What to Look for when Shopping for the Right Shop Management SoftwarePosted 7/14/2006
By Rachael J. Mercer
Purchasing a shop management software package may possibly be one of the most confounding and difficult jobs shop owners must undertake. While managing a mechanical or collision shop, running the day-to-day activities, shop owners must also take on the title of researcher, investigator and test subject. This painstaking process can be quite confusing and lengthy, but upon selecting the software program or package that suits the needs of his or her shop, the business owner can take advantage of powerful business tools that will lead to management success.
Where Do I Begin?
There are some steps you can take to research the available products and to determine your shop's needs - eventually leading you to the shop management software best suited for your shop's success. Determining your needs is one of the first steps to shopping for a shop management software system. Of course, some shop owners will resist change, fearing the unknown and the ramifications that new technology brings about.
Mike Schoonover, owner of Schoonover Bodyworks Inc., a collision shop in St. Paul, Minn., said "in our case we purchased a software package from CCC back in 1999. It is a Web-based, 'real time' software. It has helped us be more efficient, reduce our overhead by reducing staff, and assisted us in using standard operating procedures (SOPs). The benefits are huge in using a shop management system. It costs more not to use one!"
Determine Your Needs
Begin the process of software purchasing by identifying your needs. First, take stock of the technology you're using in your shop today. Are you still on DOS-based equipment or systems? Have you upgraded to Windows? What version? Will you be purchasing software for one location or for multiple locations? Do you want to use Web-based software? Will you be networking between computers in one business location or in multiple? These are the basic, fundamental questions you will need to answer.
Frank Terlep, president of Summit Software Solutions Inc., said: "A shop owner needs to understand internally what they want to accomplish. Make a list." He urged shop owners to talk to their technicians and employees to determine their wants and wishes. After all, these technicians and employees will be the ones working day-to-day on a new software system, he said.
Rick Spahn, president of Pace Software, believes flexibility is the most important feature a shop owner should look for in a shop management program.
"The one thing I have learned over the past 18 years of providing shop management software, is that no two shops operate exactly the same way. That is why owners should look for a software that can conform to the way they operate their business and not settle for an 'out of the box' solution that offers very little flexibility," he said.
Next, educate yourself on your shop's income. Do you have a way to determine your "shop size" or to determine how much business you do in a year? Are you aware of your profit margin and other such numerical measurements of your business? These questions are important because there are differing software management systems for large and small shops.
For example, Mitchell International's Barry Mason said, "Any shop can use a software system to be profitable, but Mitchell International offers ABS Core Products to shops that do between $750,000 and $2 million in business each year. ABS Enterprise is a multi-location software management system designed for shops doing $2 million or more each year."
"GarageOperator customers range from one-man shops to shops with a dozen technicians doing more than $2 million a year in sales," said Chip Keen, owner of GarageOperator. "Our niche is independent mechanical repair shops."
Answering those questions about shop size and income will help you narrow the list of choices of shop management software for your business.
Interfacing, Compatibility, Exportation and Ease of Use
Once you're sure about the statistics surrounding your business, compiling a list like Terlep suggests is key. Myles Swift, owner of Computer Assistance, said, "Many shop owners just like to fix cars, and they see a shop system as a tool to present a good-looking invoice." He continued, "For them, ease of use is primary. That means a product should need little or no knowledge to run."
Of course, all managers and shop owners would rate ease of use high on the list of priorities, but education concerning new software can bring about ease of use even if the software seems complicated initially. Thus, for many shop owners, there are other considerations in addition to ease of use.
"When selecting an estimating system, most shops know to look for the accuracy of the database, the ease of use of the software and the ongoing service and support offered," said Daphne Li, vice president of products and marketing for Audatex (formerly ADP), a collision shop management software company. "In addition, we recommend that a shop also take into consideration the estimating approach, the acceptance of the estimating system by the insurance companies, communication features, and the compatibility and integration with other shop software."
Interfacing and integration are key discussion points when searching for the right software for your business. Shop owners must determine whether they want a shop management system that is all-inclusive - that is, it takes care of invoicing, parts ordering, accounting, estimating and more. If a shop owner is not looking for software to take care of all of those items, he must be sure that the software system he purchases will be compatible with the accounting system he uses (such as Quicken, QuickBooks, Peachtree and others) as well as other estimating or scheduling programs already in place in his shop.
The accounting issue is possibly the most important when determining which software to select.
Frank Spicer, owner of AutoLogic Inc., a mechanical shop in Bellevue, Wash., stresses the accounting component when searching for a software program. "Does the shop owner want to have (the management system) interface with their accounting software or have it all built in? The beauty in a complete system is that all my employees' billable hours, all their hours on the electronic time clock are kept together. I print them right there from the program. All my taxes and everything are already done for me."
Spicer continued, "There's no transfer to Quicken, Quickbooks or Peachtree Accounting. It's all taken care of in one place, on one program."
If exporting information to take advantage of other software programs is an important feature you're looking for, talk with sales reps and other software users to determine how easy and accurate the exportation process is.
Earl Dohner, AAM, director of ASA's Mechanical Division and owner of E & E's Garage in Brookville, Ohio, recommends a system that will keep everything together, such as vehicle information, office management and a way that office personnel can follow up with the customer with thanks, reminders and bookings. "But," Dohner said, "ask if the shop can get the customer information out of the software program to use someplace else."
