Software saves time and aids in marketing for pool and spa dealers, builders and service professionals

0108 75 About 18 years ago, Tom Wise, president of Wise Software, was on his way to get a cup of coffee at a 7-11 when he saw something that changed the course of his life.

"There was a gentleman from a pool store who was literally taking his computer outside and was about to throw it out into the parking lot," Wise recalls. "I went over and talked to him and he said, 'I've got this program and it just won't work!' He was very, very frustrated."

Wise, who had learned a bit of programming in college, calmed the man down and offered to take a look at his business to see if he could come up with something that would work better for him. A few weeks later he'd designed a program that "did pretty well" for the dealer - and for Wise, who took up software design for spa and pool professionals full time.

The example is an extreme one, but the frustration his first customer felt was fairly common at the time. Pointof- sale software was then relatively rudimentary, and early adopters faced challenges when moving from oldfashioned paper-and-pencil ways of running their businesses to computer- based systems.

"The old programs, there weren't a lot of them, maybe one or two on the market at the time," Wise says. "They were general-ledger accounting programs. You'd go in, create an invoice, type in the information, save it, then go to the next customer. Well, do this 50, 60, 100 times . . . It's just wasted time." Since then, software targeted at pool and spa retailers, builders and service companies has gotten more sophisticated, helping them to save time and money and increasing marketing opportunities by allowing them to track customer buying habits. Today, while there are still those businesses - as many as 25 percent by one estimate - that don't use any computers, pool professionals are reaping the benefits of software programs that cater to their industry and keep checkout lines moving, help with route scheduling and invoicing, and much more.

Getting Started

Among the first features Wise incorporated into its flagship Pool Program was a remedy for the repetitive invoicing old general-ledger programs demanded.

"What the Pool Program did was allow you to put the monthly service charge in just one time, and then the program would bill month in and month out through the next 100 years," he says, adding that this first feature remains one of its strongest, despite the addition of hundreds of additional functions.

"Instead of spending hours and hours every month keeping this thing up, it became really easy to do in just a couple of hours a month," Wise adds. "Press a single button and all the bills come rolling out of the printer." Wise Software was originally geared toward service companies or retail service departments, but through the years, customers would call with suggestions for additional functions. Today, the Pool Program helps a wide range of pool professionals in their businesses with more than 500 features, according to Wise.

Corrine Kraft, COO and partner with RB Control Systems, says her company's software has also grown mostly through customer suggestions, starting with some of her own. "I have a retail swimming pool store that I purchased in 1987, so I've been a swimming pool dealer for the last 20 years," Kraft explains. "In 2001, I was looking for a software program to run my pool store and I couldn't find anything that had exactly what I wanted. In the pool industry we're so specialized. There's the service, the retail, the chemical needs, and also construction. Communication is a big issue. So we've worked all of those things into our software."

With no personal experience with programming, Kraft hired a friend to work with her for a half year to develop a personalized program. The six months turned into a year, then 18 months.

"Then we started to have some outside services - friends of mine in the business such as other dealers and distributors - come to us and say, 'Hey, what's this software you've been working on the last two years?'" Kraft recalls. "At that point we decided it was worthwhile to market to the industry. "We take every single idea that our dealers give us and we incorporate them into a working business plan by categorizing it. Is it good for the needs of the few? Is it good for the needs of the many? Is it good for the overall program? That's how we decide what to add, and that's how the software has grown over the last five years. Basically we've added what everybody needs. So it's very specialized for the pool industry."

One tweak RB made to its revolving-service portion of its program was to add a feature that allows people who use it for weekly or semi-weekly service to add annual openings and closings, as well.

"That was something we didn't think of," Kraft says. "But a dealer suggested it and we added it right away. So now, when you set your customer up for all of the service that you do for them, you can add your opening for a certain part of the year and your closing, in addition to the weekly maintain of the pool.

"Then you can click a button and everybody that fits into that week gets a work order generated, a service form generated, they get plotted on the schedule. One button and you get all of that work done for you. It's really a huge, huge time saver in the office, and the people out in the field get very easy-to-follow paperwork and itineraries."

Inventory Management

Another feature nearly every retail or service-oriented software package includes is inventory control. Products that are scanned and sold at the counter are deducted from the inventory list, which is viewable in real time. Systems West, a San Diego software developer that makes point-of-sale software for a variety of industries, sells a program called EzPOS.

"It's a complete inventory-management system," explains Leon Bodkin, company president. "What you're basically getting out of the box is the ability to do accounts receivable and manage all your inventory."

