Using Software to Manage your Fence Company
By Ray Pearson
The role of computers and software in the fence industry has evolved from next-to-nothing when I first entered the fence business almost thirty years ago to one of the most universal and versatile tools in the trade. From accounting to lead generation, estimating, material fabrication, shop and fabrication drawings, inventory, scheduling, marketing and customer management, various software applications have increased productivity exponentially. Software tools have become such an important part of everyday business, that a measure of computer literacy should perhaps become a part of every company’s hiring process for all office personnel. Computerized accounting was first—and continues to be—the most commonly used software application in the fence business. According to the feedback I get, QuickBooks is far and away the most popular accounting software. It is available in Basic, Online, Pro, and Premier Editions. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Peachtree ranks second in popularity. Both products are economical and user friendly, although they provide limited free technical support. One big advantage of using QuickBooks is that, due to its popularity, it is relatively easy to find employees who are already familiar with it. Larger companies often have a need for a more robust accounting solution than what these basic systems offer. In that case products such as MAS90, MAS200, Microsoft Dynamics and J.D. Edwards, although more costly, are usually the software of choice.
Beyond Excel: inventory & estimating for the fence industry
Microsoft Excel is probably the single most widely used software program in the fence industry and every other business in the world. It is a powerful tool to create and format custom spreadsheets to analyze and share information and to make more informed decisions. Many fence companies have set up their own Excel spreadsheets to facilitate pricing and estimating. However, Excel is also a generic tool that lacks the precise focus, detail and functionality found in industry-specific software.
There have been over two dozen fence industry-specific software products since the early 1980’s. There are currently six listings of websites offering fence-industryspecific software on the first two pages of a Google search for “fence software.”
Industry-specific software should do those things that are unique to an industry. The fence business is diverse and varied. Single manufacturers and wholesalers often market 50,000 items or more. Dealing with this vast, sometimes interchangeable, network of parts can be complicated. When dealing with such a large and assorted inventory, keeping track of exact quantities of items is essential. In the fence business this requires exact breakdowns of material and knowledge of costs and profit. The best estimating programs in the fence business can produce exact breakdowns for a variety of jobs in just a couple of minutes. The ability to produce shop and fabrication drawings, contracts and work orders with clean, computer-generated site plans, packing lists, invoices, crew scheduling and inventory control are all important functions.
These systems should also have the ability to interface with accounting packages and other programs. For example, Fence Software’s CFS vinyl fabrication software can communicate directly to SSD and CMM computerized vinyl routers to input custom fabrications.
Some companies have developed their own specialty estimating programs as part of their sales support effort. Product data and/or estimating programs for Master Halco, Jamieson, Merchants Metals, Richard’s Wholesale, Sharon Metal, Bufftech, Alumi-Guard, Fortress Iron, Ameristar, Poly Vinyl Creations, Iron World, Delgard, SpecRail, Jerith, D&D Technologies, DuraMax, and more are all available. For vinyl fabricators, profile and accessory product masters are available for Bufftech, Kroy, DuraMax, Westech, Enduris, Maximum, Veka, Homeland, Country Estate, Stallion, LMT and others. Unique in the industry, the Bufftech Estimator has the ability to convert an itemized estimate directly into an order on the epricebook page of the Bufftech website with just the click of a mouse.
Selling products by maximizing web presence.
Every company in business today should be concerned with its web presence. Web search engines, like Google, are quickly replacing the Yellow Pages as the primary source of lead generation in many industries including the fence business. Every company should dedicate some portion of its advertising budget to improving the performance of its website.
There are three critical elements to improving website performance, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search Engine Marketing (SEM), and Web Analytics.
SEO is the process of having the search engines evaluate and rank your website highly in their listings. These listings are free and often referred to as ‘organic’ searches. Websites listed in the top search results will be viewed more often. If you Google a term as generic as ‘vinyl fence estimate’ our company is on the top half of the fi rst page of results worldwide, and we don’t even sell fence. That is Search Engine Optimization in operation.
Search Engine Business Listings are another good way to get more visitors to your website. Business listings provide basic information such as your phone number, address, maps and a link to your website. Search engines are using this feature to further undermine print and Yellow Pages advertising and, at least for now, the service is free.
SEM is paid advertising on the search engines. These listings are usually found at the top of or down the right side of the search page. Bids are submitted for “keyword” search terms with the highest bids getting the highest rankings. One major advantage of this “pay per click” advertising is that it can be geo-targeted. If you currently have a website but not a significant “web presence,” SEM is the quickest and most direct way to increase your visibility. The most popular venue for SEM is Google AdWords.
Web analytics is probably the least used of web management tools. Analytics provides you with the who, what, when, where and how of your website. In the past the measure of a website was “hits”. Hits have become a totally irrelevant statistic. Analytics measures actual website traffic and statistics. It can tell you how visitors arrived at your site, what they looked at, how much time they spent, where they are located and whether you were able to convert their visit into a lead. Many analytic services are free, like Google Analytics, and are relatively easy to implement on your website. Lacking analytics to gauge the performance of your web project is like shooting blindly into the darkness. You just don’t know how well the site is performing.
While there are many legitimate web consultants, there are also many that are not so ethical. The average business person’s lack of web savvy and intimidation by companies to exploit their informational advantage over their client and lead them down a long, expensive, baffling path, paying exorbitant rates for minimal services. We have run across instances of companies managing SEM accounts and charging dollars for referrals that were costing pennies.
What can you do to protect yourself? The best way would be to jump in headfirst and learn to manage your own Analytics and SEM campaigns. There are also many easy-to-use, open source tools for doing your own web development. Most developers start with these same free templates. If you choose to outsource the project, when interviewing a prospective web developer/ consultant insist on a user friendly “back-end” for your website that enables you to easily update text and images. This way you will be able to keep your content fresh, which is important to SEO, without having to call in the web developer every time you want to make a change.
Beware of companies that make absolute guarantees of top rankings and of companies that promote through “link farms.” Insist that an analytical tool be integrated into your website. Google Analytics is free and can be implemented simply by pasting one line of code to the bottom of each webpage. If your web consultant is reluctant to give you access to your website analytics, run.