In today's tough economy, when customers are watching their budgets closely, running a tight ship is more important than ever. Use of software that boosts your level of service for current clients and your presentation pizzazz when selling new customers can pay off.

ServiceLedger (www.serviceledger.com), geared to small to medium sized service contractors, offers integrated scheduling and dispatch, along with customer history reporting. It can also handle billing and payments. The software displays up to four graphs at a time for a quick overview of details on technicians, work orders and jobs.

The program has lots of flexibility and user-friendly features. It supports scheduling by day, week or month, using a non-timed view, time slot, window view or specific time view. You can drag and drop jobs from one resource to another and copy and paste them to additional resources, and automatically roll-over uncompleted jobs to the next day or a future date. You can also schedule jobs to unassigned or untimed slots. Jobs can be color-coded by type or status for easy viewing.

Jobs are tracked via statuses based upon predefined criteria. The Today Snapshot Queue provides views of all jobs scheduled that day, new jobs awaiting scheduling, past-due jobs and completed jobs awaiting invoicing. The Service Queue shows all jobs in progress, including those on hold. The Work Order List finds any job by any field, regardless of job status.

Management can see where technicians are at any given time, what jobs they have completed and which are left to be done, as well as any job that requires immediate attention. Management can get email notification if a technician is in danger of missing an appointment, allowing substitution of another technician to meet the scheduled commitment. All dispatches can be sent by email or text message.

The software tracks service history of all equipment, including scheduled preventative maintenance, and keeps tabs on all invoice charges, costs and components for each equipment record.

ServiceLedger makes it easy to create and manage service contracts, define coverage and invoice at the specified frequency. The software charges off to the contract any work order items covered, and any item not covered is invoiced to the customer. The program can renew service contracts automatically or can send out renewal notices.

Inventory capabilities include tracking by job, multiple locations and/or trucks. It is possible to set up minimum quantities on hand and automatic reorder of items when items fall below their minimum quantities.

Account receivables management allows users to generate contract and service invoices, and recurring and progress invoices, which can be automatically emailed to customers or printed out. For account payables, the program can generate purchase orders, which can be automatically emailed to vendors. The program can also receive vendor bills or issue vendor credits. The software also integrates with QuickBooks or Peachtree accounting solutions.

The program also integrates with Microsoft MapPoint, making it easy to optimize schedules, re-route technicians for optimal driving routes and print out directions.

An optional Technician Web Portal gives technicians access to ServiceLedger in the field in real-time via any Web-enabled device to receive, update and complete their work orders, order parts, print a copy of the work order to leave with the customer, and capture digital signatures. A Customer Web Portal allows customers to view work orders, quotes and invoices, and generate service requests.

Designing 3-D models

Google's free sketching tool, Google SketchUp 7 (www.sketchup.com) is a quick, intuitive electronic drawing tool for creating, editing and sharing 3D models with precise dimensions. The program offers contractors a nifty way to explore multiple design options and present them to clients.

Every SketchUp model is made up of edges that are straight lines and faces, which are the 2-D shapes created when several edges form a flat loop.

You use SketchUp's Follow Me tool to create 3-D forms by extruding 2-D surfaces along predetermined paths. You can quickly go from 2-D to 3-D by extruding the flat surface, using the Push/pull tool, into a three-dimensional form or by drawing an outline of a model and push/pulling it into 3-D. Crossing lines break automatically where they meet, which is a nice feature of the program that helps facilitate easy design. A Paint Bucket tool enables application of colors and textures.

“Sticking together” parts of the geometry to make groups creates sub-objects that are easy to move, copy and hide. Components are related groups with the added benefit that changes made to one are automatically reflected in all others.

The application's Interactive Sections feature enables a user to temporarily cut away parts of the model to look inside. You can also use sections to create orthographic views to export geometry to CAD programs using SketchUp Pro (a for-fee upgraded version that features many other functionalities, including vector rendering).

Bill and Patti Feldman are freelance writers for magazines, trade associations and building product manufacturers on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at productpad@yahoo.com.

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