Bill Moss, owner of Auto Advantage, a mechanical shop in Manassas, Va., stresses exportation as well. "Make sure you can export customer data out of the management system to a Word file or Excel sheet or mailing label package. Some software packages require one of their representatives to extract the data for you. You should own and have control over that data."
Haste Makes for Waste
Enter into the software search planning to spend some serious time doing research.
"We researched on and off for a year," said Greg Waite, owner of Naper Auto Works, a mechanical shop in Naperville, Ill. "There are a lot of shop software choices to take in." Despite taking his time, Waite invested in a shop management system that didn't fully meet his shop's needs, and he ended up purchasing another system after doing even more research.
But how can you be sure you're comparing apples to apples and not apples to oranges? Begin with your friends.
Get By with Help from Your Friends
As a member of the Automotive Service Association (ASA), you have hundreds of collision and mechanical shop owners whose experience is at your disposal. Begin by talking with ASA members who own businesses similar to yours. If you own a mechanical shop, find two to three members whose mechanical shops do about the same business as yours (you will need to know your own statistics before seeking these people out). Likewise, if you own a collision shop, find some ASA members whose collision shops are similar in size and business revenue to yours. You can find these members locally.
Network when attending events such as the International Autobody Congress & Exposition (NACE) or the Congress of Automotive Repair and Service (CARS). Develop relationships with other ASA members each time you have the opportunity to attend more localized ASA events (such as state-wide meetings and conferences). These business owners are just like you; when it comes to purchasing shop management software, they've either done it, they're doing the research or beginning the process.
Consider joining the International Automotive Technicians' Network (iATN) at www.iatn.net. The group charges a nominal membership fee. There are forums contained on the Web site that cover all things automotive, but specifically, the shop management forum offers advice on researching, selecting, purchasing and implementing shop management software.
When dealing with representatives from software companies, it's important to get the full story on their products. Of course, they will present you with the best features of their products, and sometimes will fail to mention the "quirks" and "kinks" in their system. As part of your research, ask for references - shop management software representatives should be able to put you in touch with three to five similar-sized shops that can tell you about their experience with the software you're considering. However, it is important to remember that, again, a software company probably won't put you in touch with someone who has anything negative to say about their software. This is where your networking (mentioned in the Get By with Help from Friends section above) comes into play.
"These people give real advice," said Howard Pitkow of Wagenwerx Inc., a mechanical shop in Wyndmoor, Pa. "They hang out (in these forums) and discuss problems and successes. This can be more important than having five sales representatives come out and demo their stuff."
Get Some Experience
Once you've settled on the top two software packages for your business, spend some time actually using them. If you've found colleagues (particularly locally) in the automotive industry who are using the same software system, go and visit them. Perhaps you could take a technician or two with you. This real-life experience spent shadowing other technicians and shop owners as they work with the system you're researching will go a long way in pointing out flaws or successes in the software. You'll get a feel for the other shop's attitude toward the system. Is the system difficult to use? Time consuming? Is it complicated? On the other hand, these employees may reveal that they find the system very easy and understandable. In either case, time spent getting this real-time experience can be very valuable.
Terlep also suggests a trial or pilot period - a preset amount of time that you have negotiated with a software provider - that allows you to use the software in your business for several weeks or serveral months. "Pay for someone to train you on the system," he says. "In that period, you will know if that software will work for you." Ask your sales representative about on-site training for you and your employees. Is that something the company offers? Is it free (included in the cost of purchasing the software) or does it cost an additional fee? Mitchell International's Mason said, "We want to be sure our users are trained and comfortable with using the software. We believe it's critical that trainers can come on site to teach owners and employees about the software."
Support and Service
Spicer, who already uses a software system in his business, said, "A one-on-one relationship with the designer is important to me. I came to GarageOperator because I can talk directly to software engineers and because their response time is quick."
Customer service and support is certainly important and is one reason many shop owners give for their satisfaction with their software system. You'll need to determine the type of support a software company can offer. For example, are you able to reach a "real-live person" when calling a support number? Do they have a Web site that answers frequently asked questions or regularly experienced problems? Is their Web site interactive, should you choose to use it? Are there support representatives who can chat online to assist you with your problems?
Pitkow raves about the customer service he's received from the software system he selected. Pitkow purchased a locally based program that was tailored to his business. "Take Charge" is produced by a shop owner and computer engineer near Pitkow's business. "Once we had a 'fatal error,' and thought we had lost all of our information. But because my program is a local one, the head programmer came directly to my shop and retrieved my information quickly."
Business owners must determine the type of support and service they'll expect from a shop management software system.
Don't Jump in All at Once
Once you've selected and purchased a software system, participate in any and all of the training that you can so you can learn how to operate the system. Train your employees well to avoid their frustration at using a new system. But, despite many bells and whistles, it's important not to try to learn how to use each of them immediately.
Just as the process of shopping for software can be overwhelming, the process involved in learning to use the software can be overwhelming as well. The key is to take both the researching and learning process step by step to avoid confusion and the feeling of being inundated with information.
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