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  Special Feature

Plan for Purchasing Shop Management Software

Posted 7/23/2007
By Rachael J. Mercer

Making and sticking to a plan saves costly mistakes.

Purchasing new shop management software can be an intimidating process. Despite all the best advice received from other shop owners and managers who've made the software-buying journey previously, there's not much that can fully prepare you for the journey ahead. While others offer their best ideas on which companies to talk to about shop management software, still others mention the questions you should ask. All of this advice can be mind-boggling and frustrating. With that in mind, here's a plan to put you on the road to owning new shop management software.

Prepare. Prepare to purchase new shop management software. Lay out a timeline, expecting the process to take several months. Before discussing any shop management software with dealers or vendors, know your business inside out. Some questions you must answer about your business:

  • How much money have I budgeted for new shop management software?
  • What software that is currently in use must interface with any newly purchased software?
  • How receptive are my employees to change? If unreceptive, how can I begin to motivate them to accept the coming changes?
  • What are my needs? Do I need a large system to network several shop locations, or will a shop management system designed for small businesses suit me better?
  • Do I have a contract with a current shop management software provider that must be dissolved or concluded?

Frank Terlep, president and co-founder of Summit Software Solutions, encourages shop owners interested in new shop management software to write down what they hope to accomplish with - and receive from - new shop management software. In addition to preparing for the steps ahead by thoroughly understanding your business needs, Terlep's advice is that you set goals for what you wish to achieve by purchasing new software. Is your goal smoother interfacing between multiple programs? Less redundant paperwork? A completely paperless system? Set your goals and write them down, so you'll know when you've met them in your shop management software search.

Learn everything you can about shop software. Visit trade shows and spend time talking with representatives about your needs and what their software offers. Trade shows may be the best time to compare software systems, because many companies can be found under one roof during that time. Ask questions about the shop software's characteristics. You know what you need because you took the time to prepare. Take notes concerning each representative's answers, and keep them organized.

What should you ask, in addition to questions that determine the compatibility between your business and their software? "I'd investigate the number of users and longevity of the software," said Scott Kallemeyn, owner of Kallemeyn Collision Center, Palos Heights, Ill. "In other words, is it a proven product that has been generally accepted by others?"

Bill Moss, director of service and parts, Advantage Certified Auto Group, Manassas, Va., agrees with Kallemeyn. "I consider references one of the most critical parts of the qualifying process," he said. "Your experienced peers are your best sources of what the software in question won't do for you. Training, service contract terms and updates are all 'after the purchase' issues that are pivotal in the decision process. They are [some of the] intangibles that I would want to verify with the references before my purchase."

Following any phone conversations or person-to-person meetings with software company representatives, be sure to go over your notes and make them completely legible. Any abbreviations or shorthand may be hard to interpret weeks or even days later, and could result in a costly mistake during the purchasing process. Of course, if you're struggling to understand technical lingo, then you may need to return to the preparation process and become further acquainted with shop management software terms. Your other option is to move on to the next product, if further research on that product still leaves you confused.

According to Jim Wakefield, Software Design vice president for 819 Technologies Inc., "Auto repair shop software should be easier than the process it is replacing, or provide a significant new benefit. Software should make your life easier." He also said if the software doesn't improve your business process and make life easier, you may be focusing on the wrong product.

Act on what you've learned. Once you've absorbed everything you can about shop management software, identify one or two systems that best suit your business. If there's one system that stands out particularly, purchase that one. If two systems seem equally suited for your business, compare their prices to make the best purchasing decision. But remember, price should not be the most important factor in software system purchasing. A more highly priced software system that meets your needs will pay greater dividends than a cheaply priced system that keeps you and your technicians frustrated and dissatisfied.

"Cheaper is not always the best," said Mike Schoonover, owner of Schoonover Bodyworks Inc., St. Paul, Minn. "Some software may be a bit more in actual cost. But, what gain in productivity and/or cost reductions will the shop receive? In our case, we were able to reduce our staff by three people due to increased productivity following our shop management software purchase." Purchase the best software for you, not the cheapest software for you.

No procrastinating. One pitfall many people experience when purchasing something new is putting off implementing the new item. Be it a new answering machine, DVD player or even shop software, the fear of the process involved in implementing something new can be intimidating, even if you believe you made the best purchase.

Michael Anderson, owner of multiple WagonWork Collision Centers, Alexanderia, Va., said, "My best advice when it comes to overcoming the fear of implementation is this: you're probably going to hate the new system for about 30 to 45 days. You may think you've purchased a piece of junk, but once the kinks are worked out and you're used to the new way of doing things, you're going to love it [the new shop management software]."

Of course, employees' response to new shop management software can also be less than receptive when new software demands training and changing the "way things have always been done." Spring James, general manager of Preferred Collision Centers in Houston, purchased a new shop management software for her business earlier this year. "It really was a pain at first, to begin the conversion from one system to the other. We had to redo things and re-enter some information," she said. "But, once you realize that your system begins to do the work that you once were doing double, and you realize what time the new system saves, you know you made the right decision."

"He who fails to plan, plans to fail." This old proverb reminds us that in all areas of life, we must plan ahead. Failure to plan when making a software purchase can result in complete failure - a loss of time, money and energy. Make your plan and work through it methodically as you move closer to making a shop management software purchase.

Rachael J. Mercer is a freelance writer based in Moultrie, Ga. She can be reached at merceropqr@alltel.net.

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