Over the past few months, I’ve had conversations with shop owners, software providers, and most recently, with GEARS Managing Editor Rodger Bland. The conversations have focused primarily on how to help shops make good choices when purchasing shop management software.
The reason Rodger and I decided to include this article in this issue is because it’s the Powertrain Expo edition. We know that many shops attend Expo because they’re considering purchasing new tools and equipment.
But, when it comes to shop management software, there seems to be so much information and misinformation coupled with so many choices, the result is often confusion and analysis paralysis.
While this article won’t recommend or compare and contrast the various software companies and their products, it will provide some guidance, good questions, and a process you can employ to help make the best decision for you.
Why Change Now?
Here are just three things I was surprised and even shocked to learn in the course of my conversations with shop owners and software companies.
- In this age of cloud computing, close to 80% of shops are currently using computer systems that are outdated. They aren’t using or even integrating with web-based application platforms. The system programs and data are resident on the hard drive of their desktop computers.
- This means that internal shop connectivity and communication are limited to hard-wired or Wi- Fi connections, all essentially tethered to the shop’s desktop computer.
- The data is vulnerable to loss, destruction, or contamination. Many of these shops don’t perform system backups at all, and others are doing them manually, some to a cloud-based service or to a “server in the bathroom of a family in another state” (humor intended).
- Many shops are still using outdated, unsupported computer hardware and operating systems — many as old as Windows XP. Some because they just haven’t thought about it, and others because they’re afraid to risk the complications, technical conflicts, and potential system crashes associated with updating.
- Some shops are still using shop management software from companies that are no longer in business. While this is a testimony for how stable those companies’ software is, what happens when (not if) the system finally takes a dump?
- While many of the companies still exist, they haven’t produced an upgrade for years and many no longer provide support. Shops that have these products often boast that they own their software outright, and don’t have to pay monthly support fees. That boastful position doesn’t even require a comment other than “Duh!”
- In some cases, investment groups or other software companies have acquired the software packages with good intentions, but have abandoned them to let them die a slow death. How long are you willing to live with that hanging over your head?
- More than one software company observed that they often get calls from shop owners who have just had a system crash and need a new system “yesterday.” They’re often so desperate that they don’t even ask about price… they just want to know how soon.
I was both surprised and encouraged with conversations I had with shop owners who were considering making a change to improve their already-successful shops. They know that effective shop management software can improve overall performance: sales, productivity, efficiency, customer satisfaction, and profitability.
Surprisingly, these shop owners typically already own cutting-edge systems, but they’re always looking for new ways to gain an edge. They make changes based on inspiration rather than desperation. Which condition do you think will result in the best purchase decision?
Guidance for Choosing
Let’s look at the key steps in making an informed decision:
Step 1: As obvious as this might seem, you should start with a “wish list” that answers the question, “What do you want your new system to do for you?” Software companies are universally surprised at how few of their prospects actually know what they want. I can only guess at a couple reasons, other than they just didn’t think about it.
Maybe they think they don’t know enough about what’s possible to make a wish list. But what if they wish for something that’s not only possible, but it’s also the next great idea?
Maybe they’re afraid they’ll leave something off the list. In that case, they’re more like victims and may miss out on other exciting features offered by competing companies.
Failing to make a wish list makes about as much sense as going out to buy your next car without thinking about the make, model, color, and features you want.
Here are some starters for you: Ask yourself, “If I had it to do all over again, what would I do all over again?” No, that isn’t a typo… sometimes we focus so much on what we’d change that we forget to consider the features we’d like to keep.
Of course, the next logical question is the one we normally start with, “If I had it to do all over again, what would I do differently?” This is most likely going to consist of the things that are motivating you to make a change from your current software system.
Now the process should begin to roll along fairly well. The key is to make the list as complete as possible. Include things even if they seem impossible… you’ll never know unless you ask.
Discuss it with your team members and other shops. Don’t leave this major purchase to chance. You might not get it all, but you’ll be better prepared to narrow your search as you shop the various software providers.
Here are some features to consider adding to your list:
- VIN scanning
- Start ROs from a mobile device or customer kiosk
- Text or email to customers, with estimates with pictures and obtain authorizations
- Credit card processing from the RO
- Time clock with tech efficiency reports
- Workflow management
- Parts pricing and ordering from the RO
- Marketing and lead tracking reports
- Integration with technical services
- Integration with customer retention and follow-up services
- Integration with parts suppliers
Step 2: Don’t make an appointment for a demo or sales presentation without doing some research about the company. You can eliminate a lot of wasted time with these checks.
- Visit their web site. Here you can find out:
- How old the company is, its history, and ownership
- Information about the company’s key leaders and their respective backgrounds
- Their product and service offerings
- The features and benefits of their products
Many web sites will include demos or videos that provide an overview or example of how their product looks and works, without having to engage with a salesperson.
