Choosing a Software Package: Integrate or Interface?

Reprinted Article from the Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News – September 13, 1999

One very important feature of an integrated package is that you can look at the revenues and expenses from all aspects of your business and decide where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

BY DAVID HAYCRAFT, SERVICE AUTOMATION SYSTEMS, INC.

There are many factors involved when choosing a software package to run your service and installation business, since every company runs their business a little different than the rest. There is only one way to get a package that does business exactly the way you do and that is to write the program yourself.

This is a very large undertaking and more often than not is very costly. There are many service and installation software packages to choose from and it’s a good idea to look at all of them. This is a significant investment that can last you over ten years if you choose the right package.

What is the difference between an integrated software product and an interface of multiple software programs? An integrated software package is industry specific, e.g. hvac, which has service dispatch, job cost, and inventory programs that are tied directly to the accounting and payroll modules of the system.

An interface is usually an industry-specified service dispatch program that ties to an off-the-shelf accounting program such as QuickBooks, Peachtree, Great Plains, Solomon or numerous others. Sometimes these accounting packages cover the job cost and inventory aspects of the business, but are not industry specific.

The advantages to an integrated package are many and companies that have used one will never go to an interface situation. With an integrated package you can create an invoice from the same data entered as a service call or ticket.

Once the job is completed, the parts used are pulled directly from the inventory module, the labor hours go into the payroll module, and the invoice is created for the accounts receivable module. Printing the invoice is an option but the record of that transaction will remain in the system.

An integrated system allows this type of data flow without double-entry or time-consuming import/export functions that an interface situation creates.

One very important feature of an integrated package is that you can look at the revenues and expenses from all aspects of your business and decide where your strengths and weaknesses lie. By having this kind of information at your disposal you can decide if you need to hire more service or installation technicians, advertise more, concentrate on selling more planned service agreements, and hire or cut back on your office staff.

INTEGRATED FEATURES

Some specialized features of an integrated package are bar coding and mobile communication. Bar Coding involves placing bar code labels on inventory items as they come into the warehouse or onto a truck and then scanning that item into the system with a scanner. Then as that item leaves inventory it is scanned again and a transaction takes place.

An integrated system can trace this inventory transaction from the inventory module to the service module to the accounts receivable module and to the accounts payable module. This inventory item is tracked through all of these different modules with minimal data entry. Once an integrated system is set up, the procedures basically run themselves.

Mobile communication is definitely where the service industry is heading, including an application that allows a tech to carry a portable computing device such as a laptop or hand-held to each service site and complete service in real time.

It would allow the tech who is at a service site to pull up a customer record from the host computer at the shop, look up service history and equipment log, and make educated decisions on how to resolve the current call. He could also look up the accounts receivable balance on that customer to see how much money they owed the company for any outstanding invoices. He would be able to locate a part in inventory at the main warehouse or on another truck. In addition, he would have the ability to dispatch himself to a call, put himself in progress on a call, or complete a call and print an invoice (if he has a mobile printer) all from the field without using a telephone, radio, or pager.

An integrated system is designed to handle all aspects of your business. Integrated systems can generate statistical reports, sophisticated business forecasts, P&L statements, and consolidated financial reports that help you develop a long-term business strategy. These resources are useless if they are not utilized and there is no way an interface of multiple systems can provide these reports.

An integrated package shows you through reports how you can operate at maximum efficiency without sacrificing quality. It can also help you cut administrative costs and eliminate unnecessary expenses based on common oversights.

Overall, an integrated system is only as efficient as you make it. The only way to get the information out of a system is to put the information into a system. The real value of an integrated system is when well-trained users follow the routines or procedures of the system.

Using an integrated business solution is definitely the direction any contractor who plans to become more successful and grow would want to take for the future.

David Haycraft is sales manager for Service Automation, Inc., a provider of integrated business solutions for HVAC service and installation contractors.

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