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Design Software: Taking Your Business on the Road

FREDERICK JERANT | Business Articles

“Don’t work harder - works smarter” really has become a cliche. But cliches usually contain at least a kernel of truth.

The truth is that the road to success can be paved by using tools that will save time and give you significant edges over your competition. And now you can combine these tools with portability and speed.

And when you do uncover new business, you’ll find that speedy responses to customers can be the difference between landing a job and losing one.

It used to be enough to meet with a client, go back to your office and return with your plans in 10 days . . . two weeks . . . or a month. But those days are long gone.

We’re all accustomed to getting what we want now—instant messaging, video-on-demand, and overnight deliveries. We really don’t want to sit and wait for anything. Spend too much time on a design or a proposal, and your efforts may be thwarted by a contractor who submitted a bid long before yours was ready.

“Even in today’s economic climate, there is work out there,” says Peter Lord, president of Drafix Software, Inc. “The difference is that it used to be fairly easy to find. Now you have to go out and uncover it.”

Customers’ financial situations can turn on a dime, too. A sudden job loss, serious illness, major car repairs and other situations can divert the money you might have earned . . . if you’d only obtained a contract sooner.

With today’s technology, delivering a proposal, design or work order from your portable office (your pickup truck) can be immediate.

Now, there’s software that can help you design projects in a prospect’s living room—with his or her direct input, produce highly detailed estimates in a flash, and even help drum up more business in a jobsite neighborhood.

Show them, don’t tell them

“The software program really enhances your communication with a customer,” Lord says. Instead of simply opening a catalog full of plant photos, designers can create a fairly accurate representation of the job; you won’t have to try to describe things, and the customer won’t have to try to imagine them.

And if you keep a printer in your truck, it’s easy to snap photos of nearby properties, enhance them with landscaping images, and then print small flyers to leave at the homes. The message? “Here’s what I can do to make your front yard look dazzling. Call me today for details.”

Chris Walter, owner of Computerized Landscape Design, Kansas City, Missouri, has used technology to improve his business “long before Macs had hard drives,” he says.

By bringing his laptop to the customer, Walter gets them involved in the design process. “I can show them a picture of their actual house, with no plants,” he says. “Then, with a couple of clicks, I can add various plants and show them how my design will look. It’s a lot better than using a CAD drawing.”

Walter also uses the software to automatically count every plant used in the design, match it with preloaded prices, and generate proposals on-the-spot. “Most guys need at least several days to do that,” he beams. “Not me!”

Keeping track of time

“Attendance is among the top three—if not the number one—cost center, and it’s one that contractors feel they have the least control over,” says Scott Prewett, vice president of technical services for Exaktime, Inc.

There are a couple of simple ways to accurately track time in the field, and feed it into an accounting program with no manual entries required.

The JobClock System is a portable, battery-operated time-clock that’s securely attached at a given jobsite. Every crew member is given a pair of key tabs, with a key code that’s uniquely theirs. Simply swipe one tab to clock in, the other to clock out.

With JobClock, employees must be onsite to punch in or out. And because each set of key tabs is personalized, no one can punch in for anyone else. It also eliminates the “fudge factor.” Workers who are late for a job can’t cover their tracks.

They’re often used for longer-term projects, Prewitt says. “The unit has an IR transmitter in it,” he adds, “so it’s easy for a supervisor to download a week’s worth of attendance records in just a few seconds, using a PDA. You can then transmit the data from the jobsite directly to an office computer.”

“Previously, we had paper timesheets that told us nothing more than ‘In at 7, out at noon.’ We had no real way to document their accuracy, but now we have better control of time and attendance records,” says Jane Matthews, controller for SHC Nursery and Landscape Company, Eagle, Colorado.

Keeping up with the technology, the company introduced Pocket- Clock/GPS. This software can turn a smartphone or PDA into a mobile time clock. Each employee gets a personalized PIN code for entering time data, as well as any of hundreds of cost codes. It’s easy to track not just the time spent on the job, but also how the time was spent – pruning, mulching, seeding, watering and so on. And if the device has a GPS receiver, the software will also record its coordinates, confirming that data was actually entered at a jobsite.

