Choosing the correct software platform can make all the difference in streamlining operations, improving productivity, expanding customer development and deepening client relationships.
Many small business owners — especially at their start point when budgets are lean — utilize a hodgepodge of free or low-cost spreadsheets, calendar programs and contact organizers as an ad hoc solution to meet their planning, tracking and client management requirements. Over time and as the operation matures and becomes more complex, these one-time solutions no longer prove effective and may actually hamper a contractor’s ability to conduct business.
It’s time to scale up
Customer relationship management and project/task management software are popular platforms because both aim to enhance contractor efficiency. They also serve different purposes and cater to distinct needs, so understanding and correctly implementing them are critical to success.
“A great software solution will provide contractors with the necessary tools to support both client and job management,” says Anthony Milito, director, product marketing at Jobber, Edmonton, Alberta. “Both are needed to make sure every job runs smoothly from end to end for everyone involved.”
It’s essential for contractors to understand what each does precisely and in the simplest of terms.
“A great software solution will provide contractors with the necessary tools to support both client and job management.”
– Anthony Milito, Jobber
CRM software manages customer relationships and optimizes a contractor’s sales processes. The typical CRM platform offers contact management, lead tracking, sales forecasting and customer support features. Think of the platform as a notebook where you store all critical client info, like names, contact data, site specifics and the services you’ve previously provided. The real advantage is enabling irrigation and lighting contractors to track and analyze customer data, gain insights and build longer-lasting client relationships. They are ideal for sales teams who rely on maintaining customer records and engaging with prospects throughout the year or season, often about services and upgrades.
On the other hand, project/job management software facilitates task organization, collaboration and project planning. Equate these platforms with a well-organized toolbox or well-stocked truck that provides the essential tools and direction to better manage and organize the jobs at hand. This platform creates to-do lists, assigns tasks, sets deadlines and tracks progress. Project management software aids in resource allocation, communication among team members, team monitoring, task delegation and providing a comprehensive overview of project timelines and deadlines.
It is particularly beneficial for service businesses with crews managing multiple tasks simultaneously.
Contractors must understand these differences because the solutions don’t always match the needs, says Calvin Hofman, senior specialist, customer escalations at Aspire Software, St. Louis. “The main difference between [the two platforms] is client management is managing your clients, keeping them happy and engaged,” he says. “And it keeps you at the front of their minds for future work, whether a new install or maintenance on their previously installed work.
“Job management [software] refers to the bidding, scheduling and billing for the work you’ve completed,” Hofman adds.
Ultimately, the choice between CRM software and project/task management software depends on the specific needs and goals of the irrigation or lighting business. CRM software is the ideal choice if the primary focus is on managing customer relationships and improving sales processes. On the other hand, if the company is project-driven and requires effective collaboration, task management and project tracking, project/task management software is the more suitable solution.
It is important to carefully assess business requirements, evaluate available options, and choose the software that aligns best with the organization’s objectives, says Ted Rightmire, CEO of HindSite Software, St. Paul, Minnesota.
“There are plenty of tools out there that will help contractors with job costing and estimating, but they may not handle scheduling very well,” says Rightmire.
Before investing in either software platform, Rightmire recommends that contractors ponder the following key questions and topics to evaluate their needs:
- How is it going to handle client management? Specifically, will it provide a greater understanding of clients and their properties?
- How will it allow me to communicate with my clients? Email? Text?
- How will I bill clients and report what is known about their property?
- How do I schedule and route my technicians?
- How do I send and receive information from my technicians?
- What are my costs versus my budget versus productivity?
- Is the software offered in languages other than English, such as Spanish?
“When investing in business software, these are the things most contractors should be thinking about,” Rightmire says. “Sure, you can go out and get a [software] tool that just does CRM, and a tool that just does job costing, and another tool that just manages emails, and another that schedules. But there is so much to be gained from a single platform without a crazy amount of cost [associated]. There are tons of options out there to find a platform you can be successful with.”
Both irrigation and lighting are multifaceted disciplines that require service coordination, quote and invoice creation, and extensive communication between customers and team members.
“Quoting is a critical task for any business,” Milito says. “But not all quoting solutions are created equal. Look for software that can provide advanced quoting features, such as the ability to include images, create customized add-on options and present tiered choices for [clients] to consider.”
