By April Hirsch / Published July 2016
First the atom, now technology…and before either of them, look to horses and other draft animals. Power that comes in many forms is enormous. The idea is to control it.
True, going a bit over the top in the harnessing of all that technology offers does not have the downside that unrestrained use of atomic energy does. Yet taking control of any powerful force to do work requires aligning the possible and useful, while rejecting the fanciful and unnecessary.
There’s an app for everything—or soon will be, it seems. It’s debatable whether one needs a time tracker to tally hours and minutes being spent on the Web or brushing teeth, yet the apps are available.
How can contractors, distributors, and manufacturers get the most from technology without being swept away by the rush of the new? A contractor and a member of the manufacturing sector share insight into what works for their companies. Then, we consider some tips on how balance can be found.
Technology is a tool. Choosing well begins with a clear view of the goal. (Using the handle of a screw driver instead of a hammer to pound nails wastes time, energy, and materials.)
With the goal in mind, it’s a matter of weighing an ever-growing array of choices. Ultimately, each company will harness a unique set of technological tools. Some of the tools are likely to be dominant in terms of the return they offer to the business.
For Matt Pierce, president of Pierce Property Services LLC in Woburn, MA, a GPS fleet-tracking system is very important. “It has made a substantial impact on our business,” says Pierce, whose company runs with a fleet of 12 trucks.
The system not only enables optimization of travel to client sites, but it also allows for great refinement in job-costing, explains Pierce. In addition, in an unobtrusive way, it allows for a check on employees—their routes and their stops. “We use a really good operating platform to integrate job tracking and other functions,” says Pierce. “There are ‘a million’ excellent platforms out there.”
Even before getting to a prospective job site to do an estimate, there are tools that can speed the effort along. “We use Google Earth to survey a property prior to going out,” says Pierce. And Maps.com is used to identify best routes. As for apps, Skitch is one that Pierce likes. “It allows you to draw on photos and add arrows, for example,” he explains. It makes it easier to show clients both plans and progress. “We can give clients an up-to-date view of the job.”
Unfortunately, at the end of last year, Evernote, which bought Skitch in 2011, stopped supporting the app for Windows, Android, and iOS. But support for the Mac app continues.
In the manufacturing sector, the communication emphasis for one company encompasses customers. “One technology that Mi-T-M has recently adopted for our distributors is a cloud-based app that we use as an information sharing platform,” says Aaron Auger, the water treatment division manager at the corporation based in Peosta, IA.
“We can communicate with our customers either as a group or individually via this technology,” explains Auger, elaborating on the information-sharing platform. “Each customer has their own platform to use as they wish. They can send info back and forth to us or within their own company. It is password protected, so whether they want to share information or keep it private, they have that ability. It has been very well received by our distributor group.”
The platform affords users a wide range of options, explains Auger. “Customers can use the platform to ask questions, design artwork for special deals, or broadcast messages to all their employees. Each customer has equipment images and spec pages loaded with their contact information that they are able to print or e-mail at the touch of a button.”
It’s all about optimizing the use of time and maximizing good outcomes. “With the technology available to us today, most sales people carry a smartphone or tablet with them on sales calls,” says Auger. “Everything they need to assist in selling equipment is available to them on this app. It’s a great time saver and communication tool all in one.”
Not every new technological tool should be added just because it might be a good thing. The process of selection should be a deliberate and thoughtful one.
“We embrace technology, but we are slow to implement,” says Pierce. Anything new must fit with what exists.
Making the determination of fit—or what must be changed in consort with the introduction of something new—requires a measured approach, ex-plains Pierce. “We’re just not quick to jump in the deep end.” Contractors, distributors, and manufacturers understand that it’s important to apply the same sort of cost-effectiveness scrutiny to technological tools as to any other tool or piece of equipment. They are as unlikely to rush to adopt a novelty as they are ready to embrace a truly good option for improving operations (and boosting the bottom line.)
Going it alone in weighing pros and cons is unnecessary. There’s plenty of good advice about how to make wise choices. Expert blogs all across the Web provide appraisals of new technology. Reading before buying is a good idea and so is asking industry colleagues about their experience.
When analyzing what new technological tools can do, be sure to also review the gains from existing ones. For instance, a website should be evaluated periodically. Use the analytics provided by the Web host or a tool like Google Analytics to track activity.
Refining a website to optimize its value as a lure can be time consuming, but be sure to review traffic and learn from patterns now and then. The time spent on such an analysis is no different from time spent on looking at customer profiles and learning from them.
Most important when investing in a website is to make certain it does not impede the path of prospective buyers. Is there a phone number adjacent to the contact form, just in case the contact form does not work? Frustration disenchants prospective clients. If the first contact is a bad one, the potential for a deal may sour.
Lining up to buy the newest version of a popular device is irresistible to many (most of whom are not watching the bottom-line of business). For business owners, a better approach is to keep a device not until it’s antiquated, but just a bit longer than planned. Whether it’s a tablet, smartphone, or computer, extracting the most use from the device will reduce expenditures. When it is time to buy, look for not only good deals, but also for compatibility with other devices.
On the deals side, be sure to talk with the sales representative. Generally, some package arrangement can be made. (For distributors, think of the sort of equipment and ancillary offerings that can be put together for contractors, and then do not hesitate to ask for comparable benefits from vendors of computers and portable devices.)
In the context of use, be sure to establish guidelines for employees. If the employees are using company-provided devices, are limits on personal use clear? An owner does not want to be overly restrictive (as in the occasional personal text or call). The owner also does not want to be put in a position of having an employee conduct or plan nefarious activities using the employer’s devices.
Then, there’s contact. To older members of the industry, cold calling conjures up a time when sales representatives sat at a desk with a land line and phoned individuals who might become customers. Today, sending e-mail messages or texting are ways of reaching prospective clients. Just as calls could annoy instead of entice, so too can a constant stream (from many sources) of e-mail messages and texts. Given the usage fees that some users encounter to access texts, that route to a first contact or a renewed contact may not be the best.
If e-mail or text solicitations are going to be used, make them as intriguing as possible. Include a succinct bit of information about a new or existing product or service as well as why the person on the receiving end may benefit from it.
Take care. Whichever array of devices supports a business, precautions must be taken to avoid breaches. At a minimum, secure financials and customer data by restricting access. Passwords and palm prints are the safe locks of the present day. Use them because nothing is so explosive as a data theft or loss.
Finally, be bold in making use of technology already in place. For example, contractors should take before and after photos of jobs. The photos can be shown to prospective clients. Similarly, manufacturers and distributors can create Web videos to illustrate the capability of products. Ask first about what will best serve a client. Then, use appropriate technological tools to get there.