You have a chance to do three $5,000 jobs in a nearby housing complex but it would mean turning down one $25,000 job across town. There's no time for precise calculation of expected profits, but the $25,000 job must be a better option, right?
A foreman calls in. The crew is lost on the way to a job and needs directions. Someone keyed in the wrong address on the schedule. It says 134 Pinewood Way. The customer lives on Pinewood Drive -- twenty minutes away.
Your desk is littered with little yellow sticky notes. You're looking at three spreadsheets from two different computer programs and none of them is the one you actually need right now. You're working on a proposal that you said you'd email to a client a half hour ago. You know that email address is on your desk somewhere.For many green industry service providers, at least some of these situations are all too familiar. Data entry errors, inaccurate labor tracking, poor contact management, and a guesstimating approach to decision-making are common realities.
For some companies, these situations aren't simply little time-wasting nuisances. These 'little' problems can cost a company big dollars over time . . . thousands of dollars.
To curb these problems, it's time to get with the program -- the computer program, that is.
New specialized software and computerized systems are available to help green industry business owners manage their companies more efficiently and much more profitably.
"Contractors are working with so many processes at once," says Jeff Morris, product specialist for Dynascape, makers of several software products for the landscaping industry. "There are many steps involved in each job and most are using different methods for each step. If they can use one system, it saves time, is more accurate, and allows for much better analysis."
Computerization can prevent the stagnation that occurs in a company when leaders simply don't have time to manage. "One of the biggest problems contractors face is they don't have the right systems in place to run their businesses," says David Mathias, vice president of sales and support for Sensible Software, Inc., makers of CLIP software. "Many of their 'systems' are in their heads."
The problem with this is that the contractor becomes the sole knowledge base for the company. "He or she is the 'go-to' person for everything that happens in their company," says Mathias. "While from a control standpoint this is great, it doesn't allow the business owner or manager the time they need to grow their business."
If you want more time to grow your business, if you want to trim lost dollars, streamline systems and get rid of redundant, error-prone data entry, it's probably time to automate and integrate.
There are many reasons contractors are turning to computers for management help. The need to do more with fewer people is one of the biggest. This was the case for Bruce Birdsong, president of Dallas-based Precision Landscape Management. His company purchased Asset, an integrated management system, from Include Software. The goal was not to reduce staff but to enable current employees to do more with what they had.
"We looked for ways to use the same people but to allow them to learn other things," says Birdsong. "We've been able to use the same number of office staff even though revenue has doubled."
This is because the new software streamlined multiple processes into one system.
"We were handling job-costing in one program and payroll in multiple programs," says Birdsong.
"Out-of-box generic products did not work well. We had to use multiple systems to force integration and still didn't have time reports, true job costs, or payroll. We couldn't go from proposal to invoice without multiple entries."
The ability to manage all facets of company operations with one program is the major selling point of integrated management software like Asset. The software includes modules for estimating, sales tracking, scheduling and routing, customer service, profitability analysis, and administrative tasks like billing and payroll. "With one application, you can do everything you need to run your business," says Nanette Seven of Include.
This single system approach means there's no reinventing the wheel and no need to learn new applications for every task. "When you can define one system within your organization, you can replicate your processes and maximize your efficiencies," says Seven. "You are not dealing with a learning curve every time."
Paul Jackson, of Alocet Inc., makers of QXpress software, points out that the need for efficiency becomes much greater when there are many smaller repetitive services performed each day. "The more services that are performed, the more office time to process the paperwork, and the higher the chance of something falling through the cracks," says Jackson.
QXpress is a specialized program designed for contractors who are already using QuickBooks for accounting. The software integrates with QuickBooks and adds scheduling, job costing, batch invoicing, and contact management.
"Software is just like any other tool a contractor invests in for their business," says Jackson. "Contractors are able to manually keep track of schedules, job cost information, and create invoices -- but when tools exist to make the same process much faster, it just makes good business sense to be efficient."
Efficiency was the motivating factor for W.D. Wells and Associates when the company purchased software from Dynascape. "We were looking for two things," says William H. Wells. "We wanted a computer-aided design program along with a program to help us do our estimating work. Dynascape brought these two things together."
