Service work provides a vital revenue stream for electrical contractors. To optimize the value to customers and ensure you dispatch service personnel with the right skill sets for the project, you need the right software that can help manage the process and identify new opportunities to grow the business.

Trends and innovations
Like it or not, service management software is migrating toward mobile solutions.

“The work force is increasingly mobile, and workers on the go need mobile devices to be fully productive,” said Kara Crider, director of marketing for dESCO Service Industry Software, Fort Myers, Fla. After all, most companies have already distributed cell phones to personnel to improve field communications, and most cell phone providers now offer bundled solutions that include text, phone and Internet that are the same price as, if not less expensive than, individual plans.

“Service companies need to keep up with the demands of an ever-growing digital world and should take advantage of the streamlined benefits that go along with mobile service management software solutions,” Crider said.

The migration toward mobile solutions can also be partially attributed to the availability and acceptance of cloud computing, according to Mark Stair, president and CEO of High 5 Software, Kenmore, Wash.

“Security issues surrounding the cloud have been resolved in the minds of many customers,” he said. “And the cloud eliminates the need for a company to manage servers and an expanded IT [information technology] infrastructure.”
In addition, the cloud provides field personnel with a paperless environment and grants greater access to the information they need to better serve the customer.

“This is an important issue, especially for smaller companies. With the cloud and mobile solutions, field personnel can spend more time performing service work and less time managing software or being involved in IT activities in the office,” Stair said.

In addition to smartphone and tablet access, there is an increased demand for mobile solutions to provide fleet tracking, self-service web portals for technicians and customers to use, for field reporting and mobile payment processing, and the ability to email technician profiles and pictures to customers ahead of service appointments, said Dennis Stejskal, vice president of product management for software company Sage Construction and Real Estate, Beaverton, Ore.

“The idea of tracking time sheets with mobile technology, for example, is gaining greater traction in the construction industry,” Stejskal said. Having the ability to keep workers in the field instead of returning to the office between jobs has been especially appealing as every sector of the economy struggles to maintain productivity while having fewer workers on the payroll.

“Mobile time-tracking technology can cut down on errors and paperwork by automating the payroll and time systems and letting workers clock in and out via their phones,” he said.

Also gaining in popularity is mobile payment processing. When work is completed, the ability to present an invoice, accept and process payment on-site, and provide a receipt to the customer shortens the company’s accounts receivable cycle and reduces time spent on administrative duties.

“Today’s mobile technology can support the industry needs for daily field reporting, labor time tracking, and service work order processing,” Stejskal said.

Perhaps one of the most important innovations in software management systems is that the platforms are migrating toward open architecture communication protocols.

“This provides the contractor with the freedom to choose its solutions from any provider and still integrate it with the existing business system,” said Jim Hare, senior vice president of sales for Field One Systems, Mahwah, N.J.

Benefits
A complete service management solution enables electrical contractors to better manage customers, work, technicians, and finances and provides the necessary tools to streamline operations, simplify management and identify opportunities to grow their business. According to Crider, specific benefits include increased technician productivity through having the right information in the field; increased cross sales opportunities; reduced costs through identifying areas of waste and inefficiencies; improved internal communications; improved external communications through appointment reminders, status updates, technician profile emails, surveys or coupons; reduced collections through field payment processing; and eliminated paperwork storage needs in a digital environment.

“But service management software doesn’t just benefit the contractor,” Crider said. “The customer receives improved response time with better technician scheduling and routing; increased security through emailing technician profiles; increased service accuracy because the technician has access to all customer history, equipment and dispatch information in the field; and increased customer care and professionalism, with easy access to complete customer information across the entire company network.”

Service management software is a great automation tool and allows for customers to email in their service requests, from which the software automatically generates work orders, according to Stair.
“We’re also seeing more customers demanding website portals so that they can log into the site and generate work orders automatically,” he said.

Some service customers are even requesting that the electrical contractor integrate its computer system into their business system to provide a direct interface. That way, the customers’ Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system can grab work orders as they are generated to enable the contractor and customer to track service-level agreement compliance.

“Such integration enables work requests to be automatically generated in the customer’s own system and then communicated directly to the contractor for more efficient and timely service, and it helps prevent the contractor from losing opportunities as more customers demand more automation,” he said.

A fully integrated service management software system can also reduce redundant data entry in multiple and disparate systems, provide more accurate and timely reporting, and make operations more efficient, according to Stejskal.

“This helps the company complete jobs in a timely and cost-efficient manner, allowing them to deliver a little extra to customers on each job, improving satisfaction and retaining business,” he said.

Overall, all of this technology reduces the cost for the contractor to deliver its services and deliver better return on investment for the customer.

“Depending on the company, the ROI can be unbelievable. We have seen the ROI be a matter of weeks because if a contractor can deliver the same or better service at a much lower cost, they can experience a dramatic improvement in end-user satisfaction with lower consumer cost and an increase in contractor profits,” Hare said.

Choosing the right solution
Contractors need to look at several factors, of course, when evaluating service management software solutions, including outside industry consultant and peer recommendations, true seamless integration with other necessary business software, accessible support, ongoing training and conversation data services. It also is important to ensure the company chosen emphasizes customer service and product development and has industry roots.

“Evaluating solutions should include several product demonstrations to all company decision-makers and department managers who will be using the software, free trials and unbiased industry opinions,” Crider said.

Contractors should look for a solution that can adapt to their needs without requiring a great deal of customization.

“The solution chosen should have a solid foundation with the ability to customize to the contractor’s needs, and the provider should have a history in the market and an available list of satisfied customers,” Stair said.

Knowing how much you can pay and exactly what you need will make the decision easier, according to Sage Construction’s Stejskal. One key aspect of the selection process includes identifying all the functions and solutions you hope to achieve from the new application.

“Assembling a team from across the enterprise, including those who are stakeholders in the purchase, as well as the people who will be managing the implementation and future use of the software, can also help ensure you choose the right solution,” he said.

Choosing the right solution is truly about dollars, including all the issues that might currently plague the service department, such as lost deals, expenses for travel or paid overtime or wasted resources. Prioritize the list by how much money each issue costs the company, and then look closely at the solutions that solve the top three.

“Many companies get too wrapped up in trying to fix everything and become paralyzed instead of performing a detailed work flow analysis that identifies the real economic issues of not automating service management functions,” Hare said.

Finally, vendor relationships matter, and contractors need to be sure they are able to work with the chosen provider.

“Potential buyers should ask about how long a vendor has been in business and inquire about the company’s stability, as you need to know that they will be able to continue providing support and software updates,” Stejskal said.

Implementation challenges
The biggest challenge with any software implementation, according to Hare, is when the business wants to change the way the software works, rather than adapting to the workflow of the software.

“Most of the time, there is no business reason for a particular way a company does its paperwork, but it’s just the way it’s always been done. Since software manufacturers cannot adapt 100 percent to every business, the contractor needs to be willing to be flexible and make adjustments to potentially ineffective existing business practices,” he said.

Integrating service management software with the company’s other business systems or automating processes through email or Web portals is more difficult.

“Each connection for a customer will be unique and will have to be built and integrated into the contractor’s service management system,” Stair said.

However, if the software solution has an intuitive environment, data conversion services, expert training and easily accessible support, you can mitigate implementation challenges.


BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.