Transformative tech

Technology can help a company run more efficiently and provide better services, and it doesn’t have to be a costly investment.

Anne Roberts makes sure her team at Anne Roberts Gardens is comfortable using technology more in order to grow the business.
Photo courtesy of Anne Roberts

Just a few years ago, Chris Duckworth, owner of Duck Works Lawn Care in Cobden, Ill., lost something very important. That’s when he knew his dependence on paper needed to go.

“Paper got really ridiculous in my life and I was sick of it,” he says. “I lost my calendar one day and realized that 100% of everything I had was in that calendar.”

Not only was Duckworth losing track of things, but he was also having trouble staying in contact with all his employees, which can get up to 20 during peak season. The company is expected to do just over $700,000 in revenue in 2021.

“I needed to get information to another crew, and I was always writing everything down and for a guy who works with his hands, it doesn’t feel very good to write a lot,” he says.

“Through a need to really communicate better, we started using some apps and basic things that I could use instead of paper.

At Maldonado Nursery & Landscaping in San Antonio, Eric Greer, director of accounting and financial reporting, says the company is using technology more as it focuses on the future.

“We definitely believe that technology is critical to position ourselves for the growth we feel is coming,” he says. “We are utilizing technology to secure information, so we can make good decisions. Greer says the company, which ranked #60 on this year’s Top 100 List, recently started using a new customer relationship management (CRM) software geared directly toward landscaping businesses.

“It allows us to manage our purchase order process better, and there’s revenue recognition, billing and all of those things,’ he says. “It helps us to capture those costs critical to making sure we’re bidding work at a price point that’s profitable.”

Greer adds this is especially important when it comes to maintenance work.

“The margins are pretty thin and there tends to be a lot of competition in that space, so we are always looking for data that helps us know what our costs are and then manage them better,” he says.

Anne Roberts, president of the Chicago-based Anne Roberts Gardens, says profitability is also her driving factor for prioritizing technology.

“It definitely helps in terms of bidding and making sure you’re bidding jobs properly,” she says. “When you go to bid the same job the following year, you can really look and see ‘did we bid this correctly? Did we perform at a profit?’ If not, the technology allows you to change your pricing, so that you are profitable.”

Roberts also uses landscape-based software. “The CRM is a lot more than just a regular CRM,” she says. “It’s time tracking, it’s invoicing – it goes directly over to QuickBooks, which is nice – everything is centrally located and that’s really helpful.”

Efficiency is another reason Roberts says her business relies on technology.

“I’m sure it’s important to larger companies but my time is even more important because I don’t have 20 guys out there bringing in income. It’s just two of us. The more efficient we can make ourselves — the more money we make.” CJ Kowalke, owner, Lawns & More

“We use technology to be able to track all our time on our jobs individually, and we use it out in the field in terms of crews signing in and out of jobs and all of our payroll is directly tied into that program as well,” she says.

Even though his company is small, it’s just him and his brother-in-law in terms of full-time employees, CJ Kowalke says he went ahead and dove into the technology world to improve efficiency as well.

“When I started out, I was told by a lot of people, ‘You’re too small. Once you’re a bigger company it matters, but for small companies, technology isn’t worth it.’ But I’ve actually found the opposite to be true,” he says.

“I’m sure it’s important to larger companies but my time is even more important because I don’t have 20 guys out there bringing in income. It’s just two of us. The more efficient we can make ourselves – the more money we make.”

What’s worth the expense?

Kowalke, who owns Lawns & More in Kendallville, Ind., uses a field-service software that he pays $130 a month for it. Kowalke says his business is projected to do about $200,000 in revenue this year.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned with the technology, is you’ve got to pay to play,” he says. “We tried some free versions. I got very frustrated with them and thought they weren’t worth the hassle, so I just gave up on them.”

Kowalke acknowledges that some smaller companies may be hesitant to make the monthly investments. “It can be a little bit daunting,” he says, mentioning it’s worth every penny. “My only regret is I didn’t do it sooner.”

