Depending on the size of your company, IT (information technology) and hardware systems can run the gamut from fairly simplistic to too futuristic for even the Jetsons.
However, when broken down into manageable sections, ensuring your company has the right-sized IT system need not be as frightening a prospect as you might think.
For instance, when it comes to the hardware/ software that gives building service contractors a competitive edge, Jordan Tong of Frantz Building Services in Owensboro, KY, says there are three things.
“The first is e-mail. E-mail is a fast, convenient way for managers to communicate with customers and vice versa. And, with the capability of receiving e-mails on handheld devices, managers can respond to customers 24/7,” he explains.
“The next essential piece of technology for BSCs is cell phones. In an industry that is as fast-paced and constantly changing as ours, communication is vital.”
The third piece of technology that gives BSCs an edge, Tong says, is quality-control software. “BSCs need to know how they are performing at each location. Are they performing all of the work according to the specifications, and is the work meeting and exceeding expectations of the company and the customer?"
For Ken Sargent, support services administrator at Porter Industries in Loveland, CO, it is Web-based operations assistance software that allows his company to effectively commit to the business basics of performance measurement, making adjustments to improve performance and then measuring performance again to ensure the changes worked. “Instant feedback systems connected to both our internal and external customers allow us to commit to this ‘improvement’ cycle in a timely manner, keeping us ahead of the curve as much as possible,” he says.
Sargent adds that he has employees in his company who prefer Macs and Apple software, but that his choice was simple. “The majority of users in our group were most familiar with the PC environment; our IT group was most familiar with supporting the PC environment, and most importantly, the payroll system we were using at that time only worked with PC software.”
Tong concurs and says his company uses Microsoft Office for all of its word processing, spreadsheet, and e-mail functions. “Microsoft dominates the industry and therefore most companies are using their products. It is the business standard; therefore, you must have compatible software to be able to effectively communicate with customers, vendors, and employees.”
Joseph Jenkins, president of Bearcom Services in Midvale, UT, says there are a few things that give his company that competitive edge. “First off is CleanTelligent. Not many companies in my market have the program. It helps me provide a greater level of customer service through better communication and quality control.”
Bearcom maintains a custom-made program that helps with bidding and estimating. “This has greatly helped me provide competitive pricing,” Jenkins explains. “I also do most of the sales myself and am on the road a lot, so I have invested in a tablet/ laptop convertible, which is basically a laptop that converts into a tablet PC. That, coupled with an aircard, a battery-operated Bluetooth printer, and a laser mouse and keyboard, allows me to work out of my vehicle and prepare bids while at a location.”
Jenkins says another program that is very helpful can be found at www.logmein.com. With this program, he can log onto servers at work and access essential files and programs while out of the office. “My tablet allows me to go paperless, which saves me a lot of time transferring things I have written down into the computer later, and it saves paper and file space, which is a greener approach as well.”
Frantz utilizes a Linux-based server to network its computers. “All of the computers at the corporate office have access to the server,” Tong explains. Company-wide operational information is kept on the server for utilization by staff members. The branch offices are not connected to a server, but rather have access to our Web-based operational and accounting system.”
Upgrading and Maintaining
When it comes to upgrading, Jenkins says his company must spend money every year to upgrade hardware like new desktops, laptops, tablets and printers. “We also have to upgrade some of our software every year. Then we pay for our monthly subscription to CleanTelligent, and we have IT expenses as well.”
Sargent adds that software is often behind the times within 24 months. “But by the 36-month mark, software is simply obsolete with other databases we may be communicating with to conduct our daily business.”
While hardware has a slower turnover rate, “we often find our hardware must be updated to work in an optimum manner with the software,” he explains. “This 36-month cycle also allows us to budget properly for our software and hardware needs. It is rare with a planned replacement cycle that we end up with an unexpected capital cost in the middle of a budget year because of software/ hardware failure.”
Frantz will keep its computers for approximately five years, “but five is really an arbitary number,” says Tong. “We take the ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ approach. A majority of our computers are used primarily for communication via e-mail and the creation, editing and viewing of documents in Microsoft Office. For us to operate efficiently, we do not need the fastest, most up-to-date machines. Rather, we seek reliable, cost-efficient computers to meet our needs.”
The cost to maintain hardware and software runs the gamut as well, and largely depends on the size of the company. While Jenkins says Bearcom spends about $5,000 a year on computers, software and IT support, both Frantz and Porter Industries spend more than $20,000 annually.
“The business of being a BSC has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, and our dependency on technology to cover the ground that was previously covered by additional personnel has grown exponentially,” explains Sargent. “We need better communication systems, more complex payroll reporting systems, and Web-based, software systems designed to assist us with operations issues, etc. Compared to the personnel costs necessary to complete these tasks, the $20,000-plus is a significant bargain.” With cleaning as its core business, Porter Industries has many IT needs but not enough for a dedicated staff member.
Concurs Frantz’s Tong: “We spend approximately $20,000 to $25,000 per year on IT, most of which is spent on Web-based accounting, human resource, and operational software. The rest of the cost is spent on contracted IT help, new computer purchases and software. The Web-based software eliminates massive amounts of paper work and consolidates the amount of separate software needed to operate. The other advantage to Web-based software is that it allows our branch operations to have access to information that would otherwise not be available.”