I'm so slow to try new technology that it's usually old technology by the time I get with the program. I replaced my previous computer only after I'd had it for so long that the software was no longer being serviced. I got my first cell phone just last year, inheriting it from a more with-it family member who was trading up.
With each new machine or tech gadget I acquire, I have a love-hate relationship. I love it when it does things well and when I know how to use it. I hate it when it gives me trouble.
Like me, Dale Conklin is a borderline technophobe. He runs Dale Construction, a small, full-service remodeling company in Leesburg, Va. His wife uses the office computer to handle accounting; he uses it to prepare proposals. He uses a fax machine to send proposals and bills and receive suppliers' quotes. He uses a cell phone in the field to talk to suppliers and crew.
But he has reached a roadblock. "We're using half the capability" of the office computer, he says. Conklin wants to increase usage of that machine before buying more. Yet he's so busy he can't find time to learn how to use the computer to do more things. Without computer know-how, it's easy for Conklin to remain unconvinced of the advantages of computerization. "For a small guy, entering notes on paper is just as easy and less aggravating," he says.
At the other end of the spectrum is Michael Menn, co-owner of Design Construction Concepts in Northbrook, Ill. One of the most technology-friendly remodelers I know, Menn says, "I don't think anybody knows how to use computers to the fullest. People extract what they need on a daily basis." That's good enough for Menn.
Menn knew nothing about computers 15 years ago. Today, his company zips out computer-aided designs, marketing materials and financial reports that help keep sales and profits on target. Sales and field personnel communicate with vendors, schedule appointments and draft initial estimates via hand-held computers. They use digital cameras for "before and after" design presentations, status reports for out-of-town clients and updates to DCC's dynamic Web site. E-mail is DCC's preferred communications mode.
Every time Menn brings new computers or software into the company, he budgets time for staff to learn how to use it. Paying for the initial training time - and the learning curve - is an investment in market competitiveness.
To lessen the technology learning curve for remodelers, help them make smart technology-buying decisions and help software developers generate products suited for remodelers, Jeff Rainey of Home Equity Builders in Great Falls, Va., founded the Remodelers Information Technology Group three years ago. Its technology seminars attract up to 50 remodelers. (Get information from firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Rainey describes the remodeler with the competitive edge as one who takes phone messages from homeowners (call-forwarding to a cell phone if the office is unmanned) and replies within 24 hours. This remodeler mails marketing packets to prospects immediately (contact management software). He qualifies prospects (qualifying software) before the first appointment, so he knows he wants the job and has a good chance of getting it. He offers a quick, educated estimate of job cost at the initial meeting (historical job-costing data regularly updated on a computer) and soon delivers an accurate estimate (estimating software). At the second meeting (scheduled at the first one with a hand-held computer), the remodeler brings a computer-formatted proposal and is ready to sign the design agreement or construction order (computer-generated, incorporating all terms and legal protections). Every communication with the client is recorded (contact management software) so the remodeler is prepared for meetings and calls.
Can you compete with a responsive, profit-focused, customer-service-oriented firm like this? I say no, unless you bring business management technology into your operation. You'll learn to love it.