Roberts says finding technology that fits the right price point was also important for her, and adds she was more inclined to go with a subscription-based model, where you aren’t committed for the long-haul.

“What I like about what we use, is that it’s affordable,” she says. “It’s a monthly subscription, so you don’t have a big upfront cost. A lot of other companies you have to pay $8,000 to $20,000 just to get in, and then they want a percentage of your sales, too.”

According to Roberts, the most important thing to keep in mind when selecting a software, or any type of technology, is how will it grow with your company over time? Will you have to continue replacing it as you scale up?

“My advice would be don’t buy more than you really need and get a system that you can grow into, and add and utilize more,” she says. “At some point, we’re probably going to have to get into something bigger, but for now I’ve used it for many years, and it’s been keeping up with us.”

For most of his technology needs, Duckworth prefers to go in the opposite direction — and sticks with free or low-cost choices.

“The margins in lawn care aren’t great, especially, in southern Illinois, so I didn’t have a lot of money to spend,” he says. “So, I had to find something that was free. The ones I’ve paid for have been the least productive for me, and I think it’s because they’re too advanced. I don’t have time to sit down and learn the whole thing, and then if I can’t figure it out in a short time, I don’t have time to train everyone on how to use it.”

Duckworth did his research and attended a few virtual events and through that he learned how to start utilizing free, online spread sheets with his crews.

“They clock in and out of each yard through it. So, we can see in real time where they are and where they’ve been,” he says. “That was the other thing about before, when we were just writing everything, I couldn’t ever find them. Obviously if they are working, they won’t be answering their phone, so I’d drive to a yard and they wouldn’t be there, I’d drive to another and they weren’t there either…I’d try to get ahead of them and I’d still miss them, and it got very frustrating.”

To outfit his employees with all these free apps, Duckworth says each crew has its own cellphone with all of them downloaded to it. “My foreman keeps his phone,” Duckworth adds. “Everybody else leaves their phone at the office at the end of the day.”

One of the most beneficial apps Duckworth has started using is a free, family tracking app.

86% of respondents say their companies budget between 0%-5% for software expenses.

“If the guys aren’t clocking in and out perfectly, or they’re driving, I can look on their and see where they are,” he says. “It was cheaper than all the other business ones, and I can create ‘pings.’ So, for the town to the north of us, I set it up at the furthest part south. So, when they reach that location, it pings. And in case I forgot to add something to their schedule that day, I can see they’re entering and exiting that area.”

Duckworth says that even as his business expands, he doesn’t feel the need to spend a lot of money on fleet tracking.

“You can pay hundreds of dollars a month for GPS trackers on every vehicle,” he says. “And it’ll tell you to the second where they are, but I don’t really need that. I just need to find them when I need them.”

Roberts says her company uses traditional vehicle tracking technology, but it’s more for reassurance when questions arise, then keeping tabs on those out in the field.

“We do have GPS on our trucks,” she says. “It helps us go back and just verify where people have been. There’s been times where people say we haven’t been there, and we can say ‘Yes we were, we have GPS on our trucks. We were there at this time, and on this date.”

Value outside the bottom line.

All four say embracing technology has allowed their companies to grow, thus increasing revenue. However, they all measure its return on investment in other elements of the business.

Greer says he makes very few decisions without first consulting the information garnered by the software.

“I tend to be a data guy, so we focus on technology that provides us better, more timely data,” he says. “In a space where you’re looking at thinner margins than you’d like at times, having that data in front of you can help you manage a lot better.”

Getting a better look at the financials is also a key benefit to Roberts.

“It’s about being able to really understand your numbers,” she says. “Sometimes you have to let go of jobs, because the technology will tell you it’s not worth having that job. You’re losing money at it. Also, a lot of companies don’t understand their overhead. I think the technology really shows you what your overhead is.”

CJ Kowalke, left, owns Lawns & More. He and his brother-in-law, Miguel Salazar, are the only two full-time employees, so technology helps them work more efficiently.
Photo courtesy of Lawns & More

And for Kowalke, he measures the technology’s success simply in time saved.

