Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2000   by Allen Jones

Why not generic business management software?

Two million small business operators can't be wrong. Can they?


Two million. That’s how many customers Intuit Inc. claims for its small business management software package called QuickBooks. The California company sells it to all manner of businesses. The latest top-of-the-line version, QuickBooks Pro 2000, sells in Canada for about $260.

Nor is Intuit alone in this field. The market is crowded with small business management software, with each supplier touting a complete management solution that makes accounting fast and easy. These are essentially point-of-sale hooked up to accounting systems that generally include inventory control, job estimating, invoicing, customer billing, accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger, purchase order, contact management, customer database, sometimes payroll, appointment scheduler, and so forth.

All the suppliers will tell you their software is easy to set up and use. The idea is that you or your staff – with no accounting background – will enter your regular daily transactions at a desktop computer. You might fill in the blanks of a customer invoice, for example, using simple prompts on the screen, and all that accounting detail would be looked after behind the scenes. You could stay home Sundays, instead of trying to figure out a reasonable level of inventory to keep, or whether you made money or lost last week.

The popularity of a given title in business management software is a pretty good indication of its one-size-fits-all philosophy. You have to wonder, though, if appliance stores, pubs, golf clubs, photo studios and heat treaters are using the same management software, how well suited to an auto repair business can it really be?

Or, does the shop owner have to change the way he runs the business to suit the management software he chooses? It’s a little like what would happen if Ferrari dropped a Formula One car on your lot, with a note on the windshield saying Michael made toast of the clutch, again. It is a car, after all, with a wheel on each corner and an internal combustion engine somewhere amidships – even runs on pump gas, in case there’s not enough left in tank for your road test. But the clutch? Well, maybe it’s an automatic. There’s only two pedals… unless one of these buttons….

You get the idea. Sure, you might be able to fix a Formula One Ferrari. But it’s not familiar territory and you’d never make flat rate. Where making a living is concerned, better to stick with Chevys. If you want to do it quickly and efficiently, you’re better off with the model you know. You’re likely to find that truth prevails with shop management software as well. You could learn the generic package if you put your mind to it, just as millions of others have done.

But you might be better off to start with software that’s built around the familiar model of the auto repair shop – with an invoice that looks a lot like the one you do by hand, with a database that knows your customer might have one car or a fleet, with an estimating function that can pick up canned parts, and with inventory control that knows a core isn’t something left over from your lunch.

That’s the fundamental difference between the generic business management software programs and the auto repair shop management software programs. Yes, both are designed to help small business operators to manage a business. The shop management packages are designed specifically for auto repair shop businesses.

Says Jim Ball, a representative for Pace Business Manager: “Any software that works as well in a pharamacy or a flower shop as it does in a repair shop, does not do justice to any.” Your software should fit into your business, he says. You shouldn’t have to fit your business to the software. Shop management software will make for an easier transition from a manual system to a computerized system.

“An example of this would be in write-up procedures.” Ball says you should ask, “Is write-up done (in the software program) the way you do it manually? Can you get the repairs and customer requests onto a work order before you need his name and vehicle.”

He says you should also look for unique features in auto repair software. “Does your software track cores and parts to be returned to suppliers? In a half-million-dollar business this could run somewhere between $4000 and $8000 at any one time. You own them, but are you managing this asset?”

Art Mathies of Lankar Systems Inc., the company that sells The Automotive Business Management System (ABMS), says generic business management programs – or accounting packages, as he calls them – do not and cannot be adjusted to address the key (quick-access) needs of shop management minute-by-minute operations. Mathies gives the following examples of the unique requirements of auto repair shop software: vehicle history, vehicle service reminders, core tracking, shop scheduling, payments in advance on work orders, customer reminders and mailers, and large (more than five vehicles) fleet customers’ accounts receivable.

He adds: “The fact that a shop does not need to understand ‘accounting’ to use a well-designed shop management system is also a big differential.”

Are the dedicated products worth the cost?

Yes, says Mathies. “Its a simple question of cost vs the inherent return-on-investment features of the software. For example, notwithstanding all of the other inherent time/cost-saving and revenue-generating features of the ABMS, the (PST/GST) tax reconciliation module alone can save enough paper-shuffling time and accountant expenses to pay for the complete ($1,299) system within its first full year of operation.”

Brian Warfield, product manager for both Snap-on’s ShopKey and Mitchell Management Solutions, says the dedicated repair shop products offer functionality that is critical to the shop, and that generic software can’t do.

“We believe that a shop management product should help the shop accomplish at least two major objectives,” says Warfield: “1.) Identify profitable repeat business, and 2.) optimize the sales opportunity. This involves establishing and tracking repair categories, year/make/model lookups and customer criteria. To optimize the sales opportunity the shop needs easy access to information such as parts/labor, and maintenance schedules. Generic software will not have the integration necessary to accomplish this.”

Janet Nelson, responding for ProfitWare Plus, says: “Dedicated programs are better simply because they are tailored to the needs of repair shops. They often integrate valuable tools like electronic parts catalogs, pricing service, and labor guides. Many interface with generic packages for accounting which, due to the complexity of accounting practices, seems to work best.”

Robert Martin, vice-president of marketing for InfoCat, subscribes to the use a can opener to open a can theory. He says dedicated shop management software is designed for a specific trade and meets its specific needs. Further, “It doesn’t cost more than a generic business management program,” he says. That’s easy to say when you give away your software. InfoCat is in fact free for the asking. But if you want to register, there’s a one-time installation and account-opening fee of $300. And to get updates of InfoCat’s catalogues and price lists, and the software itself, you pay a monthly subscription fee of $100. SSGM


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