeeper for six months. Things ran smoothly both times. It was very intuitive.”

Right now, the techs receive calls by way of email from the office. Upon arriving, the tech reports to the office again via email. A final email informs the office when the job is complete.

The tech leaves the customer with a paper invoice.

Gallet says the next step will bring iPads on line to automate the invoicing process.

“When we bring the tablets on line, we’ll eliminate paper invoices,” he adds. “We’ll do it on the tablet, the customer will sign the screen. The invoice will download to our system.”

The tablets will also have sync buttons that will download records of the work to the customer’s history in the company database.

First One Way, Then Another — Getting It Right

It can take a while to get it right. Mast Heating & Cooling in Zeeland, Mich. can attest to that. The company first started using an automated accounting, payroll, and service contract management system 1997. It was a text-based DOS operating system that did not provide a graphical user interface (GUI) for intuitive, point and click operations. The system didn’t include a scheduling or dispatching function, so employees handled that manually.

Things didn’t get any easier as the installation and service components of the business grew and the employee count rose. In 2008, the company installed a custom package from a software development company that charged monthly fees and promised programming tailored to the company’s specifications.

The new system added scheduling and dispatch functions and proved faster than the old system. The company also developed a maintenance contract management module designed around Mast’s particular approach to maintenance.

While the new system provided drop down menus, it still lacked an intuitive GUI.

Marc DeVisser came on board as the Mast service manager shortly after that system was installed. When it got around that he had experience with software systems, he ended up with the IT assignment.

“At the time, we had two computer systems, the server for our first accounting system and the server for the second,” DeVisser says. “We decided to consolidate with Jonas Construction software. The previous solutions were economical and Jonas is a high quality product, and it carries the price tag to go along with it.”

However, the Jonas Construction package includes accounting and payroll, of course, as well as dispatching, job costing, inventory and maintenance contract management, and powerful financial management tools. The cost was well worth the return.

Another key feature available in most top packages gives customers the ability to check details on service contracts, warranty information, and invoices; as well as the abililty to request service over the internet.

“It’s paperless, too,” adds DeVisser. “We store everything as PDF files and use email to contact customers. We can scan invoices and other paper documents and store everything electronically.”

DeVisser goes on to list job costing, communications with technicians in the field, storing and retrieving customer equipment histories as features he particularly likes. “There’s a digital trail for every keystroke punched into the system,” he says. “We’re working more efficiently and more accurately, and we’re doing a better job for customers.”

DeVisser looks forward to adding GPS-based tracking and routing modules to the system. Further down the line he foresees a move to cloud computing. “Right now, the industry uses a client-server model,” he says. “When you get to cloud computing, you can access software applications on the vendor’s site with a browser.”

With cloud computing systems, vendors house the computers and the software applications. Customers — HVAC contractors, for instance — would access those systems over the Internet using browsers. Vendors provide updates, security patches and maintenance. Customers pay subscription fees.

Make It Work By Managing The Change

Change won’t work unless you bring everyone in the organization along with you, including your software supplier.

HomeSmart from Xcel Energy, Inc. in Centennial, Col., is a non-regulated HVAC service and sales business owned by the regional utility company, Excel Energy.

“We used a UNIX platform application called Contrac2 from Compusource Corporation  for about 12 years,” says Paul Olivier, manager of HomeSmart Operations. “In 2009, we brought on Ascente, which Compusource had introduced a few years earlier. It was a window’s based point and click system that everyone could learn to use.

Ascente provides integrated modules that manage HVAC service and installation work. Open Systems, Inc., of Shakopee, Minn., provides an accounting and payroll software called Traverse, which is tightly integrated with Ascente.

The move up required careful planning and training. In Minnesota, for instance, municipalities charge sales tax, and they’re all different. The Ascente/Travers mobile system had been designed to apply a single state sales tax to invoices created in the field. “We had several issues like this, and Compusource made the changes,” says Olivier.

Once the software issues were overcome, Olivier began a phased rollout of Ascente and Traverse. “We started by having Compusource train everyone in our accounting department and call center,” he says. “That transition was fairly easy, because the functions were similar to Contrac2.”

The next transition brought a mobile application and computers into the field. “We started with three technicians,” Olivier says. “One was computer literate; one had a little experience; the third was new to computers. They received training, worked in the field and then compared notes every morning. It took about 90 days for them to get fully versed. We rolled it out in small teams, one at a time, until everyone was on board. It took about nine months.”

The point is, automating isn’t easy. It is wholesale change that you have to plan and manage.

Never Ending Story

The nature of technology is it’s constantly changing. For an HVAC contracting company automating is a continuous improvement process.

