Streamline Your Plumbing Business and Boost Productivity

Making the change from paper-based operations to tablet-based enterprise software can yield big efficiency gains

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Scott Spencer realized soon after buying Seattle’s Jim Dandy Sewer & Plumbing that it was time for a big change in how the administrative side of the business was run. “It’s such a redundant process with paper,” he says. “So many hands touch each paper with so much backwork, doing separate data entry on every invoice.”

His managers were already using Apple iPhones, and they wanted to find a digital solution they were familiar with, so they decided to move dispatching, invoicing and reporting to software they could run on iPads. After spending some time researching their options, they chose Smart Service from My Service Depot.

This routing, scheduling and dispatching software integrates easily with QuickBooks and allows immediate, real-time information on daily productivity for use at the office. The add-on iFleet app extends functionality into the field through tablets for service technicians, which allows them to build work orders and enter job and customer notes, job history, signature capture and more.

He knew preparing his staff for the shift from paper to digital would be critical in getting them to buy in. “Management was directly involved in coming up with the new system,” Spencer says. “Our dispatcher and plumbing manager had gone through online tutorials to test three different programs and came up with the final option. We then announced three weeks ahead of time to field and office staff that we were going paperless.”

Management initially ran through the process of using Smart Service with the technicians and let them know going back to paper was no longer an option. “Once they saw how really easy it is, it was no problem,” says Spencer. “It’s incredibly user friendly and intuitive.

“I let all the guys take their iPad home for a week or two, put their email on it and play with it. This let them get used to the new tool before activating the software so they didn’t have to take it all in at once. Guys don’t like to read directions, so we’ll typically do it wrong at first, but the Apple stuff is just so easy to use.

“I knew going in that it would be more expensive to use Apple products, but I thought it would be kind of a ‘carrot’ to get the guys to accept the ‘stick’ of change. It gave them something to be proud of, walking into a customer’s home with state-of-the-art technology. The bonus is that in areas where we can’t pick up a Wi-Fi signal, the iPads can use our iPhone personal hotspots quickly and automatically.”

It’s easy to like something that just works so well, he says. “I’d say within a day or so even my most resistant guys were doing as well as everyone else.”

To leverage the newly open minds, “We went back to the online tutorial and showed them how it would make their jobs easier. We demonstrated how the iPads could be used with voice commands instead of typing, which is faster and easier. That was a major plus in their minds, not having to fool around with those tiny keyboards.”

Technicians are still responsible for the accuracy of their entries, but an office person does proofread them before sending out any customer paperwork. “We worked all that out in the first three months, especially with errors introduced by Autocorrect. We had some good chuckles over those,” Spencer recalls.

Ups and downs
Still, Spencer admits the process wasn’t without its rough spots. “A couple guys were scared to death of it and wanted nothing to do with the tablet-based system,” he says. “So we wanted to make it something to be proud of. IPads are still novel and carry something of a prestige factor, so we made it clear we were issuing them each a personal iPad that they could also take home to use.”

There were, of course, the nuts-and-bolts issues to be expected in the introduction of any new process. “The first two to three weeks we felt like we were constantly on the phone [with Smart Service] making sure we understood everything,” Spencer says. But he says that also revealed a positive. “This is one of the biggest advantages of Smart Service — support was really, really good. And the software itself is really reliable. In the first nine months of use we’ve only had two downtimes of less than three hours each.”

Mostly, it’s just been an adjustment away from paper-based idiosyncrasies. The new process mirrors the old one in function, if not implementation. When a call comes in, a dispatcher enters customer data and service call information into the Smart Service program via desktop computer. When entry is complete, Smart Service offers two options: Send out one job at a time to the field technician’s iPad or send the whole day’s schedule at once.

Management opted for the whole day’s information to help technicians plan their time and routes better. They’re told to resync after each job in case anything’s been knocked out of or added to the job queue.

At the beginning of each day, a technician opens his first ticket on the tablet via the iFleet module, which includes job details and a route map. (Smart Service has GPS routing embedded in the program.) The technician can access all information on each job, including Jim Dandy’s history on the property, access points and other pertinent points.

Once on site, and having finished the work, the technician completes the invoice, including any notes and photos. Then the customer “signs” the work order using their finger or a stylus on the touch screen to create an electronic signature, which autosyncs with the office-based system. The technician may accept payment or let the customer know they will be billed according to prior arrangements.

At day’s end, administrative staff goes through all digital invoices. Everything is proofread and those not already paid are mailed out as paper invoices. The administrator hits a single button to post the day’s finished jobs, which closes out those records in the master database.

Switchover benefits 
The software adoption has paid off in many ways, not the least of which is a newfound confidence for Spencer based on the power of real-time communication with the field.

“Now I can have a less experienced plumber on a job site who can use the iPad’s FaceTime function to call in to the office, literally show the situation [through the onboard camera with video] and be talked through the whole job [by a more experienced technician],” Spencer says. “They can also take still photos of the job site and tag them to an invoice. This can protect us from things such as being accused of, say, water damage or scratching a tub when the damage was actually pre-existing.”

If, for whatever reason, a technician must be pulled off a job before it’s finished, a photo can be taken showing how far the work has progressed to that point. This provides a good idea of what’s left to be done for estimating and scheduling purposes.

The switch to the tablet-based system has also had a positive effect back at the office. Due to the elimination of redundant data entry, Spencer was able to move a full-time person to a function he’d long wanted to institute: time-responsive quality-assurance follow-up calls.

“I’m not waiting a week now for the invoice to come in, but now doing those calls within 24 hours,” he says. “We know when the guy has logged off the job because the color [of that job’s entry] changes on screen. We’re actually trying to get it down to an hour after the service call so we can get the best customer feedback.”

As a management tool, Spencer says he’s never had better in 25 years of running businesses. “Most managers never have direct contact with a customer,” he admits. “That’s made through the technicians, so this system also functions as an effective training tool. Records are turned in daily so errors can be caught and addressed immediately.”

He’s also noted a significant uptick in new business opportunities since introducing Smart Service. “I now capture a lot of bids right away, sent to me direct from the field, which allows managers to follow up right away.”

Unexpected benefits
So, was the switch worth all the expense and the hassle of forcing the adjustment on himself and his entire staff? Absolutely, Spencer says.

“The software was just over $1,500, and if I take into account all the hardware and training time, the whole changeover probably cost a total of about $25,000,” he says. “Put into perspective, that’s probably a couple of excavation jobs. The system probably paid for itself within the first couple months in found opportunities to sell excavation jobs alone.”

He’s now confident in making the last step toward taking advantage of the power of the Smart Service program: linking into Jim Dandy’s GPS system to tackle routing efficiencies.

This is accomplished through an add-on software module that can be purchased separately, but was embedded in the comprehensive package he originally bought. He’d known at purchase time he’d want to move to using it sooner rather than later, but didn’t want to jump into GPS implementation right off the bat.

“You need to task someone with managing, monitoring and routing it. That’s a significant investment in training and funding a new position. We didn’t want to bite it all off at one time.” He’s pleased with his decision to let his management and staff settle into a certain level of comfort with the whole concept and operation of the digital system first.

He also appreciates a significant benefit he hadn’t consciously anticipated when first deciding to go paperless.

“I was able to buy a second business based on the ability to get every single email sent to me in real time so I could make instant decisions — notice lost business opportunities, collect credit card payments on time — so no balls got dropped. That was a strong factor in convincing the bankers that giving me the loan to buy the second business was a good risk, even though the two business facilities are in separate states.”

Of course, every business is different, but Spencer’s story is a strong case for all progressive cleaners to consider what a move to a paperless enterprise might mean for their futures.


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