“It handles everything from our estimating to our invoicing,” he says. “When I started, we had about 50 lawn customers that we serviced weekly. So, I would make a note that said we mowed on this date and it took us this long. Then, at the end of the month I would take all those notes, type them up and do the invoices. It would take me anywhere from 10 to 12 hours.”

Now, that process is cut down to just half an hour, and Kowalke says all he has to do is double-check things.

Kowalke says using the technology has allowed him to stand out from the competition, as his business appears more professional. And customers are now able to pay online, which he says they love.

“The biggest thing has been details not falling through the cracks,” he says. “The level of service we’ve been able to provide has expanded. If they ask us for something we make sure it gets put into the computer and not forgotten. And if I give them a price, it’s in there and we don’t accidently charge them more and have an upset customer. Those elements have been huge for us.”

Combating common challenges.

Despite all the advantages of technology, it is sure to come with its challenges. Roberts says that sometimes people try to blame the technology for mistakes.

“You get people who say, ‘my phone was broken that day, or my phone wasn’t charged.’ There’s people who will give you every excuse in the book for why they don’t use it, but at that point I have a conversation with them,” she says. “I tell them it’s absolutely important and absolutely necessary and not optional.”

Kowalke adds that the onboarding process when instituting a new system can be overwhelming and time consuming.

“There was a learning curve with it,” he says. “I spent a lot of hours learning how to run the system and getting customers in there. But even through all that, I never thought ‘I don’t think this is worth it.’ It was totally worth it.”

42% of respondents say their company depends on technology and software a lot more compared to five years ago.

His best advice for this is to enter all the necessary data right away, and then slowly add in more as you start working with the system. “You can quickly add all your customers and get it running without a whole lot of trouble. Then, you can go back in and all the information you want into it,” he says.

Greer agrees saying that onboarding always takes more time than you think, and what consultants tell you, it should.

“That was one of our biggest challenges was just being patient,” he says. “You’ve got to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

For companies who are going from one system to another, Greer suggests using both for a while to make the transition easier.

“Allow plenty of time for parallel processing,” he says. “Yes, it’s double the work, but it gives you that point and counterpoint. If the old system is processing it one way and you get these results… and we’re processing it through the new system and we’re getting similar results, then fantastic. We can move forward. Or, if it’s giving us different results, then we need to go back and diagnosis where the differences are coming from.”

Greer says he’d recommend parallel processing for at least two close cycles, but he’s seen companies keep it up for nearly six months just to make sure they work out all the kinks.

Take the time to train extensively.

But one of the toughest challenges when introducing new technology always seems to be getting everyone to use it.

“I’ve found that it’s helpful to get your early-adopters on board first. These are the folks that will be the main drivers of that change, and who get excited about the change and new opportunities,” Greer says.

“But you’ve also got to spend some time with the late adopters and those who are going to fight you every second of the way. Sit down with them, answer all your questions and be patient with them.”

Duckworth says his 22- and 23-year-old employees embraced the change immediately.

“It was a benefit to run a crew, because that meant you got to be in charge of that phone, and that’s a lot of responsibility,” he says.

But he’s had a few employees who wanted nothing to do with the phones.

“We had some guys who were much older, and it was a challenge,” Duckworth says. “I bought new phones over the winter and they’re still struggling with them now. If anything happens that wasn’t supposed to, they just shut down.”

Roberts says plenty training is the only sure way to make everyone more comfortable with technology.

“We try to give everybody as much training as possible, and sometimes people still don’t want to use it,” she says. “But it is a requirement of your employment here, to be able to use it, so people get on board pretty quick at that point.”

Roberts adds that if after all that training there are employees still not willing to embrace the technology, she offers them one last option.

“We’ll give them as much training as they want…at that point we tell them if they still continue to not use it and need more training, then they can come in on a Saturday on their own time, and we’ll be very happy to show them how to do it,” she says. “It usually moves it along.”

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