AT ONE POINT, THERE WERE MORE THAN 40,000 PAPER ROUTE CARDS covering one of the walls at Swingle Lawn, Tree & Landscape Care in Denver, Colorado. “Needless to say, it was an inefficient process that was killing us and resulting in mistakes for our clients,” recalls John Gibson, director of operations. To put an end to the logistical nightmare, the company decided to write its own software to automate the manual system.

For about 10 years, that software worked. But by the time the spring of 2006 rolled around, it was clear that the system wouldn’t be able to support the company’s tripled growth. It was also risky to continue because their technical support had dwindled to almost nothing, and the business was dependent on the expertise of one staff member. Should she leave, they feared a meltdown of their operations.

If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation similar to Swingle’s, swamped in paper or stuck in processes that don’t accommodate your growing company, consider streamlining your operations by automating your routing and scheduling. Scheduling is now an important component of the business management software from many manufacturers. With this feature, jobs that are geographically close can be scheduled to follow one another, minimizing the time spent in transit. No more time lost to a bad set of directions. No more crews accomplishing only three jobs in a day when a more efficient route could allow four.

By some estimates, up to five hours per day can be saved by better planned scheduling. This saves more than just time, however. Less time spent driving also means less gas and wear and tear on the vehicle. Imagine opening up a screen that will allow you to view all of your active clients’ addresses. You see which are located within the same area and select those jobs that are closest to each other and need to be completed on the same day. To the right of the screen, a map shows the proximity of the jobsites to each other and to the office. If you’re loyal to a particular mapping service such as MapQuest, Google Maps or Yahoo Maps, most software will accommodate your mapping preferences.

Your crew information is also readily available at your fingertips. Recognizing that landscape contractors often manage several specialized crews, software manufacturers offer the capability to enter information about each crew that can be updated as necessary. For each crew, you can input information about what services that crew provides and what areas it serves. You can also view any crew’s routing history.

All you have to do is point and click to create a schedule. When you’re ready to print out directions, all it takes is another click of the mouse. Just like that, your crews have optimized, predetermined routes that will cut down on unnecessary truck time. And, in most cases, work orders and/or reports can be printed out at the same time. The scheduling function can even go one step further and allow you to send job information to your payroll and billing records once you close out a job. “You don’t have to recreate the wheel every time,” assures Dave May, marketing manager for Adkad Technologies in Delanson, New York.

Most software programs allow for great flexibility in scheduling. If you’re trying to plan ahead, you can view your schedules by day, week or even month. Contractors can put recurring tasks into the system once, and the tasks will always appear on the schedule. Last-minute changes aren’t a problem, either. “It’s extremely helpful if the program allows you to edit a day’s work without permanently altering the schedule,” says Eric Storck, president of Blade Runners, Inc., in Fairfax, Virginia.

“If crew #1 always does bush trimming three times a year, but on one day you want crew #2 to do it instead, you should be able to make the change without permanently adding bush trimming to crew #2’s schedule. Otherwise, it gets messy when you try to move tasks around. It also helps if you can dissect your schedule so that multiple users can work with the program at once.” An added option of including notes with schedules simplifies the whole process.

10.jpgAs noted, one of the key benefits of software is the time savings. Digitizing your records can cut down on precious minutes. Most software is set up so that once a client’s information is entered into the system, it is linked to other areas such as scheduling and estimating, so that you do not need to reenter the information each time. This also minimizes the potential for error in data entry. Storck says, “A seamless transfer of information from one application to the next with no double entry is huge in terms of efficiency and accuracy.”

Chris Sullens, chief financial officer for EverGreen Software in Wall Township, New Jersey, adds, “A package can act as the central repository for your client information. It can connect you to your customers, simplify office tasks and deliver business efficiency.”

Bruce Birdsong, president of Precision Landscape Management in Dallas, Texas, agrees. He says, “I would recommend that companies look at software that not only handles their routing and scheduling, but has integration of accounting, job costing, payroll, estimating and all other job functions. Simplifying computer systems in our office has made our job of running the business easier and more profitable. We have been able to increase the responsibilities of our office personnel, since they are no longer inputting data for time cards and job costing.

Include Software in Glen Burnie, Maryland, takes the concept of streamlining data entry one step further. Using a Smartphone, call information is dispatched directly into the schedule. “When a call comes in, the system logs who took the call and the nature of the call,” explains Nanette Seven, senior account executive. “You can also include notes and enter a service rate or one-time rate. A work order is logged and put into the schedule and into billing.”

