Last year,R&Rasked some of the industry’s foremost manufacturers to describe some of what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to developing software for the restoration contractor. The pace and complexity of operations in the restoration business demands the structure and efficiency that software tailored specifically for the industry can provide.

As with all technology, however, change is constant. Continual updates, patches and leaps from v.1.2 to v.5.0 before you can finish breakfast require diligence on the part of the contractor to stay current, and follow-through on the part of the manufacturer to provide whatever support is required to make sure things flow as smoothly as possible.

To that end, we asked three of the field’s top experts – Randy Beres of Assured Software, Service Software’s Matt Doerfler and Michael Gallahan of Top Tier Software Solutions – to weigh in on the current state of restoration software, what’s important and what’s not when it comes to features and options, and where things will go from here.

Restoration & Remediation: Let’s start by getting this out of the way: these days, is it even possible to effectively operate a restoration company without industry-specific software? Or have things just become too complex to do without?

Matt Doerfler:It is certainly possible to run a company; however, growth should be the goal of any company, and the ability to grow with restoration-specific software is 10 times greater than without. The amount of time saved on a job is too great and the ability to analyze your business has never been easier by using a restoration job management application. You cannot manage what you are not tracking, and job profitability depends on quality documentation.

Randy Beres: We believe with a passion that restoration company owners will be able to operate their companies more effectively with industry-specific software. All of the constituents in the “process” of restoring someone’s home or business (insurance companies, adjustors, home owners, suppliers, subcontractors, project managers, employees, etc.) have become more demanding in terms of access to information. With access to information in the rest of our lives becoming easier with every new technology, these same expectations exist in the workplaces of the restoration industry. Access to the right information at the right time in the right place will demand that companies move to industry-specific software.

Michael Gallahan: The short answer is no. The restoration business is not unlike other businesses when it comes to operating a profitable business. You must establish proper business processes and stick with them. In today’s market, the restoration industry is struggling with tough markets, increased competition, and insurance companies that demand accurate, provable accountability before they are willing to pay on claims.

Industry-specific software gives a company a platform to achieve best industry practices that are consistent and repeatable. When you speak of complexity you are really talking about accountability. The industry is becoming less tolerant and more demanding of accurate reporting.

R&R: When contractors start shopping for software, what are the top three questions they’re asking, and what’s one thing they’re not asking about, but should be?

MG: The three top questions are usually “What does it do?” “Is it web-based?” and “What does it cost?” A large number of sales inquiries come from companies that are dissatisfied with their existing software and are looking for an alternative. The one thing they are not asking when looking for a solution is “Show me.” Software is always in a state of development and you can be promised something in a “future release,” but if it is critical to your operation and is important enough to base your buying decision on, you need to see it work.

MD: Potential customers typically ask if the system is web-based, is it going to integrate with my accounting system and “How much does it cost?” It’s very important to ask every question you have and not only get an answer, but be shown the solution. Price is a big issue with every company in this economy, large and small, but it should not be the main goal. Everybody wants to get a deal and you will.

What people rarely ask is, “What is my return on investment?” If you look at your budget and don’t see much room for another cost, you’re not going to feel comfortable purchasing a software system. What you have to realize is that if you put out the effort and the software does what you need it to do, a 50% increase in revenue within your first year going live is very real.

RB: Who else is using your software, how are they using it and how long have they been using it – with 14 years in this business we have thousands of examples we can share with clients and prospects.

Will your software work with all of the rest of the software we have in our office, and will it work with our current hardware technology? The answer to these is always situation specific to each customer.

Finally, we hear “will your software run on fill-in-the-blank-with-the-latest-technology-written-about-in-the-tech-magazines?” but again, the answers are situation specific. The one question we do not hear enough is, “How long have you been in this business, how many versions of restoration industry specific software have you written and will you be there in the future to support me?”

R&R: With the rise in popularity of mobile platforms, do and should contractors expect that there will be “an app for that” with their software?

RB: Maybe and it depends. I had a customer call me and say that his JPP management reports were running perfectly on his Blackberry Curve, but then he moved to an iPhone 4 and they stopped working – in the end we found an app that allowed him to run them on his iPhone too. Contractors need to understand that most apps are written for consumer audiences numbering in the millions and that the applications contractors might find useful will not always be on that particular radar screen for app developers.

