Using Internet, wireless solutions in the field

THERES NEW meaning to the idea that it pays to be connected. Decades ago, Dick Tracy was ahead of his time with his telephone wrist watch, but nowadays plumbing and HVAC contractors can easily do much more with equipment just a bit bigger. Many of the recent computer-based technologies that aim to improve productivity for service contractors take advantage of remote Internet connections and wireless

THERE’S NEW meaning to the idea that it pays to be connected. Decades ago, Dick Tracy was ahead of his time with his telephone wrist watch, but nowadays plumbing and HVAC contractors can easily do much more with equipment just a bit bigger.

Many of the recent computer-based technologies that aim to improve productivity for service contractors take advantage of remote Internet connections and wireless capabilities on handheld computers. Below are two solutions that expand the reach of business software to satellite offices and jobsites.

Updated software

A trend recently among software developers has been to update solutions for service businesses to include applications that speed data exchange between field or satellite offices and headquarters.

Forefront Construction Management Software Version 11 (Dexter + Chaney, www. dexterchaney.com, 800/875-1400), which is a single-entry Windows NT modular solution, takes liberal advantage of the Internet and wireless technology. The solution integrates up to 26 modules to handle accounting, jobs, equipment, materials, service and data sharing tasks, including several modules that expand its reach beyond the home office.

Featuring a Dispatch Schedule that shows work orders scheduled over time and supporting dispatch capability organized by technician, the software’s Work/Order Dispatch module enables the user to send e-mail and dispatch a technician via pager. The program integrates with the mobile service program.

Running in real-time synchronization with a contractor’s main Forefront software, the mobile service technology allows field technicians to review and record work order details, site details, notes and comments, labor hours, tasks performed, materials used and other data. Users in the field can add information on the fly as events unfold at the jobsite.

The Remote-Link module supports use of Forefront in satellite offices or at the jobsite on a laptop. With Remote-Link logged directly onto Forefront, remote users can access purchase orders, print reports, enter time card information and equipment hours and update job projections.

Three options are available to make the remote connection: a WAN (wide area network) connection, a dial-up using NT RAS (remote access server) or an Internet connection.

The software sports a Document Imaging module that enables electronic storage of original documents associated with a project. All stored items are retrievable to view, print out, e-mail and fax.

The solution integrates with TRA-SER Pro, pricing service software from Trade Services Corp., so that, by activating the “Quick-Link” in the Inventory Control module, users can automatically launch the TRA-SER program for accessing and retrieving items into the inventory Item File Maintenance Screen or other entry screens.

Palm-connected project managers can use the Payroll for Palm Computing module to record labor, equipment usage and production data onto the handheld and transmit the data to the main office. Any information entered into the Palm flows back into the Forefront software on the server.

Once the labor hours and other data are sent back to the main office, Forefront updates job costs and sends new data – a new daily productivity report – back to the Palm, enabling the project manager to evaluate the latest information while still in the field.

Wireless transactions

Plumbing and HVAC contractors can help ensure immediate valid payment for installation, repair or home maintenance services rendered anywhere in the field with Palm-powered wireless credit card acceptance.

PayCom Inc.’s AirSwipe mobile credit card and point-of-sale solution (www.paycom-inc.com, 469/438-2329) uses a wireless Palm i705 handheld computer, a compact swipe reader/receipt printer peripheral and credit card processing software for payment acceptance and creation of credit card receipts at any time from any location.

The X2 Mobile Printer/Card Reader, which can also be used to generate cash receipts, weighs 7 oz. and is small enough to fit into a shirt pocket or attach to a belt or a pants pocket. The unit, which features automatic standby for power savings, is a thermal printer.

The secure, wireless system allows users to instantly approve a credit card transaction, eliminating risk of taking customer payment from a card that might later be declined when run through a fixed terminal offsite. Because the user is swiping the card at the actual point of sale, the processing bank considers the transaction low risk and will charge the merchant at the lowest possible “swiped rate.”

With the addition of various types of optional software, the solution functions as a Palm OS computer, allowing users to perform additional point-of-sale operations including screen signature capture, point-of-sale ordering, product management, bar code scanning and accounting.

With appropriate software, the Palm can also be used to send and read e-mails, browse the Internet or determine geographic positioning.

The system ($975 for the i705 Palm unit, printer and software) uses a 1.59% credit card rate and carries a 25-cents per transaction fee and a $20 monthly service charge.

William and Patti Feldman provide Web content for companies and write for magazines, trade associations, manufacturers and other companies on a range of topics. They can be reached at [email protected]