Choosing the Right Software for Your ShopPosted 7/9/2004
By Alexis Gross
There's a saying among some shop owners: "The only system worse than the one you're using is the next one you go to."
Whether you're purchasing your first shop management software system or upgrading from one you've had for years, you don't want that to be true for you. What factors should you consider when making your decision?
Bruce Carrick, strategic product manager for CCC Information Services, believes the first step in choosing a shop management system is assessing your business.
"Shop owners need to understand where they are now and where they want to be three to five years from now, because they're making a purchase that will last through at least that time period," he said. "They want something that will meet their needs now and grow with them in the future."
Chip Keen, president of Garage Operator, suggests that shop owners should determine the dozen most important features they want a shop management system to provide for them and prioritize that list.
"Concentrate your search on just those features, and don't be distracted by all the other things a software program might do," he said. One of the most critical features, he said, is the ease of moving data not only into the program, but out of it.
"I think it's important that a shop management program doesn't hold your data hostage," he said. "You never know if the shop management program you have is going to be bought out or given up on by the developers, or if they'll stop responding to changes in the industry, or if someone comes up with something much better than what you have. If you have 10 years of history in this database and the system doesn't give you an easy way to migrate that data, that would give me pause. Your data becomes much more valuable than any amount of money you could spend on a shop management system."
Another factor to consider is what kind of technical support the program offers. Is it by e-mail, telephone or Web-based? What's your preference, and does the program you're considering offer your preference? Keen also cautions shop owners to consider time zones when thinking about support.
"If you're on the East coast and the provider is on the West coast, can you connect with them at off hours? Don't assume that support is available all the time," he said.
Also, how easy is it to access customer service? How willing are they to incorporate your suggestions into the system, either by modifying your specific system to meet your needs or by incorporating your suggestion into future general updates?
Training is another important consideration. How is training provided? Is it context sensitive within the program? Does it have on-site training available, is it Web-based or is there a traditional user's guide? How often does the company come out with new revisions? Is it keeping current not only in the automotive industry but also in the computer hardware and operating system industries?
Know not only how much the system will cost you up front, but how much it will cost you in the future. Are there long-term licensing fees, annual update fees, support fees or maintenance fees? Know those fees and the availability of support in writing before purchasing a system. How much are the fees? Are they required? If they're voluntary, what are the consequences of letting them lapse?
"If there are no annual fees, what's the business model of the company manufacturing that shop management system?" Keen asked. "How do they support themselves after sales? Will they still be around next year? Do your research on the company."
Carrick agreed, "Look at the track record of the company and the software and make sure they're in for the long haul. You don't want to buy something that won't be supported in six months or a year."
Collision shops in particular will want to look at their relationship with insurers and look for a shop management program that can help manage those relationships, said Carrick.
"Because shop management systems are so tightly linked with estimating products, you also want a system that will work with estimating software," he said. Information such as parts orders, estimating data and accounting information should be able to be transferred into the shop management program.
Multi-shop operations will want data to be consolidated efficiently to see a global view of the entire operation, but also focus on business in individual shops.
Two ASA members recently upgraded their shop management systems and offered their advice to shop owners making the same decision.
"We just went through that transition, so I consider myself an expert," said Darrell Amberson, owner of Lehman's Garage in Minneapolis, Minn. "The issues we looked at were the ability to network, handle multiple locations, ease of use, compatibility with our existing accounting system, and service and follow-up."
References from other shops are crucial to making a decision this big, said Amberson.
"The references are more important than anything else," he said. "We determined that it was worth the cost for three of us to go to another shop and observe a system and get opinions from all the people in the shop using the system. Obviously the salesperson isn't going to point out the shortcomings to you, and you need to evaluate those before purchasing a system. You're always going to have a transition, but you can minimize the difficulty as much as possible."
As a collision shop owner, Amberson is particularly pleased with how his system logs customer and insurance information.
"The particular one we're using even interacts with the paint measurement system," he said. "Insurance companies play such a huge part in our business that anything that can measure your output is useful. When you go to those periodic meetings with insurance companies, you want to bring your own set of numbers. It's a checks and balances thing, but it also shows the insurance companies that you're sophisticated enough to keep up with that information."
One factor in Amberson's decision was the fact that his new software provider is local and there is lots of training available. In addition to the initial training on how to use the system, he said, refresher training from a supplier is also important. "Some pieces that seemed to have little value when you put it in might become more important down the line."
Still, he said, it's difficult to have a complete understanding of an entire system until you work with it for a while.
"No matter how much training you sit through, there are little details you won't find until you're actually using it," said Amberson. "There will always be some adjustments that you have to make. We've found some things are a little more awkward and require a few more steps, while other things are more efficient."
An alternative to buying a prepackaged shop management system is to have one custom-written for your shop like Eddie Ehlert, owner of Mazdonly Ltd. in Chamblee, Ga., did.
"One of the reasons we went with a custom application was all the costs were front-loaded and we got it exactly the way we wanted to with no long-term fees or licensing considerations," Ehlert said.
However, it took much longer than initially planned to get it exactly the way Ehlert wanted, and ended up costing quite a bit more than originally estimated.
"Even though we spent a lot of time developing the bid, and I thought I was fairly clear about what functionality should be when we were finished, it took more than twice what the initial quote was to get a working product," he said. "There were some fundamental problems with screen display and functionality, and I would get a bill for time spent without actually getting the problem taken care of."
Ehlert's advice to shop owners purchasing management software is to think about what they want that software to do and how they want it done.
"Everybody has their own individual system of bookkeeping and repair order tracking and customer history tracking. If you are able to manage your workload and paper flow effectively, you certainly want an electronic system that will mirror or improve on that system," he said. "If you're going to have to relearn how to do everything to fit the software system, you've made a mistake. You're buying to increase the efficiency of your business, not to enrich a software manufacturer."
Ehlert also noted that with the advent of the OEM service information Web sites, a package that can jump straight into your browser to access that information is increasingly important.
"The ability to go from your operating application directly into the Web site, and where possible, import that data into any technical manual section you have in your system is very helpful, and some of the commercial packaged systems are starting to do that," he said.
Another important function to consider is a management system's networking capabilities.
"If you've just got one person at the service counter, it's a lot less involved than having computers at each workstation like we do, in addition to each service desk and the front counter," said Ehlert. "You want to make sure all the records are updated automatically. If you're going to need network functionality, it's much better to buy it up front."
The next time Ehlert faces the decision to upgrade his shop management system, he'll keep in mind the advice he gives to other shop owners making the same decision.
"I developed a level of trust for the software vendor and didn't respond as quickly as I should have to warning signs that some moderately large problems were being scoffed at as inconsequential and easily corrected. I wasn't wary enough," he said. "Even though I had been involved initially and was there from the start, it's still a buyer-beware situation when you hire programmers to upgrade something that already works. It's the same with off-the-shelf systems. If it doesn't do exactly what you want it to do and you're negotiating with the manufacturer to modify it, don't pay until they're finished."
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