There is a head-spinning amount of software options for electrical contractors today ranging from estimating to automating to integration of all facets of a very large business; somewhere in the midst of the many options, contractors need to look hard at their operations, locate the snags and find out what software system or suite of systems can offer the best solution for the best possible price.
Software vendors are finding that computer usage by electrical contractors has gone from limited to considerably sophisticated. For many contractors, it is a matter of improving on an existing system.
From a software perspective, construction is an unusual business in that no two projects are the same.
“There are so many factors with each one that make it unique, the owner, other subcontractors, materials, location, timing,” said Brad Mathews, vice president of marketing, Dexter + Chaney. Despite the variables, contractors both in the office and on the work site are seeking ways to provide consistency. They have found software can do that, to a point.
“Most contractors today say, ‘Our payroll works. We can create billing, change orders’,” Mathews said. “But how well are they working together?”
Often they aren’t. Change orders are a good example. When a change order occurs, those who most need to know—such as the contracting firm owner—may not be aware of it. Software that brings together operations personnel with the financial group and provides management visibility is an asset to any contractor.
Still, barriers exist for contractors who aren’t ready for a fully integrated software system. The attitude, vendors say, is “We’ve always done it this way.” Inertia prevails. The problem is not necessarily with the software. Rather, it is with the vendors’ ability to train contractors and make the software tools they are using comprehensible.
Software vendors should try to understand what keeps electrical contractors up at night. Most contractors spend their sleepless hours thinking about cash flow, said Sage Timberline’s Courtney M. Stearns, specialty industry sales manager, Sage Software, Construction and Real Estate division.
In most cases relating to their cash flow, contractors use spreadsheets, documents and accounting systems, which they re-enter when necessary for cost-tracking and billing. Mathews calls these Band-Aids, none of which alone will resolve the contractor’s problems.
“You can create a great process for one part. They can have lots of spreadsheets, but that’s not a database. It’s a single-user tool. They provide wonderful pieces of software but are not coming up with a real solution,” Mathews said.
Every change order or unique event in a project can upset the system, fail to get translated from one department to another or just get lost somewhere.
“A typical contractor will miss a certain percent of what could be billed,” Sage’s Stearns said. After all, a typical contractor could have a hundred projects or more in a year and each job has the potential for dozens of change orders.
“They have to figure out what they might want to change. The change order plans go back and forth. And, by the time the dust settles, typically the costs are not allocated correctly,” he said. “It might not be billed correctly. It might be billed late, or it might miss critical elements.”
This is a problem contractors have traditionally either accepted or attempted to resolve by throwing more personnel at the problem while never quite staunching the cash loss. While they use Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel and an estimating system, generally they just aren’t connected in a way to resolve problems such as those described here.
“For a lot of contractors, I think the sentiment is that, at the end of the year, they’re still making money,” Stearns said. However, they may not realize that they are leaving potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars behind each year.
“Most contractors we’ve worked with haven’t spent time looking at the depth of that. We have to train our own salespeople to interview them and be able to quantify the critical business issues the contractors are facing,” Stearns said. “It’s hard for contractors to get their head around losses like that. They have to move on to the next job, they’ve got RFIs in the inbox,” he said.
A good software vendor understands the electrical contracting business and does more than sell an attractive package. They must be able to talk about the critical issues contractors face, provide personnel training that is necessary and follow up consulting.
Software vendors have been working hard to improve their product offerings and make them easier to use. Some systems allow different members of a contracting firm to access a unique database relevant to what they do, sparing them the data they don’t need. Even if the system is integrated, the employee only sees the functions that matter to him on his desktop. Dexter + Chaney and Sage offer dashboard solutions that allow a set of data to be available to a specific desktop.
From a project-management perspective, the employee can define what is important to him and ensure he has access to that data.
“We’re talking about a very complex tool that is presented in a way that is meaningful,” Stearns said.
So if someone on the job site finds an item does not arrive when he needs it, he can determine where it is and when it’s coming. This is more efficient than calling the vendor repeatedly, receiving two orders of the same equipment and having one of which go into the warehouse without being part of the inventory list.
Integrated software solutions could streamline labor management issues. Mismanagement of crews can cost $500 to $1,000 per hour and can lead to many thousands of dollars.
Office invoice approval can be done through Internet access. It can keep invoices, of which there might be thousands, up to the minute while allowing the staff to review the cost estimate on a project and view any changes.
While some contractors use software specific to ECs, not all find that distinction necessary. Quest Solutions, which provides general construction industry software, is releasing a new version of its digitized takeoff and estimating software. The new solution uses a standard query language (SQL) database, which replaces the Borland database engine used in earlier versions.
SQL, originally intended for mainframe databases, can handle large volumes of data better than other platforms. SQL is a widely-used database language that also has strictly enforced technical standards. Because of these standards, two systems based on SQL databases are more likely to be able to easily share data between them, which is a distinct advantage for anybody trying to integrate an accounting system with estimating software. Also, SQL databases keep all records in one place, which makes data easier to protect and manage.
Cochran Inc., electric design and construction, Seattle, is a full-service company providing electrical design, construction and service, voice and data structured cabling systems, and security systems. Cochran takes on projects ranging from one-hour service calls to complex, multiphased design/build projects. It has provided some of the most complex and varied projects in the Pacific Northwest.
Being such a large contractor makes software an integral part of Cochran’s business.
“It’s the Information Age. It’s all about getting as much information as you can, as fast as you can,” said Larry Couch, Cochran vice president of operations. “Good software provides the ability to react quickly and take appropriate action as required.”
The software systems Cochran uses are providing the company with what they need without the integration that many vendors are recommending, Couch said.
Couch said the software with the greatest impact for Cochran had been tracking project costs, progress and productivity.
Clearly, software is here to make business more productive and profitable. EC
Editor’s note: This story is not all-inclusive. Contractors should be advised to do their own research into software that would work with their individual companies needs.
SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.