If you find that their web site lacks important content or is difficult to navigate, that might be an indication of the quality and functionality of their software.
- Be a detective.
- Search for customer reviews. For obvious reasons, I’m not talking about the reviews on their web site. Go online and do some digging.
- Call some of their existing customers… even the ones on their web site. Don’t just ask if they’re happy; ask what they like best and what they would like to see improved. And ask them how often the company provides updates and upgrades. Ask if they go smoothly.
- If you can get the company’s support phone number, call it. Do you get to speak with a live person or just get a recording to leave a message for a future call back? Leave a message and see how long it actually takes for the call back.By the way, if you choose to call their sales department and you don’t get a live person or a prompt reply, it’s a safe bet their support line won’t be any better.
- Some good resources include the BBB, Capterra, and your trade association.
Step 3: Now it’s time to take the most time-consuming step: contacting the sales department. If they’ve captured your contact information and happen to call you before you’ve completed the first two steps, consider postponing the presentation until you’re ready.
The sales person is skilled at painting the picture that their product will do everything except clean your shop floors. You need to be able to manage the conversation by asking good questions and getting all the information you need to make the best decision for you. Here are the key questions to ask:
- Price is the first thing they expect you to ask. So catch them off guard by asking them to explain any negative reviews you’ve uncovered in your research. This will show them you’ve done your homework and it’ll allow you a peek at how they handle negative feedback. You be the judge of how they do.
- Ask about compatibility.
- Is their software compatible with your current equipment: computers, operating systems, printers, etc.?
- Ask what type of technology was used in the software design. Unbelievably, some systems on the market use obsolete technology that will eventually lead to technical support issues. The more current the programming language, the wider the pool of available technicians if a problem comes up in the future.
- In addition, many software products can be integrated with other third-party services, but confirm directly with those services whether they’re truly compatible. You don’t want an unfortunate surprise after you buy into the salesperson’s pitch.
- Ask if the software is mobile-friendly.
- Many of the latest software systems are web-based or cloud-based applications that allow complete mobility. This allows seamless connectivity between smartphones, tablets, and other portable mobile devices, including technical diagnostic and information systems.
- Mobile connectivity with customers is changing how many shops do business, from setting appointments to post-sale customer follow-up. Some systems offer such things as initializing repair orders, vehicle check in, texting diagnostic results with estimates and pictures of damage, obtaining authorizations, ordering parts, and managing the workflow with internal communication.
- Many great software products are capable of integrating the use of mobile devices, but they aren’t seamlessly integrated. You can use mobile devices to capture the data, but you’ll still need to download it into the system through some form of manual connection or Wi-Fi.
- Ask them about the implementation process.
- How long does it take to have it up and running?
- What is the typical learning curve and the training process?
- Do they have an outline and timeline for you to review that details the implementation plan and process from beginning to end?
- Will you have any shop downtime?
- Can they do the setup at night or over a weekend?
- Are there any customizable features and how are they set up and initialized?
- How much lead-time do they need to schedule your system installation?
- What about price? While price shouldn’t be your determining factor, it’s still a factor. As you know but may not like to hear, price is what you pay, but value is what you get. Here are some price factors to address:
- Is the price structure complicated?
- Are there any added charges for things like multiple workstations, multiple users, mobile connectivity?
- What’s the monthly maintenance cost?
- Does the maintenance fee include updates and upgrades?
- Do they charge for third-party integration?
- What’s the total setup cost — turnkey?
Now you need to add in any costs of third-party services to compare the total accurately against that of any other provider that includes them in their products.
- This is also a good time to ask about their guarantee.
- Do they offer a money-back guarantee?
- What are the conditions?
- Will they restore your original system?
- How long do you have to test it and decide?
Now it’s time for a demo. You might think this is a lot of work for you to do without having a demo, and you’re right. But the time you’ll save by not having demos with companies that don’t meet your needs and standards makes it worthwhile. Plus, think of the cost of making a bad choice because you were influenced by a great sales pitch.
Most companies offer some sort of a free demo. It could be a live web demo, a sample version of their product, or, if you’re at the Powertrain Expo, a live booth demo.
When is the Right Time?
Now we know how, but you might be wondering why or when to change your shop management software. Maybe this will help: Metaphorically, think of your software as an employee.
If you have an employee that consistently fails to perform to your satisfaction and there’s no way he or she ever will, would you keep them and tolerate their nonperformance?
If your answer is “yes,” shame on you! But I’m sure your answer is “no, of course not.”
While you might argue that you could possibly save an employee with training or by changing their job, it just isn’t possible with shop management software. If your system isn’t meeting your needs, it’s time to change.
Remember, it’s better to make changes based on inspiration than out of desperation.