During the nearly three decades that he ran his custom installation firm in Palm Beach, Florida, Jonathan Knapps strength was always in his technical prowess. Managing a business was always much more difficult.
An experienced programmer had developed management software that could integrate his companys product database with a proposal tool. This proposal application incorporated custom configurations with professional-looking sales proposals. But only after hiring a management coach from Michael Gerbers E-Myth organization did Knapp finally begin to understand how management systems could interconnect with disparate parts of his business.
He developed his software so that it would generate proposals with standardized pricing and information. Over time, additional software modules were developed for managing the purchases, change orders, delivery and installation of these products.
Soon after his E-Myth-inspired epiphany, Knapps passion shifted from technology installation to business management process. I started to get just as excited about business systems as I was about the electronic systems that I had been selling, Knapp remembered.
After first merging his custom business with Jeff Hoovers Audio Advisors, Knapp eventually stepped away from custom work to focus full time on his software business. His company, now called Simply Reliable Software (www.simplyreliablessoftware.com), currently consists of five employees, servicing 55 custom installation clients. His product, a centralized database management module called SRS SmartOffice, already has devoted users who swear by its effectiveness.
The most impressive thing about SRS is that it offers a truly complete set of tools for running a CI business, explained Richard Millson, owner of Millson Multimedia in Vancouver. The integration of contact management, proposal generation, project management, multi-format drawing support and the soon-to-be-released inventory module all contribute to a powerful tool for running my business.
Knapp believes that one of the strengths of SRS SmartOffice is a graphic user interface designed to speed the learning process for new users. Screens in the system are designed much like web pages, making them easier to navigate and understand. The system uses a dynamic menu with tabs, and its menus are all based on user privileges. When a user logs in, his or her privileges will determine which menu items are available.
One of those items is the contact management system. In this section, information such as names, addresses, telephone numbers, business cards, client notes and client preferences can be entered. Because SRS is an integrated system, the contact management can link to other SRS modules. This permits information stored about clients, prospects and vendors to flow through to documents such as proposals, work orders, e-mails, invoices, letters and faxes. In addition, Smart Office is a shared multi-user application, so when data entered it immediately becomes common information available on every desktop.
Once the appointment is created, I can go ahead and e-mail this to the staff at the click of a button, Knapp explained. I can also e-mail the customer: Dear Mr. Smith, Weve scheduled an appointment for you. Here are the details.
When a user clicks on the Proposals page, he begins seeing the integration of the transaction into the system. When engineering a proposal, the system calculates labor in the background for each product or service that is sold. Options include adding labor to an item to show an installed price, listing labor separately at the end of the proposal or setting fixed labor charges for a project. Variable sales tax rates also can be accommodated.
A user can select from pre-written boilerplate text for product descriptions and the notes and conditions section of the proposal. Item pricing can be shown or hidden. Product graphics can be added to proposals to help a client understand what he is buying.
This is very practical, Knapp noted. When youve got a product graphic, the client looks at it and says, Oh, a three-button keypad! and then better understand what they are buying. Or, they may not understand anything about what a KP3 is, for instance, but they see a picture of a round speaker on the bathroom list and tell you that they wanted square speakers. It gives you feedback about your proposal that you would not have gotten otherwise.
When the proposal is accepted, a dealer can then generate a progress payment invoice for his client. SRS will track customer billing throughout the job and provide a running snapshot of customer payments and charges.
Error flags throughout the SRS system offer dealers a reminder of gross errors within the proposal. The reality is that I made those kinds of mistakes, and I know some of these dealers are making those kinds of mistakes, Knapp said. Until all of those items are fixed, mistakes are going to stay flagged just to remind me that its not ready to go out yet.
Another feature in the Proposals section allows dealers to calculate labor more accurately. The way I look at labor is that you sell the job, and youre going to do some design work or engineering work up front, Knapp explained. Youre going to be sending a crew out to do a prewire, trim or final. Theres programming. Theres project management. If you want to manage that, want to start making money and want your people in the field to be on budget, then you need to have a budget and know what it is for each of those phases.
Knapp calls these phases labor types, and his software is set up with separate budget for each one. If you add an in-wall speaker to a job, youre going to be doing more engineering, more prewire, programming, trim and final. That speaker will affect all of those budgets. To really establish a budget you need to understand the impact that its going to have on all of those budgets, he explained.
Knapp hopes that this approach will begin to provide dealers with benchmarks for their staff members, helping them become more efficient on the job. If youre going out for three or four days to do a prewire on a large job, you need to learn something after those two or three days that lets you know if youre on track, Knapp added. If youre going to start missing your budget or your goal, then you need to know right away so you can make adjustments or at least get your bids right for the proposal youre putting out next week.
The SRS Engineering page is an add-on module that aids dealers in documenting and designing point-to-point wiring for complex electronic systems. It features cut sheet wiring diagrams, wire lists, wire labels and a Microsoft Visio interface. The SRS System Quickspec page is a shortcut to building a proposal that enables a dealer to create product groups that are used regularly on projects. It archives each of these repeatable systems to save time on the next project, when a similar system is needed.
In the products database within the SRS system, a dealer can keep track of whether an item is taxable and then determine its margin or markup. If product is to be sold at 35 points, a dealer only needs to click a button, and it will reset the price.
SRS SmartOffice is designed for two-way interface with Intuits QuickBooks, and an optional module enables selected data to flow from the SRS system through a two-way conduit to a Palm or Pocket PC device. A web interface enables field personnel to check a schedule online and submit reports through a standard browser interface.
While the system continues to evolve and gain more advocates in the industry, Knapps relatively new passion for business systems also is evolving into a passion for helping dealers solve their business challenges.
When someone calls me and they are prevented from getting a proposal out the door, I know what that means, I know how that feels, Knapp said. I feel a lot better putting the effort into accommodating these guys who are struggling than I did with my clients in West Palm Beach who had everything going for them and their A/V system was just a toy in one of their many houses. I feel like Im finally helping people who need help.
Jeremy J. Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems in New York City.