The Beauty of Tools
I’ve always loved old tools; there is something beautiful about the craftsmanship and patina of a tool that has seen decades of hard work. For years, my father spent his retirement buying and selling old things and I always found myself drawn to the tools. Whether it be a rake from the 1800s or a wrench from the 1940s, I could imagine the work that must have been accomplished with these well-built implements.
My two boys see my infatuation with all things old as humorous, unless of course it’s cars we’re talking about. It seems I failed in my responsibility to educate them on the importance of not just the tools, but also the people and skills behind those tools. Where we once had children dreaming to follow in their parents’ footsteps in any number of trades, we now see our youth more focused on the mobile device in their hands and the careers that could come from designing games, developing online solutions or writing algorithms to predict future behaviors.
Maybe in the midst of this dichotomy there lies something to be learned. In fact, one could argue that both traditional tools and new digital tools being created to enhance effectiveness are of great value, especially when brought together in one place.
Time for Something New
Over the past few years, specialty contractors like plumbers, electricians, roofers and many others have faced numerous challenges, most notably the shortage of skilled labor. That shortage applies to not only the skilled men and women doing the work every day, but also to the supervisors that are critical in keeping projects on budget and that are now more often required to use technology in the performance of their responsibilities.
It wasn’t that long ago that digital solutions for contractors were nearly unheard of in most trades. Today, there are very few contractors that have not at least been exposed to Building Information Modeling (BIM), bidding or purchasing solutions, to name a few. Many have adopted these tools and now see the benefits of process improvement and customer satisfaction using these solutions.
To those contractors that have not yet made the move to digitize key processes, there are more reasons than ever to get started. However, for many the decision can be quite hard as perceptions exist about the difficulty of deploying digital solutions that impact the most routine tasks of their teams. The arguments against taking the step to digitize are numerous, including, “We’ve always done it this way,” and “We don’t have time to train everyone.”
The reality is that there are no more good excuses, especially given the quality and quantity of digital solutions available today. It’s time to add more tools to your toolbox, and some are not that old.
Tools That Shine and Are Simple to Use
Far too often, people are reluctant to try something new if they had previous experiences that were poor. This is especially true when it comes to implementing new software solutions that require years of development, months of training and sometimes never ending days of problems after going live with the solution. Place those challenges on top of processes that must be reworked and you have a sure fire recipe for frustrated associates.
The good news is that many of today’s solutions for contractors have solved the problems that plagued many organizations in the past. To start, many digital tools are now offered as online and app-based solutions that do not require any hardware or software to be managed by the contractor. This one feature alone frees up resources and reduces complexity, two of the biggest reasons people have been reluctant to introduce new software solutions.
Another key feature of many of the newer solutions is the fact that they have been built by folks that have been in the industry that really understand the role of the contractor. Look behind the scenes of many development teams today and you’ll find someone that is trying to solve a problem they have personally faced on the job. Plus, if you ever need support, odds are that the individual that helps you has actually been in your shoes before, or at least understands the task you’re attempting to complete.
Perhaps the best news is that there are now options at all levels, from fully integrated solutions that are connected to ERPs, accounting systems, etc. to others that are lightweight, cloud based and aim to support a single process. Thankfully, the selection is deep enough that no matter where you are in your evolution, there is something for you. Plus, not every solution is right for everyone. Large contractors with hundreds of associates focused on complex projects will have different needs than smaller teams of five that target service requests. The important thing is that you consider solutions that can improve processes, reduce labor hours, create controls & visibility and enhance the customer experience. In the end, we all want greater efficiencies, more revenue and satisfied customers.
You’re Team Will Thank You...Sooner Than You Think!
No, the path to success with digital solutions is not always easy. There will be setbacks, training needs that were missed, process bumps & bruises and the occasional, “I told you so.” However, the upside can be sooner than you’d expect and going back will not be an option once you realize the benefits you’ve created for you and your customers.
I’ll focus for a moment on the small/medium contractor as many larger organizations have already been engaging digital solution providers for some time now. As I survey the landscape, there are many options for the small/medium contractor today, regardless of the process they are trying to improve.
