Distributors on the Move With Mobile Apps
If last season's mild winter didn't ding HVAC wholesalers' profits, this summer's fuel prices could do it.
Stephen Roth has helped to develop a niche market - one that has HVACR distributors jumping on board and reaping the benefits.
Roth is the principal of Carmel Software Corp. in San Rafael, Calif., a company that has created more than 30 mobile applications exclusively for the HVACR industry. In fact, that is all Carmel Software does.
The company got its start in 1996 developing computer desktop applications. Many of those applications were sold to software company Autodesk in 2008.
After that purchase, Roth had to decide what to work on next. The answer was to tackle a smaller, but emerging market - the mobile app.
Mobile app, short for mobile application, can be any Internet-based application that has been adapted to a mobile device, from smartphones to tablet computers such as iPads. Mobile apps have unchained people from their desks, letting them e-mail, chat with friends or find information while on the go. It is even allowing those in the HVACR industry to do a load calculation or demonstrate a new heating or air conditioning unit.
Carmel System's venture has been a success, and it has gained attention from many different sectors of the HVACR industry, from manufacturers to contractors and distributors.
MANUFACTURERS TAKE NOTICECarmel System's first mobile application was a duct-sizer app, which Roth says was "probably our most popular." From there, more applications were introduced, including those that could take humidity readings or perform pipe sizing and load calculations.
All of Carmel Software's mobile applications are compatible with an iPhone, iPad, or Android phone. The popularity of Carmel's apps grabbed the attention of HVACR manufacturers who saw the potential in the technology. Those manufacturers teamed up with Roth and his company to start offering distributors and contractors some added benefits.
Roth said his company has helped to create apps for Trane, Mitsubishi Electric, Taco Pump, and others.
"The manufacturers are coming to us because they want a marketing program," he said.
Roth explained that many applications for mobile devices are not going to make a lot of money for manufacturers. In fact, many manufacturers will offer these applications for free to customers. For companies like Trane or Carrier, the benefit is in helping distributors sell their equipment, and mobile apps are just one more way to do that.
Some mobile apps are technical in nature, such as performing load calculations. These apps, while they may seem straightforward, actually require some training and practice. That is why Roth offers an informal training once a week for any HVACR contractors or distributors that need a bit of help. Interested parties can go online and watch a demonstration from the comfort of their office.
Roth said that he has a program that allows him to change the screen on his MacBook to an iPad screen. Attendees of the training can watch Roth go through the steps of using a mobile app that can be used on the iPad.
Apps are meant to make a job easier, but Roth said that "you still need skills and training" to successfully use them. And it looks like distributors want that training. Roth started his remote training sessions just a few months ago, but his list of interested attendees is steadily growing. So while manufacturers are taking notice of the opportunities mobile apps present, distributors are in turn putting their focus in the same direction.
EASIER SELLINGMike Bell is using many of the mobile applications offered from manufacturers, including Honeywell, Emerson, and Mitsubishi Electric. As the vice president of sales and operations for the Johnstone Supply Ware Group in Jacksonville, Fla., Bell has seen the way manufacturer apps are helping his employees upsell.
Many of the Ware Group employees use iPads on the job, and these iPads have vendor apps that can be used to reference product information and demonstrate how a product is used.
"We want our guys to do more presentations," said Bell. And the apps have made this simpler.
First, by doing the presentation on an iPad, Bell said his employees don't have to use a "laptop and do the balancing act." The iPad can be quickly setup, turned on, and with the push of a button the presentation will load.
And time is of the essence. Bell said that distributors only have a small amount of time to demonstrate or sell a product to a dealer. The vendor apps have allowed the company to do short 15-minute presentations with approximately five slides. These apps provided by the manufacturer have eliminated the need to create PowerPoint presentations, which Bell said some of his employees were not great at creating.
The use of iPads and mobile apps has also helped the Ware Group to stay organized and knowledgeable whether they are in the office or out in the field. Bell said adopting the technology "screams that we're a more professional company,"
The Ware Group is using more than just vendor apps. It is also taking advantage of applications that have helped simplify internal operations. One of those apps is an app from Quick Office, that lets employees get access to all of the company's internal marketing documents, such as fliers or promotional material. If a distributor is out in the field and needs a copy of the latest company marketing tool, they can quickly go online and download the document to their mobile device.
INSTANT INFORMATIONLike the Ware Group, WinWholesale is also using apps to get information quickly. WinWholesale, with headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, has more than 500 distributors supplying equipment from plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and more.
Steven Hangen, chief financial officer at WinWholesale, explained that one of the apps the company is using is an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. The application gives distributors the ability to get instant information about a product or part while doing business with a dealer. The distributor can push a few buttons and get real-time information including how many parts are in stock at a local branch and current prices.
Hangen said that one WinWholesale distributor was able to quickly close a deal because of his iPad and the ERP app. The distributor was talking to a dealer about a specific product and was able to pull up all of the information. The dealer was so impressed with the immediacy of the information that he decided to place an order right away.
WinWholesale is also impressing its dealer customers with an application called Customer Connect.
"It marries customer information with business information," said Hangen.
With Customer Connect, a file can be kept on each distributor customer. It includes all of the important business information from contacts, to employee numbers and past sales. A distributor can pull up this on a mobile device before visiting a dealer in order to refresh their memory.
But the app records more than just business info. It also allows the distributor to add personal notes, including a customer's likes and dislikes, whether they have a nickname, what sports they are interested in, and on and on.
By the end of 2012, WinWholesale is planning to have an e-commerce application in place. The app will let a contractor or technician order a part with their smartphone while they are in the field. The customer can have the part sent to a WinWholesale location for pickup and never have to place an order from a desktop computer.
Hangen said that adopting mobile technology is not just important to WinWholesale, but to the distribution industry in general. He said distributors who decide not to use it are "going to perish."
MOBILE WEBSITENeuco Inc. is in the process of creating its own mobile application. But first, the company decided to make its website mobile. The Downers Grove, Ill.-based company is a master distributor of controls, supplying products to other wholesalers.
Gregg Skala, Neuco's IT director, said that the company owners attended a conference that focused on the emergence of mobile apps and the benefits. This created interest within the company. Around the same time, many Neuco customers were asking for a way to access the company's information in an easier way while out in the field.
After looking at some numbers from Google analytics, Skala, along with Neuco's web developer Jason Stelzer, were able to see that many of the visitors to Neuco's website were coming from smartphones and other mobile devices. This convergence made it obvious to Skala and Stelzer that it was time to step forward. But before diving into the development of a mobile app, they decided to make their website mobile.
"Creating a mobile site is a great entrance into the (mobile app) arena," said Stelzer.
Last summer, Stelzer and Skala got to work on revamping Neuco's website so that it was easier to access and view information on mobile devices. So far, the work has been a success. The site offers all of the company's parts information, reference numbers, and instructional manuals. It also allows customers to place orders. All of these benefits have now been reworked for a mobile platform where a customer can download data or purchase a piece of equipment from a phone or tablet.
The new mobile site is also benefiting salespeople. Neuco's web team explained that a salesperson can bring up a specific product on a phone and share the information with a potential customer.
Stelzer said the mobile site has Neuco "staying ahead of the curve."
SIDEBAR: Mobile Apps to Improve HVACR Business
HVAC Duct Sizer