You'd be surprised. An increasing number of landscape companies are turning to computers and specialized software programs to streamline their accounting practices, their design practices, or even their maintenance practices. And an increasing number of software companies are out to meet
that demand.

Naturally, using a computer for tasks you've been doing for years by hand can seem impersonal, and
even intimidating. Software companies know this, and have deliberately created programs that are as
simple and easy-to-use as possible. These are programs that have been designed with the user in mind, and more specifically, with the green industry user in mind.

Are you still unsure? Watch your teenage son or daughter catch on to a new video game in a matter of minutes, and you'll have some idea of how easy learning a software application can be. So sit back,
relax, and read up on the software that can give you even more time to sit back and relax.

4_2.jpgWho's counting?

Business management programs are. These programs manage your time and money better, while lessening the amount of paperwork cluttering up your desk. With a few clicks, you can print out a work order or contract with all the appropriate information already filled in. You can also reliably keep track of all of your accounting, including your billing and payrolls, quickly and accurately.

If you already use an accounting program like Quickbooks or Peachtree, and think you're satisfied with what you're getting out of it, think again. A software program specialized for the landscape industry can offer you benefits you never knew you were missing.

"These accounting programs assume you make widgets that sell for eight dollars apiece, so whenever you sell one, it charges your customer eight dollars," says Karen Cruisce of Adkad Technologies in Delanson, New York, maker of the business management program GroundsKeeper Pro.

"n landscape maintenance, you do the same job -- mowing a lawn -- but charge different amounts for it, depending on how big the lawn is," Cruisce continues. "Quickbooks has trouble with that concept." Specialized landscape software, however, expects it. Even better, the billing features of some programs can be maintained with as little as ten minutes of use a day.

If you're a dedicated Quickbooks user, you might consider getting an add-on like QXpress, by Alocet, Inc., of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. While Quickbooks handles only accounting and payroll, QXpress gives it the features many stand-alone business management programs have, such as job costing, invoicing, and scheduling.

Computerized scheduling features are a particular plus of many business management programs. This feature can schedule jobs that are close together geographically to also follow each other in your workers' schedules.

"You're optimizing routes so crews aren't spending their days driving back and forth across town," says John Ponte, director of marketing at Insight Direct of Boston, Massachusetts, maker of ServiceCEO. Cutting down on transportation times saves you money for gas, and gives your workers more time to spend working. Some companies have found they save up to five hours a day in transportation time, simply by having their computer schedule their day for them.

The Include Software Corporation of Glen Burnie, Maryland, has had enormous success working with green industry 'big guys' -- those companies doing upwards of an annual $50 million in business. Their Asset software gives you total business management with the click of a single icon -- not only does it replace Excel and Quickbooks, it replaces Outlook as well by including an e-mail feature. All of Include's clients are from the green industry, and they are now working on making their software available to smaller and mid-size companies as well.

If you're looking to be on the technological cutting edge, Sensible Software, Inc., of Ijamsville, Maryland, makes software called CLIP that has add-on modules to work with a variety of wireless gadgets, including cell phones, PDAs, and GPS systems. Employees can check in and out of jobs with the push of a cell phone button, giving you the ability to always know where they are and what they're doing.

3_3.jpgAll of this may sound a bit overwhelming and complicated. Switching to this kind of software program can certainly represent a total change in thinking. But most software companies are "dedicated to the success of our customers. We believe we're only as successful as they are," as Insight Direct's Ponte explains.

Many programs come standard with some type of tutorial system to help you learn the system in the first place and get up and running as soon as possible. Most also offer some sort of live tech support to help keep you up and running when you encounter a problem.

If it ain't broke . . .

Don't fix it. But consider using a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) to tell you when it was and when it may be again. A CMMS keeps track of all of your vehicle and equipment maintenance. If you have more than one model of the same piece of equipment, you know what a headache this can be. Which mower had its belts replaced? Which truck just got an oil change? When is the warranty up on the skid steer?

A CMMS can answer all of these questions and more. It keeps track of serial numbers, model numbers, purchase dates, and warranty information. Schedules show you when equipment needs maintenance, and also when it had an unexpected or one-time repair.

MowerMeter, of Ijamsville, Maryland, is a CMMS that even allows you to track the damages a certain vehicle or piece of equipment receives whenever it's assigned to a certain crew. This feature was designed to make crews more responsible for their equipment. Another benefit of MowerMeter is the fact that it was created by a landscape company specifically for the green industry.

Another CMMS, EZ Maintenance, made by the Link It Software Corporation of Santa Clarita, California, can produce bar codes to identify equipment by serial number. When you need to start a maintenance procedure, you simply 'swipe' the bar code.

Link It also makes a web-based CMMS, EZ Maintenance Web. You can log on from any computer in the world, and then schedule maintenance, download work orders, etc. You can even give passwords to your customers, who can then put in maintenance requests and track the status of those requests online, without needing to repeatedly call your company.

