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Using Software to Streamline Your Business

| Landscape

Even though you run a hands-on, labor-intensive company, you’ve probably already started computerizing your operations. First you took accounting online, then—hopefully—invested in a business management program. By this point in time, for everything else you’re still doing by hand, it’s safe to say there’s an app for that—or at least a software program.

Computer technology is putting almost everything online, and taking many paper-based processes with it. Here, we’ve scoped out some of the most exciting advancements in software for landscape professionals that we think are worth your time. Pretty soon, you may never have to manually measure a jobsite, guess what parts were used at a job, or decipher a worker’s barelylegible scrawl on a scrap of paper.

Timing is everything

A worker taking a long lunch or rounding up a time card may seem like chump change at the time, but for a small business, the costs can add up at the end of the month.

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how much time your employees spend working, versus how much you’re paying them, ExakTime, Calabasas, California, would probably like to have a word with you. Any landscape contractor who’s ever struggled with managing time records for multiple jobs—or clocked-in employees who have gone M.I.A.—knows that time sheets are hardly an exact science. But as ExakTime Vice President Casey Powers will tell you, global positioning satellites are.

For the past 12 years, Powers’ company has been engineering software solutions for contractors in a diverse number of industries looking to curb the waste. Working under the assumption that paper time cards are outdated and unreliable, ExakTime’s Job- Clock GPS service allows workers or foremen to clock in directly on the jobsite on most major mobile smartphones and tablets, like iPhones, iPads, Black- Berrys, and Android devices, which Powers says is designed to simplify—not just streamline—contractors’ time clock systems. “When you create a solution for someone, sometimes it’s worse than the problem,” he says. “In our case, we’re very careful, so the software is very easy to use—from the worker up to management.”

The JobClock system is pretty straightforward. Each day, workers clock in either using an app on their own mobile device, or that of the site’s foreman, who can punch in several employees at once. Every time the employee leaves the jobsite, either for lunch or at the end of the day, they clock back out. A button on the app transmits the data to the home office to a program called TimeSummit, which Powers describes as “the brains of the operation.” TimeSummit then organizes the information into reports and can export it into accounting programs like QuickBooks.

Employers can even take it a step further, creating a “geofence” around a jobsite, which remotely tracks the user’s mobile device. If they leave the area, JobClock will send a red flag to the home office, which can see the employee’s (or at least the clocked-in device’s) exact location.

There are other features for managing a jobsite, too. Supervisors can manage multiple jobsites and multiple employees all at once. The same app can track equipment and when/where it’s being used, allowing managers to keep an eye on how long it’s been since a particular lawnmower has been sent in for service. You can also set a cost code for specific tasks—everything from laying pipe to trenching—to clock exactly how much time you spend doing a given activity over the course of a job. “The next time you bid,” Powers says, “you can be much more aggressive on pricing.”

Possibly the coolest feature—certainly the newest—is compatible with tablets with front-facing cameras. As each employee clocks in and out each day, the app can be set to take a photo, which is transmitted back to the home office, to help eliminate time card padding and what Powers calls “buddy punching.”

Both JobClock and TimeSummit require a one-time purchase fee. You’ll pay a yearly fee only for the system’s Cloud storage component, Jobclock.net, which transmits the data from the mobile device to the office.

Cloud computing is like saving information in a gigantic filing cabinet in the sky: it involves large, remote servers, where you can store and share information over the Internet.

So, rather than saving files on your computer that only you can access, with Cloud, you can store the same information, but now anyone with the right password can access the data. The advantage to this is that the information is stored on redundant machines, making it unlikely that you would ever lose the data, and the servers process faster than your personal computer.

Measuring up

Rain, snow, heat, gloom of night… the Post Office may trudge through it, but when you’re conducting takeoffs at a jobsite, they can make the job extra hard, if not impossible. Wouldn’t it be easier to take measurements, calculate distances, and scope out a job from inside the office? That was Mike Rorie’s line of thinking when he began Go iLawn, a software program hosted on the Internet that compiles aerial images of sites around the country. Users can check out five views of a given property—the top and all four sides—and, using a mouse, designate zones to calculate area and linear distance, or to count objects like shrubs or trees.

The computer-calculated measurements aren’t only intended to forestall long drives or difficult weather, but, Rorie says, to combat some of the mistakes contractors make when using estimations.

“The complexity of measuring different shapes accurately would have very low efficacy and, at a minimum, is ten percent inaccurate,” Rorie says. “A lot of contractors will go count fence posts, parking stalls—all kinds of informal units of measurement. So if we say the fence posts are ten feet apart and there are 100 of them, we say it’s 1,000 feet. But there’s usually some grass before and after, and are they all ten feet apart?” Go iLawn’s maps are procured from companies that take aerial photos by airplane—satellite in some rural areas—and distances are calculated by Rorie’s programmers, where one pixel represents a certain number of inches.

As you zone out the property using your mouse, the software calculates and totals your measurements. Additional tools let you label, color code, edit, copy, save and print measurements.

The value, Rorie says, is in reducing business costs for tasks that add no value to customers. “There is no perceived value, in the customers’ mind, in an estimate. Other clients perceive no value in coming to look at their site to give them a price,” he says.

The service offers several pricing plans to suit everyone from the casual to the habitual user. One plan charges a $50 setup fee, and lets users search addresses for $3 each.