The job-code capability is a real benefit to SHC, she says. Because it logs the amount of time spent on a given activity, it’s easy to present detailed, itemized bills to her customers. In addition, it helps document travel time. “We can look at those records and determine how efficient our routes are, and rearrange them if necessary,” Matthews says. In addition, it includes special tools (accessible by management only), and a built-in English/Spanish data translator. She uses both products.

Altogether, both products have saved SHC about $100,000 per season (on sales of about $1.4 million).

“Our accurate records have also helped us save on taxes, and reduced our Workman’s Compensation costs substantially. In addition, there’s no more manual entry of time records. We were actually able to reduce the size of our office staff because of that,” Matthews concludes.

Michael O’Connell, owner of O’Connell Landscape, Novato, California, echoes Matthews’ remarks about PocketClock, and reports other benefits.

“It’s very easy to use,” O’Connell says, “and you don’t need a lot of computer knowledge to work with it. Also, once each week, we transfer all data to our computer system, and produce detailed time reports for our employees to review, make any necessary corrections, and then sign them.”

He still finds instances of under reporting or other errors, but adds that the information ultimately helps workers improve their performance.

O’Connell reports that the program has slashed his bookkeeping costs by 50 to 75 percent. “Because PocketClock integrates so well with our QuickBooks software, there’s an almost seamless transition from collecting time data to processing it through accounting to issuing checks,” he says.

Quick designs at low cost

Software Republic offers Pro Contractor Studio, a program based on its popular RainCAD software. “RainCAD ran on top of other CAD programs,” says company president John DeCell. “This one is truly our own.”

He adds that many of his customers design right in the truck after using lasers to determine points on corners and other hardscape items.

It costs just $30 for a 30-day subscription (230- and 365-day subscriptions are also available), and allows you to design irrigation systems, including schedules, and landscapes. Accent lighting capability will be added soon.

“The 30-day subscription can be a real money-saver,” DeCell says.

“Especially if you have long periods of downtime. When you get busy again, another 30 bucks will have you up and running.”

Bill Single owns Irrigation Design Company in Lyman, Maine, and uses Pro Contractor Studio for landscaping, irrigation, mowing and fertilizing jobs.

Although he often relies on Google Earth and other sources for digital property images, he still needs to visit jobsites because “plot plans and jobsites don’t always match. It’s good to visit the property and re-check measurements.”

Single says he can create a design on his laptop while sitting in the customer’s driveway. Because he produces large-format plans, printing is usually done at his office, but all the details come from the software program. He says it’s been a tremendous timesaver. “In an hour or two, I can get what I need for the job; if I was doing it by hand, it would normally take more than a day to do it.”

Finally, just to illustrate how quickly technology is changing for landscape and irrigation designers/installers, consider what has transpired in the irrigation sector.

The newest irrigation controllers can make your life a lot easier. A web-based irrigation control system enables you to use any Internet-capable device—smartphone, PDA, laptop with a broadband card—to communicate with virtually any clock in the U.S. for programming, alarm resets, troubleshooting, and more.

“If you’re not using the latest technology, it’s complicated,” says Steve Springer, senior marketing manager for Rain Master Irrigation Systems, a division of Irritrol. “What happens when you’re on the road and one or more of your systems triggers an alarm? Or a pending weather emergency requires a complete system shutdown? You drop everything so you can get back to the office, or make a visit to the problem site yourself. And while you’re en route, the problem isn’t getting any better.”

Web-based controllers afford you the opportunity to use your smartphone to turn a system on and off, adjust time settings within the system, adjust moisture sensors and flow thresholds, enter run times, add new parameters to the system . . . everything you would otherwise need a computer to do.

“You won’t be at the mercy of sudden weather changes anymore, either,” says Springer. “The iCentral web-based system will automatically send weather information to each controller every day; and you can initiate a “rain shutdown” whenever its needed.

“That last feature alone can save significant money,” he says. To illustrate, consider a company with six homeowners’ associations as clients, and each association has 12 controllers. Then a sudden, drenching rain storm is predicted. In the old days, you would’ve had to send a truck around to each of those 72 controllers to manually shut them down (plus a return trip after the storm passed, to turn them back on).

But these new controllers let you log in just about anywhere—even in a cyber-cafe—and shut down all 72 controllers with a single mouse click.

It won’t be long before almost everything you do in the office, you’ll be able to do from the cab of your pickup truck. With all this portability, you can truly take your business on the road.

 
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