Besides letting users know how many of a particular item the store's got on hand, programs like EzPOS and others help purchasing agents by automatically generating orders from suppliers, based on seasonal needs. "We call them the min-max parameters," Bodkin says. "The min and max thresholds are set for each item in the system, then you also have the ability to adjust those seasonally. So if you have an item that you want to keep more or less of on the shelf during certain times of the year, you set up your min-max according to the month."

Purchase orders can then be created from that data, and the program can search a list of vendors for the best price on a particular item. One key enhancement is possible on the EzPOS system, but Bodkin says he's waiting for demand to grow from within the industry. Once enough vendors buy into the idea, it will be possible for the dealer to send electronic purchase orders and receive electronic invoices in return, thus saving the dealer the time it takes to physically reconcile shipments and inventory, Bodkin says.

Carl Chambers, president of Cardol Data Systems in Enniskillen, Ontario, says electronic-invoicing capabilities aren't crucial to a software program's success.

"In terms of the amount of time that it's taking to fax it instead of doing it electronically, the difference is really not that significant," he says. "The primary benefit of that electronic purchase order is to get immediate confirmation from the supplier if those items are in stock or not. If that response from the supplier does not include that information - if all it does is say, 'Yes, we've received your order,' and that's it, and then later you find out it's on back order - it really does not serve the purpose that it should. So it depends, really, on what kind of communication comes back from the supplier when you're determining just how beneficial that feature is."

Marketing Made Easy

Today's retail software not only saves money by saving time, it can actually help to sell more products. This can happen in a couple of ways.

"I can say, 'Show me everybody that needs a filter cleaned,' because there's a filter-cleaning schedule inside," Wise explains. "I can say, 'Show me everybody that doesn't have a Kreepy Krauly,' and create a letter, e-mail it to everybody on that list and tell them I have a special of $100 off on them." Sales can also be bolstered right at the counter, according to Kraft.

"In the software we have a relateditems feature, which is a pop-up right inside the sale," she says. "So if you're selling, for example, a bag of D.E. and you've chosen to have a suggestion sell of a related item be a D.E. scoop, that pops up on the screen so it prompts the salesperson to ask, 'Do you have a D.E. scoop at home to measure the proper amount?' "Another example is when we sell BioGuard Optimizer. Well, when you sell that you have to sell Low and Slow, which is the pH decreaser. Again, when you scan the Optimizer a box pops up with the suggestion." Those add-ons not only build sales and revenues, they assure that customers get what they need and don't have to make a return trip for any forgotten items, Kraft adds.

Resistance To Change?

Years ago, when software companies were first wading into the pool and spa industry, insiders had doubts about how dealers, builders and service professionals would take to the technology. Wise says people told him as much during his first years exhibiting at industry trade shows. And they'd come up and say, 'People in this industry aren't interested in computers and software,'" he says. "But as the show progressed, we had long lines of people standing there, and we knew we had a winner."

One key factor in the increasing acceptance of software programs in the spa and pool industry has less to do with convincing dealers to adopt it in their businesses and more to do with those dealers' children, Chambers says.

"I think the major change that's taken place over the years is the handing down of businesses from one generation to another," he says. "Those that started in the business 30 years ago and are on the edge of retirement, they were not so inclined to embrace the technology, because what they were doing was working for them and they were comfortable with it and everything was OK. But their kids coming along to take over the business were looking at it from a different perspective."

Names And Addresses

Not only have these younger dealers taken to the software, pool and spa customers have also adapted well to the systems and are almost always willing to share their names and contact information, according to Kraft.

"I'd say 99 percent of the people that come in are very willing to give their name, address and even their phone numbers, because people treat their swimming pools as their toys. They love them," says Kraft. If you're going to be able to help them in the future with whatever they need to take care of their favorite toy, they're going to do it.

"Say you have a customer who walks into the store and says, 'I need a cartridge.' Well, what kind of filter do you have? 'I don't know. You sold it to me!' Instead, why not be able to pull the customer up, hit a button and tell them what they need? That kind of service is very, very valuable, because the next time that customer needs a cartridge, he knows you know what he needs and he's coming back."

The software available for spa and pool professionals today contains many hundreds of features, and spelling out even a fraction of them here would be impossible. Some features are common to all systems, others are unique to individual software packages. If you're looking for software, try browsing suppliers' Web sites, then coming up with a wish list of features. From there, you can begin your search for the company that best meets your needs. And rest assured, if you're more comfortable with a pencil and paper than a mouse and a monitor, all the companies place a premium on ease-of-use and painless training. "People sometimes feel that because they're in the pool industry, they don't know anything about computers," says Wise. "The most common thing our tech support people hear is, 'I'm stupid and I don't know anything about computers.' You have to be really patient with them, but they really know more than they think."

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