Fail-Safe Software Installation
By Angie Kilbourne
Tips and advice from the pros to an easier transition.
You've looked over each of the vendors and their products and carefully weighed the pros and cons of changing your business' management system. Perhaps you were lured by the siren's song of new features that are available with an upgrade or new system; perhaps you are compelled to move to a new system because a needed infrastructure and hardware upgrade dictates it.
Whatever the reason, you're moving forward in the decision to change the way your business does business. You understand that to move your business into the future, you've got to be able to manage it effectively and efficiently, and you've made decisions - or are about to make them - on a full system upgrade.
But before you slip that software installation disk into your computer's drive, are you sure you're ready for the big jump? You may have made the leap of faith personally, but hardware, servers and other electronic equipment are much less forgiving if their needs are not met. Employees, whose daily productivity depends on your system, may not be prepared either.
How can you be sure you truly are ready to move forward? Sometimes it's best to ask the professionals. AutoInc. spoke with a number of vendors who specialize in shop management software, and they offered advice on avoiding the most common mistakes they see shops make when upgrading or changing systems.
Mistake 1: Computer hardware and electronic infrastructure does not meet or exceed the minimum requirements of the software.
It seems so basic, but you would be surprised how many people fail to read the system requirements on the box before they pop in the installation disk. In addition, your server(s) and Internet connections must also meet minimum requirements.
One of the most important preparations to make is to install your software on a healthy computer, says Mark Gunnerson, director of training at ALLDATA. "They need to keep their PCs up-to-date. They need to be connected [to the Internet] to ensure they are working with the latest updates."
Gunnerson also advises shop owners to ensure their hardware and infrastructure are properly maintained, and anti-virus and firewall software should be set up properly. "Those things can really get in the way of a good install or how a software works," he adds.
Take the advice of your computer vendor, says Thomas McGarry, manager of Information Technology Services at DuPont: "If your software vendor says, 'You need to run this on a Windows 2000 network system,' don't try to adjust it to XP. It will slow down and become very hard to work with. Be prepared with the right network specifications and right hardware specifications."
Mistake 2: Handling the design and maintenance of business computer systems in-house.
In your business, you and your employees are considered the experts in automotive repair. You are busy with the day-to-day operation of your business. In other words, you are businesspeople. You are technicians. But you are not information technology (IT) experts.
"Anytime you are going to upgrade your software, you have to read the requirements, and it usually means you need a new computer," says John Dwulet, senior product manager with Mitchell 1. "It needs to have high-speed Internet access, more memory and a newer operating system.
"But rather than asking a professional to help him with a business system, a shop owner will go to [an electronics store]. They buy a system that is designed for the home and has a lot of the features that are designed for home use. They are not laying the foundation properly for the new computer system." Until a solid foundation is in place, the system will have problems, says Dwulet.
Another route businesspeople take is purchasing computer and network equipment online directly from the manufacturer. This may save you some money, but few of these online purchases include service contracts. A better route, says Helene Ton, director of marketing for ALLDATA, may be to purchase equipment through a local supplier so maintenance and service are more easily scheduled and performed. Shop owners "don't have the time, or the technical expertise, to do it," she says.
Mistake 3: Training on the fly.
"The biggest problem is that everybody is always in such a rush that they don't spend the time learning the features that will actually give them the biggest return on investment," says Art Rezac, president of Applied Computer Resources. "It's like using a racecar to drop the kids off at school - such a waste of a high-performance machine." Software has evolved from an automated invoice writer to a marketing machine. Unfortunately, shop personnel are only using 10 percent to 20 percent of a program's features, Rezac estimates.
Training can range from one-on-one, face-to-face training at your shop to online, at-your-convenience Webinars, to step-by-step videos built in to the software. You should always ensure that your software vendor provides a level of training that works for you and your staff. You should also clarify any additional costs involved for initial or
follow-up training sessions, as well as costs for training additional staff, such as a new employee, six months from now.
Ensuring every employee who will use the software is available for training when it is scheduled is critical to the success of a new system, says McGarry: "They want to learn by osmosis."
DuPont advises new customers to have a staff meeting the Friday before the technical support team is due to arrive to install and train. During this meeting, McGarry explains, managers and owners need to emphasize to their staff that the company is making a serious commitment to a new business management system and that employees need to make themselves available for training.
Jason Bertellotti, vice president of Repair Solutions with Mitchell International, emphasizes the need to train all the staff members, regardless of experience, who will be using the system: "We get a lot of comments from shops saying, 'I'm going to train these three guys, but this guy has been here a long time so he doesn't need training.'"
Bertellotti also advises that the staff needs to remain patient when they are rolling out a new system. "This is a big change. It will take time for everyone to learn it and for all the gears to move in the same direction at the same time," he adds. "Not everyone learns at the same pace. Everyone has to work in concert within the management system. If one person is a little behind, it can appear that the whole system is slower. Once everyone is up and running, it is absolutely worth the effort.
Mistake 4: Expecting a smooth, uneventful and instantaneous transition.
Bob Duncan, program manager with ALLDATA, says shops need a firm commitment to change. "When they [shop owners] sign on the bottom line, they think the world is going to be better. But it's usually worse in the beginning," he says. "When you buy a new car, the key doesn't go in the same place, the light switch is different. When you use a different shop management system, little idiosyncrasies [about the software] can be different. That is where the commitment is needed."
It's human nature to compare something new and unknown to what is familiar and comfortable - the "old way" of doing things. Duncan points out that shops "need to have a real commitment to make it successful. To do things the old way isn't going to work, and trying to mold the new system into doing business the way the old system did [it] doesn't work. They don't realize that if they did a few extra steps, they'd get a gold mine of results."
Shops often forget to set the expectation that their workflow will change and their employees' behaviors will change. Employees using a management system for a long time sometimes have more difficulty learning a new one, says Bertellotti. "Prepare your team. Certainly everything won't go right, but over time, it will be better for the company, and it will be better than it was originally.
Mistake 5: Waiting until installation day to prepare your business data for transfer.
Many of the vendors we spoke with cautioned against waiting until the last minute before preparing the data in your current system for transfer. The first and most important step is finding out if the database can be converted. "I've been in the business since the early '80s, when lots of software was written to work with DOS applications. People started writing software and the database was written by someone else - essentially it was homegrown," says Duncan.
"Whatever your old program is, find out if the database can be converted," adds Gunnerson. "Sometimes you can't, just because of the way it [the database] was written."
Another issue that should be considered is the usefulness of the existing data. "There might be a number of customers and vehicles that don't exist anymore," explains Dwulet. "Why would you want to bring them into the new system?" Sometimes it is better to keep the old system running on the side to look up customer information and then move it over, he adds.
When you have decided what information is needed for the new system, have it gathered, prepared and ready for your installation day. McGarry advises that you should have your employee information, vendor information and, when applicable, insurance information ready.
What's the Plan?
The common denominator throughout our interviews was the need to properly plan for this change from one system to another. Change may not be easy, but when you have a plan in place, it can certainly become more manageable and less stressful.
"Sit down and plan it out before you do it. Set a target date that allows enough time for the users to be trained and become familiar with the new software and system," says Dwulet.
"I frequently tell people, 'The first 30 days, you're going to say this [the new software] is too much work. The next 30 you say, this isn't too bad. By the next 30 days, you can't believe you lived without it,'" says McGarry.
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