Streamlining Your System

photo of a hundred dollar bill placed on a computer keyboard

As a specialty retailer in the swimming pool and spa industry, you have an immediate advantage over big box retailers simply by being specialized. You may not have as many product lines available as the Internet, and some of your prices may be slightly higher than your local big box retailer, but you have the unique ability to create personal relationships with the client — and that leads to a superior customer service experience.

You offer value-added services such as water testing and pool schools that lead to high retention rates. And you also install, service and warranty the product you sell which is invaluable for specialty products such as spas and pool equipment.

Despite all that, sometimes the big box retailers gain the advantage by implementing vast computer systems and developing impressive distribution channels. So how can you compete with all that power? One way is by implementing the most efficient business software for your company and integrating all your internal systems. This will allow you to provide even higher levels of customer service, reduce costs and run more profitably.

Two pool and spa retailers have taken the plunge recently — that is, marshaled their will to effect change and undertook on a company software makeover. Companies considering a similar move may be able to learn from their experience.

The Power Of Efficiency

An integrated business software program should provide your business with new efficiencies so you can spend more time “on” your business rather than just working “in” your business. Precise and easy tracking of information is perhaps the most important benefit.

From inventory reporting in real time to “on demand” accounting reporting, having immediate access to information provides your business team with the ability to make smart business decisions 24/7. Real-time inventory control is a good example. Over the long run, inventory history can accurately report gross margin and turn data for past years, resulting in better buying decisions.

Nicole Ragel of Patio Pools in Arizona completed the transition to a new software package recently and immediately saw benefits. “We were able to drastically lower our inventory after implementing the new software,” she says. “We now carry less than $1 million in inventory but in the past carried well over that.

“Everyone now trusts that what we see in the system is accurate, which allows us to service our customers better, control our costs and make smarter purchasing decisions.”

Today’s integrated software programs should provide you with trackable quotes, leads for future marketing and easy conversion from quote to sales order as well as the ability to analyze margins on sales and jobs independently. They should streamline your service and installation schedule as well as quickly process and track warranty claims. Most importantly, today’s software will give you the ability to spend time doing post-sale marketing through your service department. Everyone loves their pool and spa guy or gal; by having your software help you with a little post-sale marketing, you can quickly boost service department profitability.

Professional Appearance

In today’s competitive marketplace, consumer expectations of business are much higher than they were 10 years ago. Dan Lenz at All Seasons Pools in Illinois has just started the process of transitioning to a new business software system, in part to address those higher standards. “Today’s customers are very demanding and you need to be able to put your best foot forward every time you have contact with them,” he says.

Being able to seamlessly email customers an invoice or contract and have that quote or bill linked to their contact within the system is crucial, Lenz adds. “These were all things that we included in our ‘must haves’ when starting our search for a new software program. Having the ability to integrate with Pool Corp, Carecraft and others is also key to our business.

Consider First, Then Act

If you are considering the transition to new software, the first place to look is in the mirror. That is, take the time to analyze your business and get your house in order. Start by reviewing your internal procedures for consistency, organization and control. A software system will create more confusion for your company if you already have some chaos in your business.

That’s easy to say, but evaluating your business is a real challenge, according to Lenz. “Having been with the company since 1987, I know the business. I would tell anyone looking to make a software change how important it is to choose someone in the organization who knows and has worked in all facets of the company. I relied heavily on my retail manager, my operations manager and the service office staff to put the pieces together.

“We started looking for this new software more than two years ago. We knew that ensuring the software was implemented properly would require that a principal at the company would need to dedicate more than 80 percent of their time to transitioning to a new program.

I have to say it was a miserable two years that I spent researching the software,” says Lenz. “It was so hard because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Even after choosing the software we postponed implementation two times.”

Lenz realized that he would have to be the person to take on the role of heading up the implementation for All Seasons, so he had to find others to cover for him during this period of transition, which started in the summer of 2014 and won’t go live until the spring of 2015. This winter Lenz is 110 percent dedicated to making the switch to the new software and hardware and won’t be able to do any of his regular job.

Identify Features

In choosing new software, remember that you want it to enhance your competitive advantages over big box retailers, so be sure it will do just that. Take the time to understand the software functionality especially as it relates to sales, inventory, service and accounting. For example, be sure your inventory data is in real time across all stock sites — have the software provider demonstrate how this works — this can be important for specialty pool and spa retailers in the busy summer months.

Serial number and warranty tracking is another important component for the pool and spa industry, as warranty work may be an important part of your business. Above all, the new system must be a time saver and provide new opportunities for profit through data management.

“We as a company spend too much time doing data entry of one type or another,” Lenz says, “whether it’s manually entering times for service calls, materials, inventory numbers, accounting, etc. So we are excited to alleviate the mistakes and time involved in entering data manually. And we are extremely excited about input from the field with our mobile devices.”

The Transition Period

After reading this far, it may be dawning on you that installing a new computer system is no small undertaking, so plan it during the off-season.

Depending on your geographic area, you will want to be done with your software integration by May at the latest. Be sure to talk to your potential software supplier about this need and work backwards to determine the installation date. The best rule of thumb is to start early. Start your software search by August or September. Don’t wait until the dead of winter, as that is when you should be implementing.

If your inventory or customer data will be converted, take the time to review your data to be sure it’s good data. While you shouldn’t spend weeks cleaning data, you should at least do a cursory review to make sure you aren’t bringing in bad data.

You should also find out what software integrations are available from the software supplier. Many pool and spa professionals are using integrations to pull inventory from their vendors rather than pulling the data from their old software. This allows you to start from scratch with accurate item codes and costs.

Ragel offers a tip to pool companies looking to make a change to new software — don’t over-complicate your transition: “I spent too much time in the details associated with our business at the beginning, and our new software had those details already mapped out. I suggest that you get to know your new software before you spend too much time transitioning data. Once you are familiar with the system you can be smarter about data transfers.”

Bottom Line: Customer Experience

In modern retailing, the customer experience you deliver is the key to your profitability. So your new software must improve the customer experience, and that starts with a single location for all customer data. This enables every person in your organization to assist a customer effortlessly, without multiple phone calls to three different departments. It also gives immediate access to important information such as purchase and service history.

This is essential for any department. For example, retail employees can tell the customer they need a C-4950 filter, not the C-5601 they’re holding in their hand. Sales can send reminder emails to clients when it’s time to replace their silver ion cartridge. The service department can immediately contact 500 customers when a heater element is recalled and marketing can create a list of all customers that purchased a Grandee spa in the last two years. Instant access to this information not only impresses the customer, but makes them feel valued by your organization. The customer will feel like the employee understands their needs and has the resources available to provide the highest level of service possible.

Taking The Leap

Like any major change to a business, software transition cannot be accomplished without stress and the expenditure of resources, but that must be measured against the power of new efficiencies to reshape an entire company.

Although the migration to new software at All Seasons is not yet complete, Lenz is seeing some encouraging signs in the way the company has been able to unite its many databases.

“We have been in business since 1954 and have several large databases we have always had to access daily. Unfortunately none of them were connected. I really wanted a system to connect all the valuable information we maintain about our customers, the jobs we have built or renovated, and all the basics related to inventory, customer contacts, vendors and accounting.”

Ragel also believes she is a much better business manager today with her new business software. “I can now sit at my desk and get a quick snapshot of all areas of the business from retail to service and construction. With so much information at my fingertips, I can implement new marketing campaigns, make smarter purchasing decisions or change the course of my business if I see a shift in operations and business climate.”

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