If you are looking to take the first step, the obvious choice would be something that is not even specific to contractors, but certainly of critical importance, accounting. In a recent conversation with an HVAC distributor, I was informed that their most attended training class for contractors is QuickBooks basics. Yes, we know that contractors are skilled tradesman, but it is no less of a secret that managing accounting processes is not a cherished task. For good reason, QuickBooks continues to be the leading accounting software for small businesses as they’ve made their solution quite intuitive, allowing even novices to navigate the solution easily. Plus, they’ve done a very nice job of ensuring integrations into their solution are quite easy, something that will be important as you consider connecting solutions that touch the same process. Why be tethered to a desktop solution when QuickBooks makes it easy to track expenses, create invoices and view performance dashboards from anywhere on any device? And, QuickBooks is just one example of many accounting solutions now available in the cloud; new entrants in the accounting space ensure everyone continues to improve their solutions to remain competitive.
The next most obvious step for many contractors is to tackle the issues with purchasing materials, primarily putting in the proper controls, gaining visibility to project spend, managing requests for quotes and having access to historical activities. Fortunately, there are solutions like StructShare that make these tasks simple to manage, all through their website or app. With zero IT resources required, StructShare can help to improve the entire purchasing cycle, all while your current processes stay in tact. StructShare is a great example of a solution born out of the need to solve a problem the creators faced themselves in the construction business, so they focused on making the digital version similar to the offline process to reduce training needs and improve adoption.
The beauty of many of these new solutions is that your process remains relatively the same, but time and effort is reduced as everything related to the process is now right at your fingertips. Imagine submitting a request for quote to three suppliers, monitoring their responses, converting the best quote to a purchase order and associating it with a project, receiving the order with proof of delivery and later reviewing the order among others, all from a single solution. Then, at a later date, receiving a request from the field for placing a subsequent order against the same project, approving that purchase, tracking the to-date spend against your anticipated spend for that project and ultimately closing the project with access to every item you used on that project. That is exactly what StructShare and others can provide today.
Have you ever been on the jobsite and realized you needed something in the next few hours, but didn’t have it on hand and didn’t want to waste labor hours to send someone off to pick it up? Well, that problem now has a solution even if your materials provider is not able to meet your delivery requirements. The newest kid on the block, Canadian-based RenoRun, just received $17M in funding so they can continue to improve their technology and expand into new markets for their delivery service. After purchasing your materials, RenoRun will do the rest and ensure delivery to your jobsite, usually within two hours. They make it simple by taking care of the delivery for a simple flat fee. Today they have Canadian operations in Montreal and Toronto and have entered the US market in Austin, Texas. As demand for their services increases, they have aspirations to expand into new markets. Again, technology is helping to provide additional capabilities to enhance the efficiencies of contractors in ways previously unavailable.
Why would you not evaluate these tools? The truth is that although customer satisfaction is improved as you become more efficient and can dedicate more time to critical customer engagements, you may see even greater satisfaction from your own team. I’ve been fortunate to see many examples where tasks that were once problematic became simple and error free to the delight of the associates impacted by those processes. Give yourself the opportunity to create new experiences for your associates as well as your customers.
The Time is Now
I still have an infatuation with classic tools and the admiration for those that use them has not wavered. In today’s world, I now find myself also enamored with the creativity and execution of those that are both creating and utilizing the new wave of digital solutions. If we are going to bring young, talented people back into the trades as needed, showing them the advances being made in how we run our businesses, not just what we do in our businesses, is critical. I urge you to take the step to evaluate and, at a minimum, try some of these new solutions. Improved processes, greater visibility to activities, fewer lost hours and improved customer satisfaction are just a few of the benefits that await if you can place some of these new tools into your toolbox.
Mark Linder, CEO of Charleston, South Carolina-based MARV LANDERS LLC, has more than 20 years of experience leading multi-billion dollar organizations through rapid changes on their digital journeys. Linder has served the needs of specialty contractors and maintenance professionals through the development of customer-centric solutions that help them to improve efficiencies. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.