Getting the Systems Right: What I’ve Learned About What Works for Contractors—and What Doesn’t.
Getting the right systems in place can turn a chaotic and inefficient work environment into a thriving business that runs like a well-oiled machine.
Early on when your operation is small, it’s tempting to think you and your staff can handle everything informally. But as soon as your business begins to grow, things can get unwieldy fast. On the other hand, some business owners are tempted to test every new piece of automation software under the sun, which can end up wasting more time and money than it saves.
Where’s the balance? Here is what I’ve learned from our business.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Software
For years we logged our clients in a CRM that we built ourselves using Microsoft Access. The system worked great while we were small and we didn’t need metrics on our customers. But as the number of clients served grew and our staff got bigger, we found that we needed a much more robust system to manage projects and follow-up with clients.
After investigating a number of platforms, we settled on Salesforce. Salesforce is one of the most functional CRM’s on the market and it can be an amazing tool for your business.
When we moved to Salesforce, we jumped in with both feet, investing in the full system with all the bells and whistles. In hindsight, it might have been better to start off with smaller steps that would have given staff time to learn and adapt the system before we added the full feature set.
Regardless, it was a huge help for business. Every interaction with a client was logged to our Salesforce Chatter platform. Projects and project stages were tracked as with sales stages and opportunities. In short, it became the brain of our operations.
While Google Analytics gave us great feedback about the traffic we got from online paid and organic searches, we didn’t know the full story of how people were finding us because potential client calls were not tracked in the program. To solve this, our online marketing manager recommended that we implement call tracking so that all this data could be gathered and analyzed.
After investigating several options, we ended up with CallRail. The platform allowed us to set up and connect different phone numbers for AdWords, Bing Ads, MailChimp, and offline. The service even has a script that dynamically inserts different phone numbers onto our website.
After it was all set up, we knew where most of our calls originated. This was invaluable since we got most of our leads by phone, not from the form on our website. Using the tool helped us to slash our online ad budget in half while increasing the number of leads.
Employee Rating Website
We were always looking for ways to incentivize our staff to do good work. One system that we tried and liked was ReviewBuzz. Each staff person gets a business card with their name and a link to our custom online feedback form. If the customer gave us a high rating, the system encouraged them to post their feedback on review sites such as Yelp. If the customer gives us a low score, the feedback was directed to us, giving us the chance to immediately follow-up. I liked this system because it made it very easy to systematize incentives for employees to get good reviews, and it helped build up your positive reviews online.
GPS Vehicle Tracking
We thought the ability to track our vehicles would be a great tool that would allow us to automate some tasks. The tool we chose sent out email alerts when one of our vehicles approached our office, or if it has been idling for a long time. It also allowed us to tell where our vehicles were at all times.
So would I recommend it? To be honest, I think it’s a mixed bag. I can imagine many ways in which it would be very useful--if you had a dedicated person paying attention. In our case, we found that we only used it after something happened and we weren’t sure where a vehicle was.
In short, GPS tracking could be very useful if you are prepared to invest in it and are willing to act as Big Brother. Before I would implement this system, I would hire a warehouse manager.
Pre-Construction Site Visit Checklist
On large jobs, we usually sent out a manager to meet with clients before the job starts. The manager reviewed the scope of the project to ensure it was doable and set expectations with the client.
To make this process easier, we developed a checklist of common questions and issues that we would go over with the client. Our clients appreciated this proactive approach, and it helped prevent future problems by setting expectations for both sides.
Remote Answering Service
We weren't always able to answer the phone quickly, especially during our busiest season. So, we decided to supplement the in-house phone person with an outside service. The service we chose, Ruby Receptionists, took messages and emailed us a transcript of the conversation. It was a bit expensive, so it's debatable if we would have kept it for the slower parts of the year. But an answering service a good way to keep overhead down and still make sure that people are getting a live person when they call you. If it keeps you from hiring an extra person, the costs are definitely worth it.
Point of Sale for Inventory Tracking
At one point, we were having trouble tracking our materials and wanted to reduce waste. After doing some research we decided that buying the QuickBooks point-of-sale system would allow us to enter everything we bought into QuickBooks, and then take an inventory as things were installed.
Unfortunately, after an enormous amount of administrative effort, we discovered that there were too many limitations of the system and it would be too cumbersome to fully implement. We ended up scratching the whole thing and tracking inventory manually.
QuickBooks has an integrated service that allows you to have clients pay using their bank account. The charge is nominal: $0.50, versus the 3%, or more, you would pay if they used a credit card. Best of all it’s integrated with QuickBooks. We loved this system and found it much easier to collect payments in a timely way. Intuit has said they may not continue this service, which would be disappointing, but if they do discontinue, I’d investigate similar options.
If you’re having trouble with collections or cash flow, it really is worth it to have a way for customers to pay easily online.
Scheduling Appointments by Location
In the past, we occasionally struggled with scheduling sales visits in convenient ways. There were times when a salesperson would drive to Oakland for a morning appointment, drive ten miles in the opposite direction for an early afternoon appointment, and then drive back in another direction for a late afternoon appointment. Those of you in the Bay Area know that means spending a lot of time sitting in traffic.
We looked for a great technological system to batch appointments near each other, but we never found one that really worked. In the end, we just bought a large map of our local area. This allowed the person doing the scheduling to focus on location along with time. This made a difference because in a city such as Oakland where the time it takes to get from one site to the next can be as much as a half an hour.
Something we didn’t try was to integrate our scheduling with Google Maps, plotting our own appointments and seeing a live map of where things are. I’m not sure if this functionality can somehow integrate with Salesforce or the other CRM’s, but I can imagine that’s something that might be out there.
We used to have employees fill out their timecards manually. We then tried two other systems to try to systematize employee timesheets. One was a badge system where employees would swipe in when they got the office, and swipe out when they left. That ended up being a little clunky with everyone gathering around the time clock in the morning.
We then went to an online system where employees logged in and out using their phones. This seemed like a good system, but it had its own set of challenges. Sometimes employees wouldn’t have their phones on them, or they had trouble connect to the website. And we found that without sign-off from a supervisor, it was more tempting for an employee to cheat.
In the end, we went back to manual timecards.
Keep Trying New Things
When it comes to automating business systems, experimentation is the key. Ultimately, you’ll find that some of your attempts at optimizing business processes will fail or have the less than satisfying results. The important thing to remember is that when you find something that works, it can transform your business for the better, so keep trying!
About the Author
I graduated with an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. But, my passion has always been in social and environmental justice.
Right out of college I cofounded a nonprofit called Rising Sun Energy Center which trained and employed high school and college students to do energy efficiency weatherization in their communities. It started in my small apartment and eventually grew to a staff of hundreds during the summer throughout the Bay Area.
In 2006, I partnered with my cousin Dvir Brakha to start Advanced Home Energy in Berkeley, CA. I was in charge of the business backend and he was in charge of operations and running crews. Originally it was just us, two other guys, and an insulation truck.
Sometime around 2007 we took a California Building Performance Contractors Association (CBPCA), now Efficiency First California, 10-day course with home performance guru Rick Chitwood. It was an eye-opening experience. Because of it, we decided it was time to shift our services. We slowly built up our company offerings beyond insulation to include full-service home performance.
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