Can Technology Do Away With Paperwork?

May 26, 2004
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Back before e-mail and the Internet, back before computerized data systems and accounting software, American businesses consumed tons of paper each day in the quest for information and documentation. With the advent of modern technology, information formerly stored on reams of paper can now be stored on tiny chips and in cyberspace.

Many small and medium-sized HVACR businesses are finding that information transmitted from wireless devices and stored on memory cards is better for gathering instant information on customers and products. There is no need to wait for "snail mail" and faxes, no need to stop back at the office to pick up invoices or purchase orders.

Life is good in a paperless world, right?

Not so fast. The marvels of technology have not shifted us away from paper as fast as some may think. Alan Hall, director of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson Counties (Ohio), published a critique of the paperless society in April 2003.

Hall wrote, "In the 1970s, predictions were made about our evolution to a ‘paperless society' by the end of the century. That time frame has passed, and the reality of a society without paper hasn't happened. If anything, we used 50 percent more paper in 2000 than we did in 1970.

"Our mindset tells us that if it isn't printed on paper, it is somehow not real. We have experienced too many computer failures, too many times that information was not saved on a disc to make us comfortable without a piece of paper to confirm it."

With wireless technology, technicians can review the service history of the customer’s equipment on site.

Paper And The Contractor

The News asked some contractors about their methods of handling business data and if the systems and software they have implemented are designed to reduce paper usage.

John Weeber, president of Maintenance Resource, a facilities maintenance contractor in Grandville, Mich., offered some reasons why his company decided to implement computerized systems.

"Sometimes I'd get materials receipts for jobs after I'd already invoiced the customer," he said. "Or, our technicians may have omitted their hours on a particular work order. This was causing us to lose additional billing opportunities. Wireless/mobile computing has enabled us to capture lost hours of billable labor and reduce our lost materials.

"Replacing the paper-based system of data collection and streamlining the redundant data-entry process from work order to in-voice has led to the elimination of one full-time administrative staff position. We have improved our processes in ways that will reduce operating costs significantly.

"With the new ‘paperless' system, a service technician can create, print, and transmit a work order on site. The immediacy of the information allows us to bill customers on the day of service. With the old system, invoices went out an average of two weeks after the job was complete. It eliminated the need to re-key invoice data as well."

"Trees are dying!" mused Mike Davis, general manager of Locke Air Conditioning, a residential service contractor in El Centro, Calif. "No, really, it is imperative in this business to keep good customer records. However, we either need to add on to the office and buy a forklift or find a more efficient way to handle all of our records. In addition to that, we have had to have a full-time clerk do nothing but filing."

Cortney Crawford of Knight Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., a residential/commercial service and installation contractor in Nixa, Mo., said it all comes down to customer service.

"Our company is trying to become paperless to better serve our customers," she said.

"By entering our schedule into [a software platform] that dispatches the calls to our service technicians, we are eliminating the possibility of forgetting or misplacing a service call."

With that being said, has the volume of paper been reduced?

"Although, it hasn't been eliminated, the accumulation paper has been significantly reduced," said Weeber.

Davis was more skeptical. "We are still accumulating more paper than I would like," he said. "This company has been in business for 25 years and it is a slow process, introducing new technology."

Crawford echoed those remarks. "Despite technology, we do accumulate a lot of paperwork," she admitted.

New technology allows service technicians to scan in materials used and send the information back with the service ticket.

No Lack Of Effort

One software vendor that all three of these contractors rely on is Aereon Solutions Inc., Newtown, Pa. (www.aereonsolutions.com). The company is the maker of FieldMaster, a mobile platform that integrates with widely used business management systems in order to automate manual, paper-based processes.

Jason Bleistein, Aereon director of sales and marketing, said, "Aereon Solutions' primary focus is on helping small and mid-sized service contractors increase profits and reduce costs by eliminating labor-intensive paper-based processes. A lot of people are talking about wireless and automation these days, but we have truly put it into practice for the average service contractor."

Weeber has been impressed with results after implementing FieldMaster. "It has improved the efficiency of our administrative process," he said. "We've improved the accuracy and timeliness of the information flowing into the office, reducing the cycle time from when the work gets performed to when the job gets invoiced. Therefore, we reduced the time it took to get paid, improving cash flow."

"There are many companies that provide great back-end systems to manage and run your business," said Davis. "Aereon Solutions, by integrating with sound back-office management software, has focused on and has delivered what I have always been looking for: customer data available to the technician when he is with the customer."

Crawford said, "Aereon Solutions has lowered our unapplied time and simplified scheduling, especially calls made months in advance."

Technicians can collect the customer’s signature electronically and send all job details back to the office.

Will Techs Buy Into It?

All of the best technology is only as good as the people who use it and apply it to their work. The HVACR contractors in this story commented on how they convinced their techs to buy into paperless solutions.

"Our technicians had not used an automated data collection system before, so we had to start at the beginning in terms of training," said Weeber. "We opted for a ‘train the trainer' scenario. We started with the dispatchers and service managers and they trained the individuals with Aereon's support.

"Training the technicians and administrative staff was done by Aereon via the Web. Within a few hours, we went over the new application on the handheld and started running it. Once our technicians realized just how easy the new system was going to be, they caught on right away."

Davis likes to let his employees "test-drive" software first. "I use the technicians and office staff to evaluate new technology before we implement it," he said. "Wireless technology is worthless if your employees don't embrace it.

"Once we have made a decision, then it is required. They are trained. I have actually used our wireless devices as a recruiting tool. We are trying to change the image of the technician by promoting a more professional atmosphere utilizing the latest technology where it makes sense."

Crawford noted that her company puts a lot of emphasis on training. "We require all of our service technicians to utilize wireless technology," she said. "We train them slowly, giving them time to understand the equipment so that they won't feel overwhelmed and become discouraged. We have future plans to incorporate wireless technology throughout all aspects of our company."

Publication date: 05/31/2004

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