Welcome to the future
It is amazing how technology has warped ahead over the past three decades. Ideas that were barely dreamt of in the 1990s are now products depended on daily in homes, schools and offices around the world. In a strange twist, the phones, tablets and laptops that many people now take for granted make the technology in imaginative old science fiction movies look completely laughable.
And today it's no exaggeration to say that the sky is the limit when it comes to carwash monitoring technology. Modern software packages offer complete interconnectivity and off-site access to multiple wash locations. This technology lets owners watch like a fly on the wall, allowing them to easily track performance, resources and employees whether they are across the street or thousands of miles away.
Connecting a chain
One of the most important features that modern software systems offer carwash chains is multiple site replication. With replication, software connects every location of a carwash chain as well as the chain's home office so that up-to-the-moment sales information and customer histories can be shared, according to Judy Dunn from DRB Systems Inc. This connection ensures that all locations will have current information about customer purchases and club plan statuses.
"Having this constant up-to-the-moment communication will allow you to run your chain as one business rather than a collection of individual carwashes," Dunn explained. "For example, when information is shared, you can do things like run loyalty promotions and sell prepaid cards chain-wide while still maintaining tight control."
Until the advent of cloud-computing and Internet-based point of sale (POS) systems that communicate between locations in a near real-time environment, there were serious limitations and labor-intensive means for managing multiple locations, Ryan Carlson, director of marketing for WashCard Systems, said. Having software systems capable of synchronizing data can assist an owner in a variety ways. The software can track:
- Customer account balances;
- Accounting and financial information;
- Employee time-clock data;
- Payroll; and
- Numerous other data collected during the day.
How it works
Previously, there were only a handful of carwash software companies that could use the Internet to sync multiple sites together through different methods of transmission. Currently, companies offer these connecting tools as "software as a service," which relies on servers to collect and store all a business's data on the Internet, Carlson said. The company-specific data is then pushed back to each location of the carwash chain. This system reduces much of the IT infrastructure and expense that goes into Internet-based software for syncing multiple locations.
Another connectivity trend is putting a web server at each carwash location along with special software, according to Carlson. This system allows each location on a timed sequence to "talk" with the servers at other sites in "one big game of telephone." Here, the information is passed around in a circle, and this keeps each location up-to-date.
Still, the software is designed so that the system is completely secure, Brian Bath with Innovative Control Systems said. Each user will have a unique user name and password. Then, the Internet provider and/or the software provider will setup a firewall protecting the sites and the corporate server to prevent unauthorized users from gaining access.
Carlson said another popular feature offered by modern software systems is the ability to consolidate reported information from all locations into a single interface. This is a benefit to carwash chains because they can sell a $100 gift card at one location, and it can be redeemed at another. "This sounds very simple, but the reality is that this feature is still only available amongst a handful of software providers on the market today," he said.
Another popular feature is the ability to promote a subscription-based wash club. Thanks to the software, consumers can sign up for a monthly club and use the benefit regardless of which location they are visiting, Carlson said.
Dunn agreed, "Without the communication, you wouldn't be able to follow your customers' activities from one of your locations to the next, so you'd wind up having to put 'good at this location only' restrictions on your promotions, which would detract from their value to customers and make them less effective."
Bath said smartphones and their apps have become a new technology norm in 2011. Having multisite software on smartphones permits the owner or operations manager to quickly assess that all sites are open and operational. Also, an owner can use a phone or computer to see collected data at a moment's notice.
Current multisite software can use smartphones to let an operator view data reports that include cars washed per hour for all locations, average sales, extra service sales, etc. In addition, operators can view the wash history of any or all locations using the app. These sales figures plus a host of labor statistics are the operator's preferred categories, according to Bath.
The software sending up-to-the-moment sales and labor information from all locations back to an operator can help him or her make informed decisions without having to physically be at each site, Dunn explained. For example, a software system should reveal if there are too many employees at a site for the volume that is being produced. This information will allow an owner to make ongoing adjustments throughout the day to maintain profits chain wide.
"This is a very significant advance because it reflects the way many carwash owners really operate their businesses," Dunn said. "Many of them aren't the kind of owners/managers who stay locked in an office. They're entrepreneurial types who are up and about, moving from one place to the next. Now they can take their business with them, so they never lose touch with day-to-day operations."
The eye on employees
A carwash software system should serve as the carwash's time clock, Dunn suggested. When employees punch in and out, it will not only monitor attendance, but it will also help manage schedules and control labor costs by letting the owner know when an employee is getting close to overtime.
In addition to attendance, the software can track daily employee duties. "I've had conversations with wash owners that expect an employee [to be] responsible for doing a function test of all equipment when they show up for their shift and a final function test before they leave," Carlson said. "Since each employee is issued their own 'in-house account card' for function testing, the employee audit reports will track an individual's usage through their shift."
The software also gives owners oversight of employees using payment acceptance and machine activation, Carlson said. A program will track if an employee is actually performing his or her job, and it will also report whether or not employees are giving away free washes.
What about hardware?
"Operators no longer have many options to dust off an old PC they have [lying] around and toss in the installation CD," Carlson said. "Many software systems have very specific hardware and operating system requirements." Especially since most POS software systems, customer loyalty systems and entry station systems accept credit cards. PCI-DSS compliance requires that these computers be dedicated and secure machines.
Dunn agreed by saying that it is more advantageous for an operator to combine hardware and software into one integrated solution. "When you buy hardware and software as one package from one supplier, you know that everything has been designed to work seamlessly together," she said. "Plus, when a service issue does arise, there's only one vendor responsible for supporting the system, which eliminates confusion and finger pointing."
But, the ability to integrate software into existing entry stations is a different situation. Popular software products come in "two flavors," according to Carlson. The first is a manufacturer-specific variety. Here, the new software system is only intended to run on the manufacturer's brand of entry station hardware. The second "flavor" consists of third-party vendors that create their software and ancillary hardware products that allow them to integrate into new or old entry station equipment.
Carlson said the most common software system mistake owners make is completing a purchasing decision too quickly. Many make the decision based on the information provided by the first salesperson they consult. He stressed that doing research and homework is critical when an owner or operator is making an investment in a business.
Another common mistake that many businesses make when using software is not using it to its full capacity, Dunn said. Carwash operators don't take full advantage of their software system's capabilities because they aren't familiar with everything their system can do.
"Software is a complex product, and there's always a lot going on when an operator installs his first system; so it's wise to startup slowly and walk before you run with your first software system," Dunn recommended. "But once the initial startup is done, you should continue to learn about the product. A software system is a dynamic tool that will grow with your business. The benefits it offers don't end when you install your system — that's only the beginning."
Support is one of the most frequently overlooked aspects of buying a software product. According to Dunn, buying a software system is not like buying a dryer or foaming arch for a carwash. The only time an owner will need "service" with equipment is if something is defective or worn out. This is not the case with software.
New enhancements are always being added to software systems, and businesses are always using software in new and different ways as they grow and become more familiar with their systems. Dunn said this constant change creates an ongoing need for support.
"The company who sells you your software system should really become involved in helping your carwash grow with the system. So, you should look carefully at a company's willingness and ability to support its products, and not just at the products themselves, when making your decision to purchase a software system," Dunn said.
Aside from its commitment to supporting a product, a software company should also be selected based on its commitment to upgrading and developing the product on a constant basis, Dunn said. Software is a very dynamic industry, and there are major advances made every year. So, the system of today will probably have to be upgraded in the future to give a carwash access to the latest marketing and management tools.