I recently had lunch at the Olive Garden, a popular chain restaurant. Our wait person (love that new 'gender neutral' term) was keen on showing us the latest gadget the company was touting, to make our dining experience special.
The unit looked like a small TV, about half the size of a two slice toaster, and it was prominently placed at the end of our table. It was wireless, naturally, and had the capability to do many things in addition to alerting our server that we required his or her presence through a red flashing signal on top. With it, a customer could peruse a menu, order meals, appetizers or drinks, review specials and, for a fee, play video games while waiting for their order to be delivered.
Not being overly tech savvy, the unit impressed me as being innovative ... and just a bit creepy. It got me to thinking about just how far computer and microprocessor technology has come, and how it is impacting all segments of our lives.
The plumbing, HVAC and pipe fitting industries are known quantities. By that I mean the types of things we deal with are pretty much the same as they have ever been, with a few exceptions for modernity and innovation.
Water, air, gravity, hot, cold; solids, liquids and gases and the combinations and movements of all of them. There is nothing that technology can do to change the laws of physics. While the work we do hasn't changed significantly in a 150 years, the ability to have sophisticated computing power at our fingertips in smaller and smaller devices has certainly changed how we do it. It also has the ability for your business to become more streamlined, reactive and profitable without incurring a great deal of expense.
Take, for example, office to field communications. We've come a long way from land line telephones and sending a runner out to the jobsite to get you or your people's attention. Cell phones shortened that curve, and smart phones have shortened it even more. Today everyone has, at least, a cell phone. Communications between the office, management and the field is instantaneous. Service personnel, equipped with notebooks, iPods or iPads can generate invoices, have them priced, via internal material handling “apps,” have the customer sign them on the screen and pay directly from their credit card or debit card accounts.
The app then reorders the material used, either from your own stock or a supplier, all in less time than it would take to hand write a simple one page job ticket. This invoice is then posted to the customer's file and into your accounting software all in the blink of any eye.
Applications (apps) have made it so that you can know not only where your trucks are, but how long they have been there, how fast they were driven and what route they took. There are applications that track not only where and how your vehicles get to jobs, but monitor their mechanical health as well.
Services, such a Blue Link, monitor the onboard computers of your trucks via satellite uplinks and send you a report, via e-mail, detailing the overall health and performance of the vehicle, and warning you of items that need attention. Scheduling routine maintenance is taken out of the hands of office staff or field personnel and put into a program that actually schedules the required service and generates a notice to the driver, making it more likely that your truck(s) will be properly serviced in a timely manner, avoiding catastrophic and time critical breakdowns.
Also, your clients that utilize 'apps' will expect, and in some cases demand, that you log in to their systems for routine correspondence, lien waivers, billing applications, payment and other data transfer procedures. Streamlining the 'paper trail' (electron trail???) makes it all run smoother, so the story goes. It's funny though that with all the apps and integrated communications, it's still hard to get your draws in a timely manner, isn't it?
The app avalanche isn't slowing down either. If there is something that can be done by moving electrons around, there is an app for it. You can even have custom apps made for you, specifically. If you are a large firm and need some specific computer assisted application, there are people who will build it for you. Think old payroll programs on steroids.
As these apps become more and more ubiquitous, they get cheaper. Some of the most common ones are free, if you agree to give the producer some personal or business information. Identifying a need, finding and application that fits the need and using it to make you more efficient can free up precious time and increase your bottom line. Integrating apps into your daily routine is one way you can get and stay ahead in our competitive industry.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].