Smart Information Sources for Contractors
It helps to sort through the maze. You can thrive by strategically managing how and when you receive information.
Here are a few shortcuts to slice through the glut of information tools, and focus on how to make your job easier and more efficient.
GO ONLINE FOR TRAINING AND CERTIFICATIONOnline training has come of age and keeps getting better. Early attempts at Webcasts and Webinars were clunky, strained affairs. Fuzzy images and lost connections were the norm. Today, high-speed connections, in-house projection, enhanced software, improved two-way communication, and experienced providers make Web-based training an engaging experience.
Got a question? Most Webinars allow you to submit questions and answer them during a Q&A period.
Want a video clip or additional information on the Webinar? Providers often include video links, which can be entertaining, and related Websites so you can dig deeper.
Need proof of participation to qualify for CEUs? You might need to take a short quiz, but many Webinars provide a link allowing you to print a course completion certificate.
Takeaway: Challenge your staff to use Webcasts instead of costly travel and you’ll improve training.
Heard on the street: “I’ve used online training for several years when I find myself short of my CEU requirement,” said Ken Bodwell of Innovative Service Solutions. “I prefer to take my CEU live because I believe the dialog between attendees often improves the learning experience. Often time is a factor and the online training is necessary.”
“We subscribe to a service that provides online training for safety,” said Roger Grochmal of Atlas Air/ClimateCare. “This training allows me to train new hires in a very cost-effective manner. We can also do annual upgrades to our staff at a time that’s convenient for us and the employee. It’s consistent and documented, which meets the requirement under our ISO 9001-2000 certification.”
USE ONLINE COMMUNITYPerhaps you’ve avoided places like YouTube, bulletin boards, and blogs. Aren’t those for newbies, techies, or people without lives? In some cases, that’s true. But for a growing number, online community is now an essential source of their business success.
A huge benefit of online community is free access to people just like you who have already tackled your challenges. Whether you are fixing a broken part, launching an initiative, or revolutionizing your company, someone is waiting to tell you how they succeeded at that task, or, equally valuable, which pitfalls to avoid. Many sites also offer video that shows you how to do it.
Another aspect of community is the ability to build your reputation. Community participants don’t want a sales pitch (spammer!), but they respect you for providing useful information and solving problems. Respect translates into trust, and trust translates into opportunities for your company.
Takeaway: Find trustworthy bulletin boards, blogs, and communal spaces that focus on your industry. You’ll benefit by engaging with sharp-minded, impassioned participants.
Heard on the street: “This is my personal favorite as the best use of the Web,” said Arthur Pickett of Royal Air Systems. For example, Service Roundtable and the like are just like having a mini Mix® group sitting on my desk. “This online community allows me to find how others handled various situations, ASAP.”
“I do look at the online chats occasionally for the Radiant Panel Association and Service Roundtable,” said Russ Donnici of Mechanical Air Service Inc. “They can have some interesting information and many people use them to help them with technical issues. I think that’s great, however, it does reflect how badly people in our industry need training.”
FIND INFORMATION WITH LIGHTNING SPEEDSearch Engine Optimization (SEO) is a geeky way of saying “fast answers.” If you are even a bit Web savvy, you’ve Googled something. But Google can be overwhelming when you pull up 101,234 results.
A better option is vertical search - using the search functions of industry-specific Websites. Niched sites are more targeted and eliminate fluff. Some license Google technology for speed but limit the search to a highly defined and more narrow universe of data, making your search vastly more efficient.
Takeaway: Visit the top Websites in your field and bookmark those providing the best search results. You’ll save a ton of time.
Heard on the street: “I couldn’t do without the speed,” said Tom Borowske of Environmental Conditioning Systems. “I have a shelf of books in my office that used to never collect dust. Now they need to be dusted regularly.”
“Speed allows me to find out what I need without having to bother the sales representative,” said Scott Getzschman of Getzschman Heating & Sheet Metal.
LOCATE PRODUCTS QUICKLY WITH DIRECTORIESFinding products poses a problem when you need specific items to complete a project. Online Directories are a perfect complement to printed versions such as The NEWS 2007 HVACR Directory and Source Guide.
Need a specific item to complete a project? Now you have two convenient resources to use. The annual print directory is a “must have” item on your desk. Once you find items that might “fill the bill” you can get on the phone, visit manufacturers’ Websites, or better yet, you can refer to the companion directory online. Most online directories allow you to enter a company name, product category, or a brand and then provide a defined list. Some other things to look for online include links to supplier Websites, spec sheets, and even product videos.
Takeaway: Print directories remain excellent resources for industry and product information, but also consider visiting online versions for more comprehensive and immediate information.
