Adding technology to your firm is 'do it or die'

INTERNET ACCESS. Web pages. Internet service providers. Firewalls. Laptops. Wireless. PDAs. Global positioning systems. Handheld devices. Bluetooth. How can these new technologies be used in your business today? And what about tomorrow's technology? You would be surprised at how much cost reduction you can produce from implementing these "buzzwords" into your daily business. You may just find that

INTERNET ACCESS. Web pages. Internet service providers. Firewalls. Laptops. Wireless. PDAs. Global positioning systems. Handheld devices. Bluetooth. How can these new technologies be used in your business today? And what about tomorrow's technology? You would be surprised at how much cost reduction you can produce from implementing these "buzzwords" into your daily business. You may just find that adding that technical edge to your business becomes a "do it or die" choice.

I was taken aback recently when a colleague told me that his boss "didn't do computers." Technology for them was the phone, a fax and the U. S. Postal Service. I was surprised by his comment because a few years ago when I started Vital Mechanical Service Inc., I planned to make use of cutting-edge technology as a way to lower my cost, speed up delivery of my services and to differentiate myself from my competition.

From Day 1, my vans were all GPS located so we could view van positions and customer and vendor locations. By doing so, we increased dispatcher productivity and lowered drive times. I installed satellite Internet laptops in each van so that customer orders, reports, e-mails and data files could be shared across a private company intranet. Vans equipped with scanners and printers print out the work order, quote work or copy a packing list before leaving the customer's site. Cell phones and laptops are coming together into a compact handheld Palm Pilot. The Palm Pilots use site-specific maintenance checklists and service-work order forms. While using the standard input forms, the employee time card data, billing charges and work history are captured electronically.

We have connected a satellite office by using document scanning directly to our network or to e-mail. Our employees can connect to their PCs independently using a virtual remote Inter-net interface. Video cameras allow real-time conversations between offices. An employee from one office can sit at the dispatch board from any chair in the world and feel right at home. Phone and fax machine lines can be routed invisibly without the customer being aware.

GPS is one of my most important cost-saving choices. It costs about $60 per month per van or truck. This is the best technology investment because it makes employees accountable. When technicians are told that their boss will see a daily report of travel routes and stop times, then the promise of eight hours of work for eight hours of pay is kept. Vans last longer and gas bills are lower because the van stays parked in the driveway during nights and weekends. Material deliveries and technician driving distances can be optimized and gas costs lowered by the dispatcher looking at vendor and customer locations before making assignments.

You can document hours charged during a service call with the historical driving reports. Insurance rates go down. Vans obey speed laws when travel speeds are known. Save one hour during a month or reduce wasted travel by 15 miles a day, and it pays for itself with side benefits!

With handheld personal digital assistants, such as the Palm Pilots we use, and special software that integrates with your dispatch board, payroll, accounts payable and receivables, you can upgrade your cell phone for as little as $2,000 each. This sounds expensive by itself, plus you still have to pay $60 a month for the cell phone charges, but using PDAs will speed up the whole accounting cycle by seven to 14 days. With this, cash flow is improved and financing costs are lowered.

Since the worker is documenting his time card hours and the billing hours to the customer, the cost of keying in payroll each week is eliminated. The history of repairs is retained electronically and can be used to help sell new repairs and replacements. Dispatch is quickened and tracked with a simple click of the dispatch keyboard. The customer gets fast, real-time documentation as the work order or service call is passed back to the office electronically. Invoices can be sent out the day after work is completed. By using PDA technology, standards are created as check sheets and service-work orders for each customer are completed. This will reduce your callback costs.

The bottom line is that you should invest in technology. Your customers will want the service you provide to be faster and cheaper next year. If you only lower costs by using simple technologies, then you miss your customer's need for speed. The customer will be looking to give the next order to your competitor. Figure out what the new technical buzzwords of tomorrow will be and implement them before your competitor does. In the end, it is a do it or die decision for your business.

Kevin Almon is the owner of Vital Mechanical in Kent, Wash., and a member of The Unified Group. To learn more about Vital Mechanical, visit its Website at www.vitalmechanical.com or contact Almon at 253/630-6933.