By Diane M. Calabrese / Published August 2018
Are applications that expedite commerce new? No. From the abacus to the compass, technology has been a partner to business—ranging from accounting to navigating—for millennia.
Technology, the application of science, is as old as human inventiveness. Early seafarers may have moved from the shore hoping for the best, but it’s more likely that versions of the kamal, astrolabe, quadrant, and sextant were also around for much longer than the hundreds of years on record.
Accounting, communication, design, inventory control—name any function of a business and see the presence of technology in enabling business to fulfill that function. Add mobile access to all functions and 3D printing and wonder why, if we can do all that, we are still not on Mars.
We have all read interviews with tech experts who joke about wanting an app that does the laundry. There are those of us who long for the advent of food replicators, but in truth, the amazement over what we can do with technology and what technology does for business continues to be real.
It’s not just our brain that’s underutilized. The tight link between technology and business could be much bigger and stronger than it is. Contractors, distributors, and manufacturers in our industry confront the daunting task of those in all industries: Integrate technology and business while the business continues to function.
On the simplest level, changing internet service providers or tying inventory and accounting software together can cause a minor disruption in a business. If a manufacturer implements a system for machine-to-machine communication, it can take a plant offline for days or weeks. A disruption to business that takes the business to a new level is worthwhile, however. That’s true whether the business is adopting new technology or moving to a new facility.
Chip and computer manufacturers are well aware that part of speeding up the adoption of technology is making it easier to do so. They make investments in startups that aim to bridge the gap between what’s going on inside their research and development labs and what’s going on in businesses.
For example, one of the startups that Intel Capital invested in this year is Fictiv, which is based in San Francisco. Fictiv has a virtual manufacturing platform that pairs intelligent workflow and collaboration software. Its goal is to help hardware teams work more efficiently to bring products to market faster.
At the consumer end of business, expectations of buyers are changing (and varied, as we are in a transition period). Because payment via phone is now an option in many settings, some prospective buyers will expect it in all settings.
Scheduling via app is also an expectation of many consumers after Uber and Lyft made it the norm for getting a ride fast. Contractors meet the consumer every day, and this is a transaction that affects them.
“The biggest driver of technology adoption for service businesses is the adoption of technology for consumers in the real world,” says Roland Ligtenberg, co-founder and vice president of growth and business development at Housecall Pro in San Diego, Ca. “Amazon is training homeowners to become so accustomed to the ease of one-click buying things online that they expect everything in their lives to work this way.”
There’s no concern among consumers regarding the absence of person-to-person contact. “It’s common now to pick up your coffee at Starbucks and over half of the finished coffees on the counter are ones ordered online without any human-to-human interaction,” says Ligtenberg. “When was the last time you spoke with a travel agent?”
All the advantages of a strong bond between technology and business can become disadvantages if they are not exploited. “By not offering an online booking experience, service businesses are putting themselves at a disadvantage by clinging to the old world,” explains Ligtenberg.
“The service businesses that offer a modern online booking experience, confirmation emails, on-my-way text notifications with the technician’s picture, and online bill pay are beginning to outpace and lap their antiquated local competition,” says Ligtenberg. “As time passes, the gap will continue to accelerate. The industry standard has been set, and its inevitability will determine the success and failures of local cleaning companies across the United States.”
Investment in online scheduling brings rewards in addition to customer satisfaction. The interaction can be tied to immediate payment of deposits, and contractors spend less time going back and forth with customers via email or phone.
A wild adoption of technology for business without careful consideration of options can diminish instead of boost business. How many of us have simply gone to another vendor after being asked to prove we are not a robot by checking all the blocks with street signs or bridges? What if a tiny bit of the sign goes across a block line—does that count?
Forget the blocks and test for robots and get a top-notch security system. Consumers now expect ease of interaction as well as speed of communication from any e-world experience.
Contractors serving consumers and distributors serving contractors must think not only about the information they would like to get from an interaction (e.g., customer name, address, phone), but also about how their competitors are gathering the same data without frustrating the customer with an extensive form to complete before a question can be sent via email.
Technology used in a business should encourage customers to stay and buy. It should not encourage them to take their business elsewhere. A cumbersome format for interacting with customers in the electronic sphere is as bad for business as a distracted sales representative in a brick and mortar shop.
Things change so quickly it’s a must to have scalable software and apps. Be certain that regular updates will be available and understand the cost—how much is built into the initial purchase, monthly fees, and so on.
A measured approach to technology and business includes doing the basics and considering bold ventures. At the basic level, one of the biggest issues for many businesses is not deciding which technology will bolster their business; it is finding reliable network access and coverage from any location. Choose a service provider wisely. Check coverage before committing to a plan. Find out how quickly the provider restores service.
Taking big steps requires looking at things from a different angle or with new intensity. As industry experts frequently remind us, wastewater recovery and water recycling become more important each day.
Manufacturers and distributors with ideas about how to provide solutions in handling wastewater—remote control for monitoring water reclamation and treatment, filters that have built-in sensors to signal when a change is needed, etc.—should be out there meeting with parties interested in investing in those solutions. Begin with the federal government.
In June 2018, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) representative at the U.S. Department of Home-land Security (DHS) mounted a road tour with stops in Rochester, NY; Pitts-burg, PA; Columbus, OH; Huntington, WV; and Durham, NC, to engage small business on innovation. DHS has technology needs of all sorts. Small businesses that can help meet those needs are encouraged to get involved and to take advantage of funding opportunities for research and development.
The DHS/SBIR tour will have other legs in the Pacific Northwest and New England. Consult the DHS.gov website to get the most up-to-date information on tours.
Contractors, too, should be thinking about how they can contribute their expertise at the nexus of technology and business to efforts of interest to the DHS (and other federal entities). The Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) at DHS is interested in best practices in response to biological and chemical incidents. Contractors with experience in hazmat response and remediation of hazmat sites will find a fit worth exploring.
DHS S&T is particularly interested in technology that allows for robotic cleaning and video-assisted control of equipment—both technologies already anchored in our industry. It is also interested in things such as sensors for responders.
Government contracting possibilities for contractors, distributors, and manufacturers highlight another reason to take the time to get it right when fusing business and technology. Any federal contracts will require specific safeguards and verifiable capabilities for computers and all electronic devices.
With the transition to 5G global relays underway, business and technology is becoming more than ever a chicken and egg phenomenon. By 2020—when 5G is to be truly global—we may be asking whether the technology precipitated the new direction in a business or whether the business caught up with the speed, energy savings, and coverage it needed because of 5G.
As different as 5G seems at first, it is routed in configuration and design models that have been around for a long time. Native Americans relayed information via smoke signals from high points. Radio towers (like the one that beeps during the introduction to old RKO movies) keep signals moving. And microwave transmitters on tall structures—lots of them—will be needed to make 5G a success.
Interesting times, not unlike old times.