JonLe Heating & Cooling in Cincinnati, Ohio, came early to the technology party, installing its first computer system in 1978. Five years later, the company upgraded to a system written for contractors. Then in 1991, the company bought a system from Davis Business Solutions, Inc., in West Dundee, Ill.

“We wanted, and Davisware provided, a system that would enable us to enter data once and have it flow seamlessly across multiple modules,” says Greg Leisgang, JonLe’s president.

The company has used the Davisware Global Edge product ever since. The software offers 32 modules, and they use a dozen of them, including the complete accounting package, payroll, dispatching, GPS tracking, and routing.

Leisgang credits the system for improving the productivity of technicians by managing the inventory available on their trucks, tracking locations, assigning calls according to proximity to customers, and enabling paperless operations throughout the organization.

“It isn’t plug-and-play, though,” he cautions. “It is an evolution that continues to improve over time.”

For instance, 15 years ago, Leisgang set up a live ticket entry system. Technicians invoice each customer onsite when the work is completed. The process adds the invoice to account receivables adjusts the truck’s inventory, connects any purchase orders to the service order, records travel time, and time on the call.

“When tickets are turned in, all we have to do is check them,” Leisgang says. “There is no data entry backlog required to run payroll, restock the trucks, or to create financial statements.”

Today, Leisgang and Davis Solutions are beginning to implement the live invoicing process on a mobile computing system that will eliminate paper invoices.

Is All This Worth It?

Most companies do find all this work worthwhile. Management is more sure-handed, productivity rises, costs go down, and competitiveness goes up.

For example, HomeSmart’s Olivier says, “Since we have made the changes, I’ve seen an increase in work orders that are completed — that’s a productivity increase”

To attain that increase, Olivier ran reports that showed which technicians worked most and least efficiently. Then he asked the efficient techs to coach the techs that were slow.

Olivier also reorganized is dispatching system by dividing the service area into four quadrants, each with its own dispatcher. The dispatchers then used the Ascente GPS system to move techs to the closest calls. That improved productivity and saved fuel. When one quadrant found itself overly busy, techs from the neighboring quadrant closest to the bottleneck moved in to help.

“We found that we were running 30 more calls per day,” Olivier says. “For instance, during the week of October 5 through October 11, we ran 598 calls, that’s 15 percent more calls than we ran before installing the mobile system.”

Productivity increases, of course, generate more revenue.

That’s just one example. The point is, managers that take the time to evaluate the data the system collects can figure out new, more productive ways to manage the company’s work, raising productivity, revenues, and profits.

And You Have To Keep At It

“Technology is not painless,” cautions JonLe’s Leisgang. “It requires buy-in by the owner, by the management team, and by the employees.”

Owners must commit time and money to automating the business and training people to use the new systems. Managers must learn the system and work with staff until everyone learns to get the most out of the system. Then you will begin to see results.

Then more change will come.

Whether your company is small, medium, or large; you must develop a plan to adopt technology and to manage the change by overcoming the resistance of managers, staff, and technicians. Then you must provide qualified training for everyone while pushing managers to figure out new ways to improve productivity and quality.

It’s a lot of work, but it will, in the end, make you into a smarter business.

Coming Soon: Voice Recognition And Techs That Drive Desks.

The latest technological innovations to show up in the field include handheld point of sale systems that enable technicians to swipe credit cards, submit transactions for authorizations, and get a customers signature with an electronic pen, says Jennifer Davis, president of Davis Business Solutions

Mobile devices will also tap into the customer’s file located on a disk drive back in the office. So when the field tech is on a service call to change filters discovers a problem with the equipment, he or she can check the maintenance history of the device and make a fully informed recommendation. When finished, the tech can use the device to update the customer’s file as well as the truck inventory if parts were required to complete the repair.

But that’s just the beginning of what technology can do in the field.

Do your technicians have trouble entering data because of poor typing skills? Don’t worry. Handwriting recognition systems will soon make it possible to use an electronic pen to write data onto a touch-screen. The system will turn it into type. Soon, voice recognition systems will offer even more convenience.

“In the next three to five years, the commercial HVAC world will begin to see remote diagnostics thanks to computer technology installed in equipment,” says Davis. “Instead of physically checking a chiller, you might simply log on and check the diagnostics chip.”

It’s already happening, continues Davis, who says some contractors now employ technicians that work from their desks.

Within a decade or so, this technological revolution will move into residential HVAC systems. And it will keep coming. The technological revolution that transformed the office workplace a generation ago has finally reached out into the field.

Posted In: ACCA Now, Management, Technology

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