Shopping for HVAC Software Means Knowing What You Need
Seeking outside help aids the purchasing process
Finding the right software for an HVAC business often proves one of the most difficult tasks for a contractor. There’s a plethora of options on the market — yet, just as with any tool, no single piece of software can be expected to be a silver bullet. Finding the right solution means tempering expectations and knowing what is the best fit for an individual business model.
The first step is to realize any piece of software will have some areas that are stronger and some that are weaker.
“There is not a perfect software out there,” said Todd Kiefer, general manager of Tiger Heating & Air Conditioning Services Inc. in Collinsville, Illinois. “There’s quirks in every software that you need to work out. You get out of the software as much as you put into it.”
That’s a lesson Chris Crew, coaching and development director of The Blue Collar Success Group, learned when he ran his own contracting business. Crew had been using one software program that was strong in accounting and inventory management but weak in automating and reporting. He switched to another system that was strong in those areas, but actually weaker in the other two.
“That’s the dilemma for most contractors — what do I have to give up to get better?” Crew said.
The biggest advantage of Crew’s new software was the ability to track marketing, from the initial phone call to the final invoice. This required him to set up 250 tracking lines, but it allowed him to negotiate the best price from vendors.
“It wasn’t just about the phone calls,” Crew said. “It was about how many new customers the campaign drove versus existing customers.”
This shift allowed Crew to get the best prices from every source, from large online lead aggregators to local magazines. This meant Crew could spend more on marketing because he knew there would be a value to it.
“They knew that if they wanted my business, this is where their price had to be,” he said. “This is one of the biggest benefits from the right software. It takes out human error and creates better data.”
Coaching and development director The Blue Collar Success Group
If fellow contractors ask Jimmy Hiller Jr. what they should do when they start shopping for a new software system, his answer is simple: Seek professional help. That is, hire a consultant. That’s what Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical did when they made the switch. Hiller, the Tennessee firm’s chief operating officer, said they hired a consultant from Nashville who guided them through the process.
The transition remained challenging, Hiller said, but he feels using a consultant made it smoother than it would have been otherwise. In the end, Hiller selected ServiceTitan because it’s designed specifically for the industry.
“You always hear how bad it is when you switch software, and it was very tough,” he said.
Still, a change was necessary. The system the firm had been using was falling behind, Hiller said. It operated on an outdated platform; he felt there wasn’t enough reinvestment from the provider; and the firm had simply outgrown it.
Short of hiring a consultant, one option for impartial, expert advice is a provider like Software Advice. The website provides free, personalized software recommendations for companies of all sizes in an array of fields, including HVAC. The site also provides research by industry experts and reviews from validated users.
Software Advice provides information on about 150 HVAC service products on its website.
“The sheer size of the software market is a major challenge in finding the right product,” said Taylor Short, team leader for Software Advice. And the offerings will only grow in size and complexity. One “fascinating technology,” Short said, is augmented reality, which would allow techs to overlay repair or inspection so every service task is completed consistently.
The most immediate impact will come from IoT sensors, she said.
“The technology isn’t new, but is now affordable for any service business to network their assets,” Short said. “These sensors can detect a variety of conditions (vibration, moisture, rotation speed, etc.) to indicate signs of failure early, so that technicians can service units only when necessary. This is an incredible boost to efficiency, allowing managers to prioritize jobs and dispatch service vehicles based on the actual condition of an HVAC system.”
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Contractors need to know what their business objectives are and how any software helps them reach those objectives, Crew said. He said ease of use is a key factor: Can technicians use the software? Does the software lighten the load?
“What you want a software to do will depend on your business model,” Crew said.
Among the factors his firm considered when choosing a new software, dispatching stood out as a priority. Hiller likes to see the different report packages he can pull to keep track of the day-to-day business. The firm also needed the ability for its techs to present different options to homeowners.
Eric Kjelshus, owner of Eric Kjelshus Energy Heating and Cooling in Greenwood, Missouri, uses software to monitor the work done by his employees. He calculates the efficiency of each technician on a weekly basis. The company bills by the task, so Kjelshus uses GPS tracking software to see how much time employees spend at each location. Sometimes he finds that a technician worked at a job for 12 hours and could only bill for three. This tells him the technician might have been too slow or undercharged the job.
Most of Kjelshus’ employees have been with him for years, but some new technicians push back on being monitored like this. Not all of the data points to problems with the workers, though. One efficiency improvement he made was buying larger trucks that can carry more equipment. As a result, Kjelshus has learned to take factors like weather into his planning.
Kjelshus spends about 10 percent of his time researching new products and doing training. Despite this effort, he hasn’t come across that one software solution that “does it all.” Right now, he’s looking for a system that helps him narrow his customer list by excluding those who have already bought a product from him.
Before giving advice on a switch, Crew asks what contractors love about their software and what they wish it would do. He recommends getting demos and finding what they like — then checking to see if their current software does that.
“It would behoove any contractor to validate the software that they’re using today, and if it doesn’t check all those boxes, they might explore other options,” Crew said.
Crew said that switching software is a big commitment — one that’s more involved than changing any other supplier, because it involves retaining the team but changing processes.
“It’s a lot easier to change wholesalers than it is to change software,” Crew said.
Short advised that shopping for functionality is a mistake, because many software solutions offer similar features.
“These products will check the boxes for the right functionality and price, but months or years after implementation, buyers may find the support or training options lacking, for example,” she said.
Similarly, Kiefer said a firm’s entire culture needs to adapt to whatever new software is selected. At Kiefer’s firm, technicians are expected to give six options to customers, and the software measures the number of options presented. Installers need to take six pictures of finished work, which the software uploads. These pictures not only show the work, but also document that the installation area was cleaned up afterward.
Changing software is also a major financial decision. Crew said contractors need to consider the entire cost of a system, rather than just shopping by price.
“If the software helps me reach my objectives and it provides me with all the automation, ease of use, and real data, can you really put a price tag on that?”
Questions to Ask Software Vendors
Taylor Short, team leader for Software Advice, recommends a few questions to ask vendors:
- Do you offer implementation services for new users?
- Can you help integrate the system with my accounting tools?
- What hours is your technical support team available? How can they be reached (phone, email, text)?
- Can you train my employees to use the new system efficiently?
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