People order stuff online from Amazon at the rate of sometimes hundreds of orders per second, and it arrives a couple days later at the convenience of their doorsteps. At some restaurants, customers can place an order online and go pick up lunch “as soon as possible” or “at a scheduled time.” Increasingly, service providers — like medical offices — are giving customers the option to schedule online, too. And the HVAC field is no exception.
“For some time now, we have seen growing demand to integrate connected devices for field service operations,” said Tom Devroy, senior product evangelist, North America, IFS. In a recent study by IFS, 30 percent of product-oriented companies said they were already using the IoT for field service to some extent, while a few companies were harnessing IoT data to automatically trigger work orders or technician dispatches.
Like other HVAC contractors looking to get out in front of the trend, Rob Minnick, owner at Minnick’s Inc. in Laurel, Maryland, uses a scheduling platform internally for techs, as well as offering a scheduling calendar for customers who visit the website.
“That whole online thing … that’s where they’re going,” he said. “It’s growing — not fast, but it’s growing, and that’s why [scheduling software providers] are working on tying this all in, where customers can pick and choose their slots. It’s one of the big things I’ve been trying to push for a few years.”
For those switching to a new service platform or moving to one for the first time, it’s important to make sure it provides the right level of sophistication, said Minnick.
“It’s about making sure it fits your model,” he said. “Don’t get something fancy just because you want bragging rights. If you don’t need all those bells and whistles, why go to a platform that has all that stuff if you could use a much less expensive platform?”
For Brad Overman, owner of Overman Plumbing, Heating, & Electric Inc. in Knightstown, Indiana, that fit is as simple as using Google Calendars for dispatch work, something he started two years ago.
FROM FUNCTIONAL TO DESIGNER: How sophisticated to take your technology really depends on the company’s needs. For Brad Overman, owner of Overman Plumbing, Heating, & Electric, Inc., a simple Google Calendar does the trick.
“We have everyone make a Google account, and then allow access and editing,” he said.
Each tech is assigned a color, and jobs are entered as events. Techs and the office staff can see each other’s jobs; schedule more time; and add notes, addresses, notifications, and other data.
“We still use paper billing, so it is not integrated,” Overman said. “This does, however, integrate directly with Google Maps and shows the location or can be used to navigate. It is working well for us and is easy to use.”
Minnick knows about the transition process, as he switched from a rate pricing book, used via an iPad app to ServiceTitan this June.
“The biggest thing is to think about what you’re going to want in the next three to five years, because if you think about only what you need today and next year — that doesn’t cut it,” he said. “You need to really lay it all out: Talk to people who are using the software and look at everything, including the time that people are going to save on it, not just the money.”
That kind of decision-making was what prompted Minnick’s switch to ServiceTitan. One major issue for his employees was efficiency, and for them, the math added up.
“[What we were using] did pretty much the same thing, but it was really slow ... you had to wait like three minutes for it to open,” he said. “Now, it’s seconds. If each person can save five minutes a day, and you have 10 employees, how much would you save over a month, over a year?”
And unlike Overman, who wanted something simple, Minnick saw the “bells and whistles” as a time-saver.
“With the other, we had to have four to eight other apps to insert all these other things; it just becomes very cumbersome,” he said. “I had to weigh it all out, even down to ‘If it takes three minutes to open that up, how many things are you opening times three minutes?’… and we’re saving time, and that’s the biggest thing you can’t get back.”
Irene Kerro is office coordinator at Central Heating & Air Conditioning Co. in Richmond Heights, Ohio. The company implemented ServiceTitan four years ago, after its previous dispatching software company went out of business. At $50 per user per month for three users, the new program was an investment, she said, and the company decided it was worth it.
“We really wanted it to be out in the cloud, so if for some reason something happened to the building, we could go to Starbucks and set up on our laptops,” she said.
After selecting the right software, Minnick noted that it’s vital to make sure the data is clean before transferring it over — and to leave enough time to do the transition right.
“Like anything, what you put in is what you’re gonna get out,” he said. “You have to make sure everything gets entered in correctly: equipment, etc.”
Platforms like ServiceTitan can pull the old data correctly about 75 percent of the time, Minnick said. The other 25 percent of the time, you have to go in and verify it, he added, which requires sifting through the company’s current data to make any corrections needed, so the system can start off on a sound footing.
Kerro put it bluntly: “If you have garbage going in, you’re going to be constantly fixing it.”
And while ServiceTitan has an iPad app available for technicians, she recommended holding off on that initially, taking the time to get the office staff really comfortable with the system first, and then adding the iPads maybe six months later.
STAYING ON TASK
The end point of a service platform, of course, is better service for customers. Dave Dombrowski, owner, Rapid Repair Experts, Raleigh, North Carolina, has an online scheduling service on the company website, where customers are shown a calendar and can select their desired appointment times from five time blocks a day. Then, the company will work to accommodate their request.
PICK AND CHOOSE: Visitors to the Rapid Repair Experts website can select their desired appointment time from five times blocks a day, and the company will work to accommodate their request.