Milito adds that quoting with add-ons has the potential to increase revenue by an average of 35%.
Another software function is the ability to manage cash flow by allowing customers to pay their bills online, often resulting in the contractor getting paid four-times faster than by conventional means, Milito says.
“You can even skip invoicing and get paid automatically for recurring work,” he adds. That kind of payout helps contractors get paid faster by allowing them to receive funds that normally would take two business days to process more quickly, showing up in a bank account within minutes.
A myriad of options can be overwhelming, especially if a contractor is not tech-savvy. Strike a balance between those essential features needed to improve the business processes from the functionality that may be bells and whistles and, in the long run, won’t be highly utilized.
“The best way to prevent this overwhelming feeling is to work with your internal teams to determine what your company must have, wants and needs,” Hofman says.
Picking your partner
Adopting a new software platform isn’t a one-and-done relationship with the vendor. When adopting new technology, contractors must be mindful of who they’re doing business with and who will provide support following implementation and integration.
As important as exploring the product is conversing with the vendor to understand how the product will not only benefit the company but also be supported after it’s implemented into the operation, Milito says.
This starts with thorough interviewing, a sort of hybrid process similar to hiring a new employee or vetting a prospective new client. The bottom line is considering whether this vendor/provider is going to fit into the contractor’s culture.
“Your [software] salesperson should be having a conversation with you about the software and, more importantly, your business,” Hofman says. Once you’ve decided to move forward with software, continue to ask questions.
In addition to general questions, potential software partners should provide contractors with information about the following key topics.
Data. Inquire about data privacy and security and determine who owns the data collected by the software platform, especially in the event the relationship between the contractor and vendor is terminated. In addition, find out what the vendor may use that data for and if it can be leveraged without the contractor’s consent.
Licensing. What are the software platform’s licensing terms? For example, how many users can use the software, or what type of hardware (laptops, servers, tablets, phones) can it be installed on? And what are the fees for additional licenses?
Billing. Does the platform’s billing model fit the contractor’s cash flow? For example, if the irrigation service is seasonal, will the contractor be stuck with a large, costly bill in the middle of January?
Support. Determine if there is an added cost or subscription for ongoing technical and customer support. Is the vendor staffed for 24/7 customer support? Will a contractor (or team member) get a question answered quickly and without delay?
Updates. Are they committed to improving the software? What’s the product roadmap or the features and functionality the vendor plans to add in the future? How frequently are updates released? Is there an additional cost associated with receiving an update?
“It sounds corny, but synergy is critical,” Rightmire says. “You don’t want to do business with someone who thinks an irrigation contractor is an outdoor plumber because those are two very different business models. Instead, you want to work with someone who understands your business model and the nuances of the service portion of your business.”
And contractors should take advantage of free trials and one-on-one coaching prior to making a final decision, Milito says. “Any good vendor should make this process easy,” he adds.
Artificial intelligence and contractors
The term “artificial intelligence” is everywhere nowadays. Marketers seem to plaster that label on just about everything. But is considering a software platform with AI elements built into its functionality worthwhile?
“I think AI will have a significant impact over time, but we’re just not there yet,” says Ted Rightmire, CEO of HindSite Software, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Often, software developers utilize complex algorithms — instructions used to solve problems or perform tasks based on the understanding of available alternatives — and label it artificial intelligence, Rightmire says. And while that algorithm may be a powerful addition to a software platform, it’s not true artificial intelligence.
However, AI has the potential to shine a light on blind spots that irrigation and lighting contractors didn’t realize they had with their businesses.
“For contractors, AI may suggest actions that could have a huge impact on their businesses,” Rightmire says. “Hey, based on emails, text messages and site visits, here are some leads to call about. Or, based on [business] data, you need to raise your prices on these types of properties. Or, you should change the routes for these clients because changing driving patterns will avoid delays.”
For now, though, don’t get sucked into AI’s hype and focus more on software functionality allowing contractors to grow their businesses.
“First things first, grow your business successfully before you worry about all the bells and whistles,” Rightmire says. “And I’m a software guy, so I love bells and whistles. But right now, contractors should focus on being successful today.”