The company purchased both software programs in order to take projects from first contact through design, proposal, and project completion with one system. Wells says the system saves them time and money in many aspects of the business, especially in the area of estimates.
"Estimates are extremely time consuming and have a lot of potential for error," says Wells. "As projects become more elaborate and include so many more components, you have to be able to draw all of those things together to create an accurate estimate. This is a huge time saver. You're not looking through a series of folders for your information. You have everything right there."
Some systems offer complete web access, GPS compatibility, and communication options for staying in touch with crews in the field. Envista's E-Landscape software is one of them. It was developed by practicing landscapers to streamline their own business.
"For so long, standard operations were based on Excel spreadsheets or even white boards up on the wall," says Emily Osterberg, account manager for Envista. "Now you can have all of your information in one location. It helps you to quickly see your efficiencies, customer service, sales quotas, even customer surveys. It's completely web-based so you can work with it anywhere as long as you have web access."
Accuracy is another major benefit of computerization. Using multiple programs for different processes is not only inefficient, it can also lead to costly errors as important information gets lost in the data entry zone.
One area where lack of accuracy becomes a huge drain on a company is in labor and attendance reporting. Portable, computer-integrated time clocks can help. These are especially well suited for green industry service companies whose crews are constantly on the move.
"Many businesses have attendance challenges when the work they do is all over town," says Scott Prewett, chief technology officer for Exaktime, makers of PocketClock. "This is a serious issue because labor is the largest business expense for many of these companies."
As Prewett points out, most companies are still recording attendance the way they did fifty years ago, through time sheets. This method can lead to inaccuracies on many levels.
"It's not a matter of honesty or employee integrity," says Prewett. "It's more a matter of memory. Time sheets are often filled out just before they're turned in. It's nearly impossible to accurately remember when you came and went all week. PocketClock takes it out of memory and puts it into something trackable."
With PocketClock, employees who visit multiple jobsites 'touch in' using a portable unit that travels with them. They 'touch out' at the end of the day. The clock also records travel time between sites. Employees can either clock in individually or a foreman can do it for his crew. The system can also record various cost codes for each job to allow for more accurate bidding and job costing. With the system's AccountLinx program, attendance data can be exported directly into standard accounting or payroll software. No one has to key in attendance data by hand, and no one has to decipher the handwriting of workers who fill out time sheets on the fly after a long day in the field.
The accuracy of a mobile, computerized time clock system can add up to huge savings. "What many employers don't realize is that if an employee is being paid even ten minutes of extra labor costs per day, that adds up to over a week per year," says Prewett. "That's like a week of paid vacation. If you're going to give them an extra week of paid vacation, make it official and get recognized for it."
Perhaps the greatest benefit of using computers to help with management is that many programs allow for easier reporting, analysis, and evaluation. Where are you making money? Where are you losing money? Which jobs will net more profits? These are just a few of the questions that specialized software can quickly answer. Ready access to this information leads to thoughtful planning, better decision making, and strategic growth.
"Proper systems in place will allow contractors to track their progress and produce reports that help them evaluate their company," says Mathias. "They can then make modifications to their pricing and/or structures for increased profitability. For example, CLIP allows the contractor to produce evaluation reports to determine if their bid/proposal was profitable. If not, they can determine why it wasn't and make changes to future bids to allow for profitability."
Operating without the right information can be dangerous. "We've had numerous clients tell us that they never knew they weren't making money on a job," says Osterberg. "We helped show them where they weren't making money and how to improve that."
Morris notes that many contractors make the mistake of taking on jobs without knowing their expected profit. "Sometimes they take a job that won't result in as big a profit and skip another more profitable one because it looks smaller," he says. "With our program, you know your exact costs. You can make a much more educated, more confident decision about each job. You can take those jobs that you know will make you money."
There are many landscape management software systems available, and the one you choose will depend on your current processes and the solutions you're looking for. "Do your research," says Seven. "Look at how your company is currently operating. Map out the organizational flows. If your company has been successful, don't look for a program that changes the way your system flows but one that enhances it, streamlines it, and makes it better."