Selecting the ideal construction accounting system, like creating a great baseball batting order, requires an understanding of each player's strengths and skill set.
Software technical features are critical for success, but there is another thing that contractors can't afford to overlook: customer support.
No matter how good a system is-or how easy it is to use-there are bound to be times when users will have questions or run into problems. Fast, reliable customer support is especially critical for accounting software, because an unnecessary delay (in payroll, billing and receivables, for example) can affect more than just productivity. Since software support varies greatly from vendor to vendor, it's important for contractors to consider the company behind the product.
Most reputable software companies offer free support for a period of time after the purchase so that new users can receive help without incurring additional expenses. After that time, vendors generally charge an annual fee to cover ongoing support and product enhancements. For construction-specific systems, this fee can range anywhere between 10 to 30 percent of the software's purchase price. So how do contractors evaluate what kind of "bang" they will get for their software support "buck?"
There are at least six key features that improve the quality of construction accounting software support:
- Live Customer Support - To reduce costs, many software vendors are choosing to outsource their technical support departments to distant countries. Others are doing away with live technicians altogether. These help options are not very useful for busy construction office staffers-especially those with no technical background. They want and need the real thing: talking to live receptionists (not an auto-response message system) and knowledgeable support reps who are accessible and easy to understand. When questions or problems arise, having the ability to speak to a friendly voice with expert advice can be priceless.
- A Variety of Support Options - In addition to live phone support, good software support practices dictate that vendors make help available through a variety of methods, including: e-mail, web, fax, built-in help engine and user documentation, to name a few. Self-service support tools are valuable to many users, especially when they are coupled with live support. To help minimize work interruption, for example, some systems allow users to "log a support call" directly through their software or via e-mail. The user can attach a brief message so that the call is referred to and answered by the correct technician. And to help technicians better visualize, diagnose and resolve problems, some vendors now offer remote online connections. This cutting-edge technology allows a support representative to securely connect with the client's screen (and remotely control the client's program, if necessary) in order to quickly resolve problems.
- Fast Response Time - Technology companies are often criticized for slow response times-and long hold time waits. An important performance benchmark for support departments is how quickly technicians answer incoming calls. It's not unreasonable for construction accounting software clients to expect quick responses (within thirty minutes) to their support requests. They should also expect that each call be time-stamped and each issue logged. Some support departments will also offer high-priority response times for urgent situations (e.g., when a user is "stuck in the middle of payroll" or when a client's CPA/IT technician is onsite). Deadlines can't wait, and business can't be put on hold. When shopping for software, contractors should ask vendors: "How long does it take your support staff to respond to and resolve support issues?"
- Product/Industry Experts on Staff - Some software companies provide support through partners or regionally-based dealers, and this can translate into less-than-knowledgeable support technicians. In contrast, product experts will almost always be found at the software company's headquarters, where representatives receive in-depth training and are in direct contact with testing and development teams. In a niche market like construction, it's important that customer support representatives be trained on just one product and understand the day-to-day demands of contracting and job cost accounting. The support staff's expertise should include low employee turnover, high customer retention and continual investment in research and development.
- Ongoing Product Updates and Enhancements- Not all construction accounting products are created equal, and not all products keep pace with technology. With software, there is always a need for change, whether it's incorporating new requirements, adding capabilities, increasing performance or correcting defects. Many companies are content to collect maintenance fees on outdated products (some of which have been acquired in mergers) and spend zero dollars on product development. Contractors should ask companies:
- "How often are product updates/fixes released?"
- "How much money does the company invest in programming and development?"
- "How many products does your staff support?"
- Ongoing Educational Opportunities - When it comes to construction-specific applications like job cost accounting, the typical client uses a small percentage (less than 20 percent) of a product's capabilities. They stop short of using features and functions that could greatly improve efficiency and productivity. Good software companies don't just want to make a sale-they want their customers to improve at job costing and financial management for long-term success. And the way to ensure that this happens is to offer ongoing, affordable and convenient educational opportunities such as: online courses, webinars, regional seminars, on-site consultations and user conferences.
"Live" customer support is just one factor-and the last in this nine-part series-of must-have construction accounting software features. Making the move from generic small business accounting software to a sophisticated construction-specific system is a whole new ball game. In fact, they are in two very separate leagues.
Construction Business Owner, October 2009