Many busy entrepreneurs get so caught up in day-to-day operations that they sometimes overlook tools that could make running their business a lot easier. Integrated business management software is one of these tools. There are several software packages on the market today designed specifically for managing green industry companies. These programs can help with a multitude of functions like tracking leads, creating estimates and proposals, budgeting, purchasing, scheduling, invoicing and payroll.

Software that’s well-suited to a company can save hours of repetitive data entry while eliminating costly errors. It can help streamline routing to reduce labor and fuel costs. It can ensure accurate and timely invoicing, and help present a more professional image to clients. Some programs include powerful business analysis tools that allow owners to clearly see where they’re making money and where they’re losing it. Green industry-specific software is available at various price points for every level of business—from the one-person operation to the company of 200 employees on up. No matter what stage your business is at, quality management software can help take it to the next level.

Taking care of business

Contractors typically keep track of their business in one of three ways. Some still do it the old way, with a pen and a notebook. Many use a computer, but rely on different programs for different tasks. For example, they may use a generic accounting program for their bookkeeping, a database program to track clients, and another program for scheduling. While this may be an improvement from the longhand method, it still involves multiple data entry steps. Each step not only takes time, it opens the door to error and inconsistency.

As Nanette Seven of Include Software, Glen Burnie, Maryland, notes, many data entry events go into one completed project. Without integrated software, data has to be entered into different programs from the initial inquiry to the estimate, to the proposal, to the scheduling system, invoicing and more.

“When you have disjointed applications such as this, the amount of labor it takes to process a project may triple,” says Seven. “And when you do all of those functions . . . we’re all human and we all make mistakes.” Integrated management software rolls all of the tasks and information needed to run a business into one streamlined program. Data on clients, pricing, employees, and more is typically entered only once and can then be used repeatedly for multiple functions. Generic management programs are an option, but using software specifically designed for the green industry means you’ll spend less time re-inventing the wheel.

“It’s best to use software from a provider that understands your service versus a generic product that you have to finagle to make work the way you want it to,” says Chris Sullens, president and CEO of EverGreen Software,Wall Township, New Jersey. “The nice thing about this is that it’s specifically designed around the needs of companies that have to route and schedule technicians.” The efficient routing and scheduling that’s possible with specialized software means the company can spend fewer labor hours on the road with less fuel and less effort.

“You’re not sitting there trying to figure out where you have to go next,” says Dave May, marketing manager for Adkad Technologies, Delonson, New York. “A lot of guys do a job, then drive twenty miles down the road and realize they were supposed to do another job in between. They just wasted drive time and fuel. After what we went through last summer with $5 per gallon for diesel, you don’t want to make those mistakes.” Specialized software can also make it easy to tailor pricing for different customers and services. “There are great generic accounting products available, but most of them aren’t designed specifically for this industry and there are some inherent problems with that,” says May. “For example, you may have a different price under the same service name for different customers. Industry-specific software allows you to differentiate.”

Shopping around

When shopping for software, it’s best to start with a good look at your company and its needs. What do you need your software to do for you now and in the next few years? Some products offer complete solutions that eliminate the need for any additional software. They include numerous tools for analyzing profitability and the overall health of the business. EverGreen has a fully web-based product allowing customers to run their business from any place that has access to the Internet. It also offers email service, marketing resources and website creation. “These enhancements help contractors do what they do best,” says Sullens. “They can simplify their life and focus more on delivering service to their customers.”

Small and thriving

While some contractors may think they are too small to justify the purchase of dedicated software, these are often the ones who need it most. Without staff to handle it, administrative tasks often get less attention and become error prone, especially during busy months. Think of software as the staff you wish you had. “These are products that can help contractors grow their business and make fewer mistakes,” says May. “There are guys out there who try to keep it all in their head. What if they forget? You’re not going to get any money for the place you forgot.”

Fred Wolf, owner of Wolf’s Lawn Care, LLC, a small company in Hammond, Louisiana, has been in business for himself for several years but only recently purchased management software from Adkad Technologies. Wolf started using the software in January and currently uses it for payroll, scheduling, billing, and tracking business expenses. He’s continuing to implement the software’s other functions as he learns them. “I’m not yet using it to its full capacity but already it’s been extremely helpful, especially for billing and scheduling,” says Wolf.