Stop killing time

Realizing how hard it can be to track time and attendance at various jobsites, especially with employees traveling from job to job, several companies now make time-tracking systems for mobile employees. These systems are meant to replace the written time cards used by many landscape firms.

Employees often find these handwritten time cards a hassle, and dont fill the cards out every day. Many don't fill them out until they're due at the end of the week. Problem being, by that time, they can't remember exactly when they started Monday or how long a lunch they took on Wednesday.

Employees like this aren't trying to be dishonest; they just honestly don't remember and have to estimate. Unfortunately, these estimations can end up making a huge difference in your payroll. Scott Prewitt, the VP of business development of Exaktime, Inc., in Woodland Hills, California, the maker of The Jobclock system, says, "The American Payroll Association found that if a company goes from a self-reported time card to an automated system, payroll is reduced five to nine percent in the first month."

Software manufacturers have created several different kinds of 'automated systems.' One example is the TimeScape system from Modeco Systems, LLC, of Jackson, Wisconsin, which gives every employee a hand-held scanner. Jobsites, tasks, materials, etc., are barcoded, allowing employees to scan in and out of jobs, scan exactly what tasks they performed, and even scan how much of various materials they used.

The scanners can then be collected, and the information stored inside can be downloaded into a computer and used in an accounting program. "Paperwork is almost completely eliminated, and you can reduce your overhead up to 10%," says Loren Olson, owner of Modeco Systems.

Any good time-tracking system is designed to be simple. "People from high school age to those in their seventies can use it," Olson says. This simplicity is particularly important in the green industry, where many companies have employees whose native language is not English.

Another example of a time-tracking software package is The Jobclock from Exaktime. Jobclock is a portable, battery-powered, weather- proof time clock. It can be padlocked at a jobsite, or can move with a crew inside of a truck. Employees carry red and green 'keytabs' to clock in and out, and The Jobclock stores the information until it is wirelessly downloaded into a Palm Pilot. The information is then transferred to a computer in the office for creating attendance reports.

The biggest concern many contractors have about switching to an automated time-tracking system is the response they'll get from their employees. It can feel like you're accusing your employees of being dishonest. But if you don't present it that way, they won't take it that way. An automated system has many benefits and should be presented as something you purchased to streamline your payroll process. Presented in this way, most employees are positive about the change, and even grateful for the way it eliminates the hassle of filling out time cards.

See it to believe it

Many customers just can't visualize the results when a landscape contractor tells them what he can do with their property. It's easy to get sidetracked by the price tag when you can't see how much better a $2,500 retaining wall might look as opposed to a retaining wall that cost $1,000. Contractors end up finding themselves in a price war, with many customers basing their buying decisions on price alone.

However, when a contractor can visually express to customers exactly what they'll be getting for the money by showing them a photograph or drawing of what the property is going to look like, the contractor no longer has to be the lowest bidder. The best way to get these design visualizations is to use specialized landscape design software with a photo-imaging tool. This tool allows you to manipulate an actual photograph of a client's home and insert plants, trees, and other features.

ProLandscape from Drafix Software, Inc., of Kansas City, Missouri, has a holiday lighting feature to help landscape contractors move into the holiday lighting design business during the slow winter season, in addition to its design program.

Visual Impact Imaging, Akron, Ohio, has a design program called Earthscapes that offers a plant selector. This feature automatically suggests plants from its database for your design, depending on soil type, color, etc.

John DeCell, president of Software Republic, LLP, in Houston, Texas, maker of Raincad, says that on average, it takes only 45 minutes to an hour to draft a property and do a design for it. When customers are given a photograph or drawing of the contractor's ultimate vision, the contractor can charge more, and still win the bid.

A good design program will come with a large database of plants and flowers for you to use in your design blueprints and photo-imaging. Most also have a computer-aided drafting (CAD) feature to help you draft blueprints of your designs, sometimes including sprinkler and irrigation system placement. An estimating component is also often built-in. This feature examines the plants and other materials you've used in your CAD design and generates a bid for you.

These programs sound very complex, but they're actually designed with simplicity in mind. In fact, many less-expensive, non-professional design programs are far more complicated. Tom Riccardi, owner of Visual Impact Imaging, says, "People try to buy a less expensive program from a retail outfit, and are surprised when it's difficult to use. It hurts the rest of us, because they think our professional programs will be even harder."

Don't let cheap imitators scare you away. Professional programs have been streamlined so that they make as much sense as possible in as little time as possible. In general, if you use them a couple of hours per day for a couple of weeks, you're up and running. The bottom line is that investing in some green industry-friendly software can help you save time and make money. And who knows -- now that you're a software expert, maybe the time you save by using your computer for your business will be time you spend with your kids, using your computer to play a new video game. Or at least time you spend with your kids, period.