MD: Absolutely! Gartner IT Research suggests that by 2013 more companies will be using smart phones and tablet PCs than desktops and laptops to manage their businesses. Hardware technology increases extremely fast and although it is sometimes undesirable, we are able to work on our business wherever we are in the world 24/7. It is important to look into the past, present and future of a software company to understand its staying power. There’s already an app for that.

MG: This is a great question. Mobile technology is making it possible to access a boundless amount of information. Everything is going to the web and the ability to access the information anytime, anywhere is now possible. The bigger question is how much money you will have to invest to achieve it. Unfortunately, all mobile technologies are not equal and they will remain that way until such time as the market shakes itself out.

The best advice I can offer is check carefully when looking for a mobile solution. If you ask a salesman if you can use the application on mobile devices and they say “Yes,” you need to make sure he meant on your devices.

R&R: In the past year, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced, or what’s the most over-the-top request you’ve received, with regard to what a client expects their software “to do” for them?

MD: Many people joke about having the software run their whole business and they don’t have to do anything. That’s partially true. Yes, the software will run your business for you, but you have to put out the effort for it to do so. The plus side is that you will put out much less effort than not having software at all. Every company receives jobs and gets paid on jobs, but the in-between is a little bit different for everyone. Most software is extremely flexible and can conform to your ways, but you’d have to pay a significant amount of money for it to be 100% customized to your business.

Compromise, it will be worth it. Once you’re groovin’ on it and it’s working for you, it’s all down to how much you want to grow your business or how many vacations you want a year. Some people want to use the time their software saved them to get more jobs and make more money, and others want to use that time at the beach.

MG: We are fortunate because we have a product that is designed to be configured for individual customer needs. Most customizations can be done by the customer themselves, dramatically reducing the cost of such changes. We don’t expect our product to look the same or have the same functionality, because every company has different needs and, because of the base technology, these types of changes are not affected by future releases.

As far as over-the-top requests, we have implemented our product within one of the most secure governmental organizations in the country with no access to external Internet and no ability to bring any electronic devices into the facility. We have also implemented the product for a corporation that requires multi-currency and support in eighteen languages.

RB: Clients want our software to be able to “guarantee” them more work. We had one national client call and tell us that they needed to buy POI (pack out inventory) type software because one of their top insurance companies said they would no longer get contents/pack out claims unless they acquired contents inventory software.

We can supply the right software but in the end the contractor has to demonstrate to that insurance company how they are using that software, and prove that they meet the insurer’s information management requirements – software can’t guarantee that, only the contractor’s use of it can.

R&R: Breaking out the crystal ball – and I’m not asking you to give away any company secrets – what do you see as the “next big thing” in software for the industry?

RB: More “interoperability” between software programs and platforms. There are more and more software companies offering more and more very “specialized” functionality in the form of software. That’s great news for the contractor, but in some cases companies are still operating in a proprietary nature, frustrating contractors across the nation.

Applications that should logically “talk” to one another sometimes do not and that simply does not bring the value to the contractor that it could and really should. We (software companies) need to continually focus at doing a better job of working together for the collective good of the restoration contracting community. This will ultimately lead to a more rapid adoption of restoration industry-specific software and benefit everyone involved.

MD: Until we live in floating houses that can get out of the way of disasters, the jobs are always going to be the same. Efficiency on the job is the name of the game and it’s all about mobile field technology. There is an app for that and you’re going to fall behind if you don’t start using it.

The industry is doing a great job picking up new technology and it’s here for everyone to use. Your customers will appreciate how fast you can finish the job and mobile technology will help you do it faster. The UPS guy used to carry around a clipboard with a paper to sign and now you sign right on their barcode scanner electronically. IBM just did a project for the pharmaceutical industry – you may have seen the commercial on TV – and it’s just a barcode tracking system to see the history of each pill bottle and where it’s been. These same technologies that Fortune 500 companies use are available for you.

MG: This is an easy question to answer. The answer is “unity.” Software that allows you to bring all systems together so information sharing is not just something you achieve but is transparent.

Information on a project that is not unified is not productive. You need to be able to go to one place and see everything you need to see and/or know about a project, an estimate, a customer, or an employee. A company executive should be able to acquire the sum of all this information in a concise meaningful way that allows them to make business decisions that drives profitability. Software that helps you to identify a problem isn’t enough. Software needs to help identify a solution before the problem occurs.