“When it comes to billing, what used to take me many hours now takes just a few minutes. If I used it only for billing, it would pay for itself. I don’t know how I did it before.” Wolf admits that poor record keeping probably cost him money in the past. “It was just so time consuming before,” he says. “Honestly, I felt like sometimes I may have cheated myself when I wasn’t sure.” That scenario isn’t unusual for a small and busy company.

Now Wolf enters a client’s schedule once for the whole year. “Once all of this is keyed in, each day I can print out my schedule and the software keeps complete track of everything.

All of the prices are in too, so after you’ve completed the day, you just click and it’s all there when you print the bills.”

Growing pains

Companies that have experienced rapid growth often find themselves with a computer system they’ve patched together over the years.

The do-it-yourself spreadsheets may function for awhile but they eventually fall short. “What we find is that when companies get to a certain threshold of maybe 2.5 to 3 million dollars, they might be managing with these disjointed programs but they’re not really tracking costs,” says Seven. “They can’t. They have to take all of that accounting, purchasing, and production information and put it into another spreadsheet to figure out if they made any money on the project. In April, do you think anyone has time to do that?”

The ability to track costs effectively has been one of the biggest benefits for Tim Lake after his company, T. Lake Environmental Design, Dublin, Georgia, implemented Include Software’s Asset program. “The software enabled us to do real-time job costing,” says Lake, president. “We can extract tons of reports. We can get efficiency by crew and by division. We can look at performance-to-budget by crew or division. We can incentivize crew and leaders by their job and by their performance. Performance pay is a critical element here. Asset has given us the measurements we need to do that.” Lake decided to purchase Asset software when it became apparent that they had outgrown their accounting program. “We were using multiple spreadsheets to do the things it couldn’t do.

There were too many disparate parts to the system. This has made the flow of information incredibly smooth.” “We can build mailing lists and email campaigns from the software. The moment a call comes in, the receptionist can log it in and it can be assigned to a specific salesperson or put in a general lead area. When there’s a dispute, we have a record of that. We have a log of every communication. If there’s a service request or something simple, our receptionist can build a work order and send that to production.

All this can happen with one phone call.” Schultz Industries, Golden, Colorado, has been in business since 1988. After moving into the commercial market in the ‘90s, the company experienced rapid growth that was difficult to manage. They purchased Asset to help curb administrative costs. “From 1998 to 2005, we exploded,” says Josh Schultz, general manager. “The best thing we could do at that time was throw human capital at it. We were spending way too much on paper-pushing and had several administrators who were just doing data entry. It cost us a lot of money before we made this switch, because we kept throwing more administrators into the mix.”

After the company implemented Asset, they were able to eliminate several data-entry positions. “It centralized all of the information in the entire company and reduced a lot of fixed overhead,” says Schultz. Crews at Schultz all use PDAs to receive and log data which is then downloaded into the system. “Managers can easily review the information and see where those crews were during the day and what they were doing,” says Schultz. “In the past, data-entry people, who had no real responsibility, were the ones seeing those numbers. This has put the review of the information back into the control of the managers.”

Sizing up software

Choosing software that’s sized correctly to the company is important. “Make sure you have software that can do more than what you’re currently doing in revenue so you’re ready for growth,” says Schultz. But don’t overcompensate, cautions Lake. “If you get a package that exceeds the capacity of your staff, you’ll get in trouble, and if you get one that’s too simple you’ll outgrow it very quickly. Start simple but plan for growth. Until you pass the million-and-a-half mark, you probably don’t need top-shelf software, but once you’ve passed that mark you have to have it.” Product demos, interviews with other companies, and even traveling to similar businesses to observe how they use the software are all important ways to make sure a package is a good investment. Ease of use and customer support should be critical components of your evaluation.

“You want a solution that’s powerful enough and offers the full range of services you need and a company that has a strong organization and customer service focus,” says Sullens. “You want a product that’s flexible enough to accommodate the different ways people work but one simple enough to pick up and use.”

It’s ready

If you’re still spinning your wheels trying to create a computer system that works for your business, know this: there’s already one out there. You just need to take a break from your homemade spreadsheets and handwritten invoices long enough to go get it.