Some software is designed to be compatible with familiar programs such as QuickBooks. Contractors and business owners who already use QuickBooks for accounting and payroll may find that this kind of program is easier to use right out of the box. At the end of the day, there’s even software designed to help you keep track of which jobs have been completed.

At least two manufacturers offer wand-like devices that allow you to mark off jobs quickly, rather than having to toggle back and forth between route sheets and a computer screen.

Get with the program

Software designed to make you a more efficient business owner can also help you keep track of your maintenance intervals, so that preventable breakdowns are a thing of the past. The more equipment in your fleet, the more business you’re probably doing. However, it also means that you have more to keep track of. As you know, equipment is one of your biggest expenses, so staying on top of maintenance becomes imperative.

Computer management maintenance software (CMMS) will track all of your vehicles and equipment, notifying you when any one of them is scheduled for maintenance. Mower needs a belt replaced? Mini skid steer needs a filter changed? The software will notify you. It also logs all of the past maintenance, scheduled or unscheduled, so that if you need to figure out why the F- 350’s brake fluid is constantly low, you’ll have all of the data on hand.

Good CMMS can even retain serial numbers, model numbers, purchase dates and warranty information. This is especially helpful if you have several models of the same piece of equipment. One Internet-based CMMS also tracks fuel usage, tire wear and vehicle and drivers’ license information. Other CMMS features can include information about damage done by a crew. Accidents happen, but holding your crews responsible for them will encourage accountability all around. Too often, employees inadvertently break equipment but don’t say anything for fear of retribution. With CMMS, each machine is assigned to a crew. Users check the equipment in and out so that you know who has it at all times.

Beyond the computer

Almost everywhere you look these days, software has leapt beyond the confines of the computer screen and onto handheld devices such as PDAs, cell phones, GPS systems and BlackBerrys. If you’re a fan of wireless options, you’ll be glad to know that routing and scheduling software can interface with these platforms. The advantage of going wireless is that you’re not tethered to your office chair all day. While you’re visiting jobsites and checking up on your crews, you can also be planning tomorrow’s schedule and tracking equipment repairs. This makes you much more efficient. It also gives your crews some flexibility in their comings and goings, while still holding them accountable.

“A handheld unit eliminates the paper trail,” Seven says. “You can send information to the crews in the field and also receive information from them. We’re also working on implementing GPS capabilities so that our users can track their crews and know exactly where they are at all times.” Via similar handheld devices from other manufacturers, this use of GPS technology is already in effect, allowing you to better track your crews’ movements. The ability to keep track of your crews’ activities down to the minute will, over time, allow you to see how much time is being spent where. Once you know more precisely how long each job takes, you can schedule more effectively in the future.

A handheld device can also provide more connectivity to the office and better customer service, as Sullens explains. “Through our handheld unit, people in the field have access to all of the information that the office will have. They’ll know what’s been done on a client’s property and what needs to be done. They can also receive pop-up alerts if there’s something special that the crew needs to know, such as being aware of a dog or if the customer has certain preferences. Once a job is completed and marked off on the handheld device, the office can track those changes.”

Similarly, CMMS can work with a handheld device to sidestep the time-consuming effort of logging maintenance data in Excel or in notebooks. Some software uses bar codes to accomplish this. Through a handheld device, a mechanic can view the work that needs to be done. Once the work has been completed, he or she inputs the information into a handheld device. The data is sent back to your office computer, and the records are automatically updated.

Getting started

If you have only a basic familiarity with most software, don’t feel excluded from joining the digital trend. Most manufacturers are aware that the green industry isn’t as tech heavy as other industries and have designed their programs with you, the end user, in mind. Several of them even started out in this industry, so they’re familiar with your needs. “We mimic the old methods of routing and scheduling in our software so that it’s easy to use,” explains May. The learning curve varies from person to person, of course. But most manufacturers offer some combination of training, an online tutorial to get you proficient as soon as possible and/or live continued support. If you’re still hesitant about making the switch to software, bear in mind that many manufacturers offer free downloads for a limited period of time.

After a year of researching its options, Swingle found software that would support their growth, offer strong technical support, eliminate their reliance on paper and support their date-driven scheduling process. The new system was implemented in the fall of 2007. Since then, they haven’t looked back. However, implementation took time. “We stayed pretty much on budget,” says Gibson. “But implementation took about 10 to 15% more time, energy and effort than anticipated. After all, we still had to run the business and then train 80 employees.”

Still, the consensus among green industry users seems to be that the effort is worth the investment. “I don’t know how a company can not use software and still be competitive. If you have employees and sell labor hours, you’ve got to keep track of that information,” says Storck. And if you’ve got 40,000 route cards fluttering around your office, chances are that you’ll agree.