“I’m a big believer in ‘you book the call, you figure it out later’ — don’t complicate it for the customer,” Dombrowski said.
Rapid Repair has offered online scheduling for about six months. It’s part of the company’s program with its ad agency, and it costs about an extra $100 per month. Dombrowski said it’s been working pretty well and that customers are satisfied with the response.
The company uses ServiceTitan for scheduling, but the online scheduling form isn’t hooked up to it yet — purposefully, Dombrowski said.
“We try to keep it simple,” he said.
He prefers to have a dispatcher gather the information via an email generated when a customer submits the online form.
Most of the time, the company is able to give customers their first-choice scheduling option.
“We make it work, whatever it takes,” he said. “If, God forbid, something happens where we can’t do the time, we call the customer and say, ‘We can’t come at 8 a.m. Can we come at 10 a.m.?”
Typically, Dombrowski gets about one online service request a day via the scheduling platform. (He gets about four to six a day via online chat.) He said it saves a ton of time.
“You’re eliminating one phone call and one conversation … then, all you’re doing is confirming it,” he said.
The one problem to watch out for is people who book an appointment last-minute: say at 8 p.m. for 10 a.m. the next morning.
“You do get those rare occurrences where you can’t make something happen, and you have to call them up and say this really isn’t reasonable,” he said.
Minnick uses the same type of online scheduling form as Dombrowski, and he sees it as part of a trend. He, too, has usually been able to give customers their first or at least their second scheduling option, and he said his customers appreciate the opportunity. He compared online scheduling to online chat, which the company started last September.
“It went from a couple a day to double that, to double that, to double that … It’s the same thing with online scheduling: We’re going to more of that as well.”
HOLD THE PHONE
Steve Mastio is president at FittleBug, a real-time booking company whose software allows a customer to see what slots are open, schedule an appointment, and receive follow-up emails — all automated. FittleBug was founded in 2009 and just inked a partnership with Chem-Dry carpet cleaners, and Mastio believes that other segments of the service industry will soon follow suit.
“Imagine if you’re booking a flight on Southwest Airlines: You go through all the pricings and all the times, all the arrivals … you fill out all your information and put in your credit card, and then you get an email that says ‘We’ll get back to you,’” he said, by way of comparison.
Of course, that’s not how Southwest operates. But that’s how he sees today’s online scheduling platforms. For industries like HVAC, he believes there’s a ton of yet-untapped potential.
“Our software is more like how Southwest Airlines really works,” Mastio said. “Basically, an individual provider — think in terms of one of your HVAC guys — licenses the program from me.”
There’s a one-time setup fee, and then most of his customers choose the service priced at $200 per month. Once installed, the software allows contractors to put their services online, be it carpet cleaning or air duct cleaning. A customer can click through subcategories and select their options, each with a time stamp and a cost, and the software tallies the times and prices.
“When the customer clicks ‘schedule,’ they see the time slots when the company is free to do [for example] an hour and 42 minutes of work, and when they’re not,” Mastio explained. “And it also shows them when they’re in the area … so the consumer can choose one of those appointments and maybe save $5, $10.”
The customer can pick a time, like 1:48 p.m. to 3:13 p.m. Then, they fill out a service address, make a deposit, and the software processes the order and drops the deposit in a PayPal account — and it’s booked. There’s an automatic email to remind them of the appointment 24 hours in advance, and a drip email that can be scheduled for afterward: “How’d we do,” “Click here to give us a Google review,” or, in six months, a tuneup reminder.
Most HVAC contractors don’t use software this sophisticated — yet. But Mastio believes that day is coming quickly.
“I describe FittleBug as the cheapest employee you’ll ever hire,” he said. “It works with them 24 hours a day to do exactly what they want — allows you to process an order and take a security deposit, integrate with other programs [including ServiceTitan], follow up with reminders, and never asks for a raise, and never asks for health insurance.”
On the consumer side, things are already trending in that direction. In the health care field, a study by Accenture forecasts that by the end of 2019, nearly 66 percent of health care facilities in the U.S. will offer online appointment scheduling.
Mastio predicts that will carry over to industries like HVAC.
“The market’s going to force it,” he said. “The ‘We’ll be there sometime between 12 and 5’ isn’t going to cut it any more. They don’t want to take a half a day off to wait for you to [show up] … when you can go to the internet instead. And in one click, you can lose all that loyalty you’ve built up with that person.”
Mastio added a note of caution: As with any new service, online scheduling isn’t a silver bullet on its own, and it certainly won’t help unless people know they have that option.
“Here’s the thing: People think that this technology, which is kind of cool, is a divining rod, and as soon as they have it, everyone’s going to flock to it,” he said.
That’s not the way it works: To get the payback, you have to market the service in the first place.
“The most important thing to tell people is, if they’ve loved you the last five, 10 years that you’ve spent eight hours a day playing telephone tag … now they can love you 24/7,” he said. “If you don’t tell people you have FittleBug and they can book [appointments] themselves, you have the greatest billboard in the middle of a desert.”
Publication date: 10/15/2018