Heard on the street: “This is a fantastic tool,” said Bodwell. “We print technical and sales manuals from manufacturers. We evaluate equipment types. We search and order equipment parts and it virtually eliminates the emergency need for response from the manufacturer’s rep. It allows us to demonstrate a sense of urgency to our clients because we can provide rapid feedback.”
“Our service department can find any part for any equipment - without any hassles,” said Pickett.
READ BREAKING NEWSWhether you’re a leader in your company or headed up the ladder, staying informed has never been easier.
Websites: Some sites are up-dated daily, while others languish for weeks. Limit your visits to sites that are updated frequently and offer professional coverage.
E-newsletters: Electronic newsletters offer a big advantage because they come to you. E-newsletters have proliferated, so focus on those that provide truly useful industry information.
RSS feeds: Real Simple Syndication (RSS) is a way to ensure you are alerted whenever certain news breaks on the Web. RSS requires you to sign up for a reader and select the topics you want. Those articles collect until you access them.
Takeaway: Avoid news overload. Focus on Websites, e-news, and RSS feeds that best meet your needs and unsubscribe to the rest.
Heard on the street: “I do a lot of writing both in the industry and for my customers,” said Grochmal. “I research everything to ensure all my facts are correct. I usually know what I’m looking for but a well-constructed Google search is sometimes necessary to point me in the right direction, as well as to find related information.”
“I get a lot of new marketing ideas by staying on top of the news,” said Brian Leech of A. Leechman Heating & Cooling.
STUDY IN-DEPTH CONTENTWhile the Web is fantastic for immediacy, it is equally strong in providing content that will help you obtain comprehensive knowledge, perspective, and leadership skills.
• Archived articles stored on industry Websites allow concentrated study of a topic or in-depth analysis of an expert’s opinions.
• White papers allow you to read thoughtful analysis on new products and procedures, often complete with statistics and projections.
• Syndicated research can help you maintain a high level of expertise on a topic or industry, and provides insight for strategic planning.
Takeaway: Search Websites for meaty data and expertise. If required, register to gain access to highly valuable information that others may miss.
Heard on the street: “I use the Web for this a lot,” said Grochmal. “A good recent example is the research report on indoor air quality made available to the industry by Air Advice. They provided good empirical data that allows me to better inform my customers and develop strategic plans for my company.”
“Most items you run into are out there,” said Bowoske. “You are rarely the first one to experience a certain situation and if you know where to look for answers you can save yourself, your customers and your company dollars every day.”
CONDUCT BUSINESS ONLINEE-commerce is more than a buzzword. Many companies now require online purchase orders, applications, designs, specifications, bids, change-orders, credit checks, and payments. A recent survey conducted among subscribers to BNP Media publications (parent company of The NEWS) showed that while most all had their own company Websites, only 30 percent allowed customers to place orders online.
Takeaway: Embrace this trend by becoming e-commerce savvy. Promote your company as Web-friendly, making sure your Website is customer-driven, and you will be rewarded.
Heard on the street: “This has really increased cash flow for our business, by allowing auto debit for maintenance, and doing check by phone,” said Leech. “The applications on the Web have also been greatly successful. To apply with our company you must do it online. Once a candidate has applied they automatically receive instructions on taking an online assessment. This helps me weed out many people before I even do an interview. Basically, if someone can’t follow those simple instructions, what other instructions will they not follow? This saves me time in who I am interviewing.”
“I never thought commercial users would utilize the Web to identify venders but I was wrong,” said Bodwell. “We constantly speak to new clients that found us on our Website. We do get service calls via Internet and we do some invoicing via the Internet. It’s fast, reliable, and cheaper than snail mail.”
BUY THE RIGHT TECHNOLOGYYour staff may be clamoring for iPhones, Blackberries, Windows Vista, or other technology. While these products can enhance your company’s ability to receive and relay information, new technology produces a strain on resources. Your IT staff may require significant ramp-up time and your users will need training.
Takeaway: A good solution is to skip one or two generations of tech products, but commit fully when you do jump in. Having everyone using the same version of the same product enhances company-wide efficiency.
Heard on the street: “At Innovative Service Solutions, we recently evaluated a new software program using a Webinar,” said Bodwell. “The advantage was that we could allow our dispatch and accounting to attend and provide their input based on their job responsibilities.”
“Technology for technology’s sake is not good,” said Donnici. “I try not to be an early adopter of new specialty things since it seems that most manufacturers are using the early adopters as a sort of beta tester. The bugs and problems far outweigh the potential early benefits.
“We don’t even implement software updates on our integrated business software program that we have been on for 20 years until that update is 6 months old. Invariably during that period there are patches provided for bugs others have found - we don’t have the time to beta test stuff for anyone; it’s too much of a business disruption.”
Publication date: 10/01/2007