The headline of a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek boldly declared that “The Home Office is Dying.” The premise of the article stated that, thanks to Wi-Fi and portable devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones, there’s no longer a reason to be tied to a desk. For example, you can spread out and work in bed, on the couch, at the kitchen table or anywhere else in the house.
Tree care professionals, who have never had much of a chance to sit at a desk anyhow, are taking this trend even further. Many are using technology to get work done not in another part of the house, but wherever the job takes them. Working mobile is just the way business is now done for many in the industry, who say it’s saving them time and making them more efficient.
“I feel like our whole lives are one big portable office!” says Julie Weaver, business/office manager at Climb High Tree Service in Pennsylvania. Her husband, arborist Bryan Weaver, has used a variety of different tools over the years to help him work from the job site. For example, he initially used QuickBooks desktop software on a laptop, which allowed him to print proposals using a Bluetooth printer. Later, he used an early QuickBooks app on his phone to send the information to the mobile printer. For about the last two years, he’s used QuickBooks Online to allow him to continue to generate proposals on-site.
“During an appointment, Bryan gives each customer a printed copy of the proposal, a copy of our terms and conditions and copies of our workers’ compensation and liability coverages,” Julie Weaver says.
“After a proposal appointment, if a customer wants to accept the proposal ‘on the spot’ there is the capability for the customer to sign the proposal on the phone/tablet. If they do, Bryan will then send the proposal directly to our office printer while still at the appointment.”
Julie explains that while this mobile office technology is a huge help, it’s not without its challenges. Changing over to the QBO version of the software, for example, resulted in the loss of all their prior payroll records. And the mobile app version doesn’t have the full features of the full online version, so when she’s in the office she prefers to use the latter version on her desktop. But she’s also learning to appreciate the power of being able to work outside the office. “I recently purchased a Microsoft Surface Pro – with the keyboard, it’s essentially a laptop – which I use when I am not in the office. I teach middle/high school science part-time, so during the day I’m often juggling teaching and the business, and my Surface really has been a great investment, as I can access everything from virtually anywhere – even if I don’t have Wi-Fi access, I can make my phone a Wi-Fi hot spot.”
While she says there are some tasks, like invoicing, paying bills, payroll and so on, that she prefers to do in the office, mobile technology lets Climb High Tree Service efficiently handle other matters from wherever they happen to be. That’s particularly helpful for a small company like theirs, she says: “Since we can do almost anything from anywhere, it does make us much more efficient and able to take care of things as quickly as we can, especially since we don’t have an office staff.” Customers also appreciate their use of technology to improve efficiency and service, she adds. “Many customers have expressed being impressed when Bryan is able to hand them a printed proposal at the appointment in addition to copies of our workers’ compensation and liability coverages – those things definitely set us apart.”
Despite the many advantages, Julie has identified one drawback to the ability to work anywhere at any time. “It can be a challenge, more so for me than Bryan, to maintain a healthy work-life balance,” she explains. “Since everything is accessible always, I often feel the need to jump and return calls/emails, etc., almost immediately when they come in…including evenings, weekends, holidays and vacations. We can never, ever truly ‘get away’ it seems.”
When he books an appointment to provide an estimate for tree work, some customers will tell him to, “‘Just write it down and put it in the door.’ But I tell them, ‘We’re about five light years away from the put-it-in-the-door days!'” says Ken Brown, owner of Brown Tree Service in Illinois. With advances in technology, most customers these days are used to getting proposals in a more high-tech manner, and he says businesses need to be able to do that.
Brown Tree Service uses the ArborSoftWorx software suite to manage its business, both in the office and out on the job. “When we first started using it about 12 years ago, it was just a desktop thing,” Brown says. “But since then, things have evolved. Now it’s a cloud, and everything is on a server that we can access remotely — it doesn’t matter where we are.”
This provides the means to get work done on the job site, rather than having to go back to the office to write something up. “If a customer wants a quote on the spot, I can go over to my truck, pull up the cloud and then I have access to the ArborSoftWorx software, which has all our data in it,” says Brown. “I can either pull up the customer or create a customer profile, and from there I can create a proposal that I can email to the customer right then and there and not even have to worry about paper.” The ability to email proposals — along with certificate of insurance and terms of service documents — eliminates the need to have a printer installed in the truck as he did in the past. “You really don’t need to do that now… I’d say 95 percent of our customers now have email.”
Not that all of this needs to be done in the field, adds Brown. Especially on days where he might be doing 20 or more sales visits, he says there’s just not enough time to do all the proposals in the truck. In those instances, he’s found other technology that he can use in the field to help speed data entry back at the office. For example, he often uses a handheld tape recorder to record his verbal notes about a potential job. “That way if I have 10 for 15 proposals, I’m not having to write everything down.”
Brown observes that many people working in the tree care industry don’t have formal computer training, but says that adopting mobile technologies to work more efficiently “is not as hard as people make it out to be… there’s not that big of a learning curve.”
CS Tree Services in North Carolina began using Arborgold business management software about three years ago to bring together the office and field operations. For example, co-owner Chris Baley can create job schedules in the office that all employees have access to on their smartphones. “They can see their schedule for the day, and they can check off jobs when they’re done,” says Baley. “They can also add services, and they can track their time — it’s really pretty amazing,” he says of the power employees now possess on their phones. In the old days, there would be papers strewn all over the truck, or somebody would forget their notebook on the roof and drive off, he joked.
Now, all crew members need to do is pick up their phones in the morning and they know where to go and when, as well as what personnel, vehicles and equipment will be needed. And there’s no time wasted having to call into the office to report that they’ve finished a job or to get their next assignment. Once a job is done, they just check the software on the phone — either through the app or a web-based sign-in link on their phone’s homepage — and it will tell them what job is next. And then the phone’s navigation system will direct them how to get there.
Baley says that one of the biggest time-savings with this approach to mobile business management has come from expedited communication. “We don’t need to go out there with the crew, or talk to them during the day — they might call every once a while with a question, but otherwise they have all the information they need and they can make changes,” he explains.
Baley’s business partner, who handles sales, also no longer needs to personally take phone calls, record customer information and schedule appointments from his truck. Thanks to the software, and a remote assistant who has been contracted to answer phone calls and enter all customer information into the Arborgold system, all he needs to do is look at his iPad and he has a schedule for the day. This frees him up to handle more estimates and get more done. “We can even use it to email quotes to customers when we’re right there, and even have them sign on-site if they want,” says Baley. “It’s pretty fantastic.”
On a related note, Baley says an iPad (with some key apps) has become another essential mobile work tool for his company. For example, it allows his business partner to generate quotes out in the field using the Arborgold software, while also providing the ability to take photos, draw pictures, access aerial photography, etc. “He can select overhead images from Google or local GIS systems and pull them into Skitch (an app from Evernote) and on the image, he can draw circles or lines and use different colors for removals or pruning or different treatments. He can then put that picture into the estimate,” explains Baley.
All this mobile technology has proven not only to save time and improve efficiency within the company (with improved ability to track all sales, billing, job changes and customer communication), but it helps to project a professional image and impress customers, as well, says Baley. “They’ll say, ‘Wow, how did you get a picture of my house from above?’ And the communication is crystal clear — they get a picture of it, with a description and all the line items… They get a professionally laid out estimate.”
All of it done remotely.