An advanced service-management system can affect every aspect of a company. A key to the system's success is its flexibility.

Service-management programs with a graphical dispatch board help dispatchers manage their activities by displaying a visual picture of scheduled service and appointments. Image courtesy of WennSoft Inc.
Few business owners can say they are truly operating at peak efficiency. Revenues may be strong and overhead may be relatively low, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways in which businesses can be run better and improve their bottom lines. It may mean reducing the number of employees or finding ways to increase their productivity.

In a service-based industry such as HVAC, many companies increase efficiency by using a service-management system. These software packages help in dispatching technicians, tracking their productivity and provide a way to more quickly bill customers.

An advanced service-management system can affect every aspect of a company. A key to the system's success is its ability to work with the company's financial information. Tim Culliton, president and general manager of Culliton Bros. Ltd., a mechanical, sheet metal, electrical and HVAC contractor in Stratford, Ontario, purchased a WennSoft service-management system for his organization.

"The service-management system gives us the ability to see every aspect of a business transaction," Culliton said. "Essentially, our entire business is integrated on the same platform. Everything from when the call is created, to looking at a customer's history, to assessing the importance of a call to billing-back the customer. Everything is tied together and available in real time. We feel we've paid for our system just on the time we save by not hunting for information. We're not sending invoices with one-third of the information missing. We're able to get a complete look at an individual service call or our entire business by querying data on-screen or generating a report that takes seconds to create."

If you're wondering if your company needs service-management software, here are some things to consider and advantages a system may offer.

Determine the ratio of field workers to office staff

If the number of people in the field vs. the number of people in the office is less than 5-to-1, a service-based organization is running too much overhead. This may mean additional service technicians can be added by creating a more efficient dispatching system or the number of technicians can be reduced

Learn your revenue per technician

Something else to consider in evaluating the need for service-management software is the company's overall revenue per field technician. In the HVAC industry, many companies generate approximately $125,000 in revenue per service technician. This formula does not count nonrevenue-producing positions, such as those that are responsible for dispatching, billing, managing contracts and many of the other tasks that support the field-service team. But if total revenue, divided by the total number of field technicians, does not exceed $125,000, there may be an opportunity to improve efficiency that will ultimately increase revenues, reduce overhead, or both.

Some service-management programs allow field technicians to access or submit job information from a hand-held device. The screen display can provide information such as a client's address and the type of equipment they have on site. Image courtesy of WennSoft Inc.

Consider your dispatcher

The number of service calls that a dispatcher is responsible for in a given day is also an important factor to consider. In residential HVAC service, which can require technicians to service between seven and nine calls per day, 10 to 12 technicians can overload a single dispatcher using a manual scheduling system. In commercial HVAC service, which will often dispatch less calls per technician, 12 to 15 technicians is a significant number to track through a manual dispatching system.

If an organization currently uses manual dispatching, they should consider the number of calls the dispatcher is handling each day and the number of technicians they are monitoring. Switching to an automated dispatching system ensures that all calls are appropriately assigned.

For the DiPietro Plumbing Services, a Northbrook, Ill.-based residential service company that uses the WennSoft Service Management Series, the increased efficiency in the dispatching process was noticeable.

"What we found was all the manual steps of creating a work order was now done on the initial call," said Kevin Breen, CFO of the Keystone Co., the parent organization of DiePietro Plumbing Services. "Everything from getting acquainted with a new customer to learning what the problem is can all be done on that initial call and when you get off the phone, you have everything you need to dispatch the job. The process makes the dispatchers much more efficient throughout the process."

Tracking customers

For any organization that wants to improve its customer service, service-management software can provide the resources and data to make it happen. Important information about a particular company including its address, the type of equipment they have on site, their service history, key contacts, billing preferences and other detailed notes about the customer can be logged into the service-management system. The information can also be printed on each work order.

This information can often also be accessed from the field via remote-access programs or wireless devices.

Increase maintenance-contract work

For companies that have (or would like to have) a significant percentage of their work come from maintenance contracts, a service-management system may help. It can help balance the number of service technicians that are needed for maintenance contracts throughout the year and reduce the need for layoffs or spot hiring. For example, rather than scheduling all routine maintenance at the same time during the year, the software can prompt the dispatcher to assign non-date-specific maintenance work orders during slow periods or to technicians who have time available on their schedules.

"Our service-management system has allowed us to do more maintenance even with the same number of administrative people," said Culliton. "It's taken the process of setting up the contracts, developing inspection lists, creating renewals, and everything else associated with creating new maintenance contracts and made it very straightforward. Before the service-management system, there was no way we could have ever dreamed of increasing our maintenance contracts by 25 percent, simply because of the administrative work that was required. Now we're able to take on those contracts and grow that area of the business with our existing administrative team."

Eliminating redundancy

which then must be entered into the company's system for billing, payroll and service-history records. By using a service-management system, companies are able to eliminate the redundant task of re-entering the information and reduce errors or omissions that can occur during data entry.

Money matters

Another key area to consider is accounts receivable. Because most service-management software links scheduling, dispatching, call resolution and billing, the process of billing a customer for completed work can be significantly improved compared to manual billing. With an automated system, invoices can often be generated and mailed hours after a call has been completed, rather than days or even weeks. In addition to expediting payment, faster invoicing can reduce the number of bill disputes, increasing revenues and improving the bottom line.

"It used to take us weeks to get an invoice out the door, and it now takes days," Culliton said. "While we used to wait for our suppliers to bill us so we could bill the customer, we can now capture that information from a purchase order. Our labor is already tracked in the service-management system, so we're able to get the invoice out right away. Everything is integrated in the system on one platform, so when you invoice you know you've covered everything and it's accurate. That's reassuring for us."

Collection of past billings is also enhanced by software that works with accounting. For example, when dispatchers get a call for a customer with a past-due invoice, the system alerts them to the past-due status and prompts them to collect the amount when technicians arrive or they can't schedule the call until the old invoice is paid. Collecting past-due amounts while the customer needs additional service is the easiest and least time-consuming collections process. While dispatchers typically don't like making collection calls, this process allows them to do it as part of serving customers.

Reporting capabilities

Companies that need to provide customers with detailed work-history reports may also benefit from service-management software. Often those that use such systems will provide customers with a service-history report at the end of the year. The report can be used to show energy savings, promptness and other factors that demonstrate a company's worth. These reports allow the customers to see and understand the work that is being done throughout the year, which can improve customer relationships.

Some service-management software takes the concept of customer reporting a step further, providing customers with online access to their service history. Through a customer "portal," these systems will allow those customers to view call status, equipment histories, contract details and project updates. Customers can also submit service requests and view past or present project information, diagrams, drawings and manuals online.

Understanding business

Perhaps the company that could most benefit from service-management software is one that seeks to better understand its own business. As a company plans its future, it is important that they first have a solid understanding of their existing operation. Advanced systems allow company officials to see what areas hold the greatest potential for growth.

"(Our) system has given us the ability to accurately analyze the overall cost of our service calls," said Keystone Co.'s Breen. "We can look closely at how profitable a job is or how a particular technician is performing. It's really given us the ability to look closer at the success of our team."

(Jim Wenninger is president and co-founder of WennSoft Inc., a New Berlin, Wis.-based manufacturer of software for the construction industry.)