At the other end of the spectrum, an unlimited plan gives clients absolute access for $3,000 a year. A trial program lets you try out ten addresses for around $30.

Presently, Rorie is engaged in creating a tool specifically for the irrigation market that will help them survey more efficiently.

Software in the field

For 22 years, David Crary owned and operated a landscaping company in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was constantly playing catch-up when it came to billing customers for work his employees performed. The lightbulb moment—and the inspiration for his field service software program, HindSite—came one November, when he needed a support technician to come to his home after his dryer stopped working. “I was, literally, billing work from early October, and doing paperwork from work we were doing all year long,” he recalls. “I met the guy from Sears and he fixed my dryer in about ten minutes, then he gave me a bill and collected my money, and drove away. I thought, whoa, who’s got that figured out at Sears?” Crary conjured up a paperless system that would both cut down on processing time and document reliable field notes from employees. “I sat down and documented every step, from the time a customer calls for an estimate to the install or repair, all the way to accounting,” he says.

After consulting with software programmers, Crary developed HindSite, which uses a mobile computer and takes workers through a series of prompts before, during, and after the job, to ensure that everything is completed and recorded when the customer leaves. As workers complete tasks and input them into the computer, data gets transmitted back to the home office.

“Let’s say we’re visiting your house, for whatever reason. The worker first sees your address, your phone number, and a map to your house. He touches a button that says ‘Time In’ and the PDA or the netbook or the smartphone he’s using timestamps it. Before you can leave that job, it says, ‘You’ve got to tell us what parts you’ve used.’ That’s huge, because they go to the next job and they forget what they did at your house,” Crary explains. “In order to get the best billable information back, I’ve got to force my employees to do the paperwork when they’re still on the jobsite.”

Using the software allowed him to compare which of his crews were performing the best and where he was making the most per day. “It’s those intangibles that I wasn’t factoring in when I started this thing,” he says. “When I started my irrigation business, I was billing out about 50 percent of a guy’s day. Now I’m more than 90 percent.”

Crary designed the software to be a boon to those back in the office as well. Like ExakTime, HindSite uses GPS technology to track workers in the field, allowing office managers to give accurate time estimates to seething customers who’re complaining that their technician is late. “It gives the office people the information they need,” he says.

While Crary loves converting people into all-paperless customers, he does warn that this is not an ideal place to dabble. “If you go in with the attitude, ‘I’m going to try it and see if I like it,’ it won’t work, because you’ve got to be committed to the change,” he says. To make the transition easier, Crary suggests implementing parts of your business one at a time.

Keeping on the cutting edge of software advances and taking the time to properly evaluate, demo, and integrate software into your business can yield significant long-term benefits.

Crary says the system is pretty intuitive, and the training is easy to grasp for field workers—even ones with limited English skills. “For every decade they’re under 40, it’s one less work order,” he says. “If you give HindSite to a 20-year-old, in literally one or two work orders they know how to use the program. If you’re a 50-year-old, it’s not going to be one or two, but it’s not going to be 20—maybe five or six to understand the system.”

By your estimation

Not many software companies can boast a pedigree that stretches back to the 1980s, but Include Software of Annapolis, Maryland, got its start in 1989, developing some of the green industry’s first computer-based estimating tools.

Today, Include’s flagship product is Asset, designed as a complete software package for landscaping businesses with more than $1 million in annual revenue. The software helps take businesses through each step of any given job, from prospect tracking and job estimating through billing and collections.

Asset is designed to computerize every function a landscape company may require; there are no additional pieces of software to add—“boltons,” as the company calls them—as there are with programs that perform only one function, like Quick- Books.

According to Include’s vice presi dent, Nanette Seven, the software offers businesses “the ability to use a fully integrated system that allows a business to grow without incurring additional administrative overhead in order to process paperwork.”

Recently, the company introduced a new iPhone app for tracking crews using GPS technology, called CrewTec, and has added pivot tables to Asset, which allows users to drill down information into customized reports. “It’s a really cool way to be able to have access to information,” Seven says.

Asset is “built directly around the way a landscape contractor does business,” says Seven, “as far as estimating, the productivity rates that they’re looking at, the proposals that they’re generating, the work tickets that they send out into the field for their crews, and the analysis of the information as it comes back in for contract renewals and for job costing information.”

To get you up and running quickly with the software, Include assigns a company rep, known as a project manager, to each new client, who helps set and achieve realistic implementation goals. A project manager assigned from within your organization helps supervise the training from your end.

Typically, you pay an annual subscription for Asset, which is based on the number of concurrent users you opt for, with rates starting from about $500 annually. The subscription includes implementation costs as well as upgrades and two hours of support and training.

The Crewtek app is a monthly charge, based on the number of crews being tracked.

Censeo, a standalone job-estimating program, is also available, and is geared for businesses of all sizes.

Making it work

Today’s new software vendors are fixing problems using innovative technology like satellites and Internet Cloud storage. Keeping on the cutting edge of software advances and taking the time to properly evaluate, demo, and integrate software into your business can yield significant long-term benefits. Just make sure that you and your team are ready, and have the time to dedicate to changing your current practice. As Crary points out, “The field guys are not the issue. It’s the office. It’s the commitment.”

 
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