Lawn Maintenance Business Management System
Using the same software for over 20 years is amazing, but all good things must come to an end. The Lawn Builders had been using the same invoicing and business management since the days of MS-DOS. Earlier this year, the time finally came for a new system. We created a cloud-base platform replacement that not only incorperated all features of the original software, but also added complex batch data processing and many aspects of a CRM.
Originally written in 1988, Prairie Software was an out growth of the author's own lawn care business. This industry specific software was sold to a number of clients across Iowa and Nebraska.
The most important part of Prairie software was its CRM (customer relations management). This portion of the software tracked service and bill-to addresses, services signed up, billed, and paid. Each customer record could have a number of invoices and payments. As a generally summer industry, the invoicing and services rolled over with the calendar year.
While most of the functionality was fairly generic, it did have a unique features necessary for a lawn care business. The program could be set to print sign-ups for the next season's lawn care and the invoices for those services in bulk. Using templates purchased in bulk from a printing shop, Prairie Software could print customer information in bulk via an old dot matrix printer.
The Lawn Builders would send out personalized direct mailers to to each customer at the beginning of each calendar year for customers to sign-up for the coming season. These mailers would have information specific to the customer such as pricing for their lawn size and additional services they might be interested in. Additionally, as the time in the year came for services to be rendered, such as fertilization, The Lawn Builders would print and leave an invoice at each customer's location with the services rendered, balance due, and disclosures about various chemicals used.
Views from Prairie Software
The need for an update
The need for an upgrade was a long time coming. A number of issues combined to create a system that was slow and wasted over a hundred hours each year of the office manager's time. With a large, growing database of active customers, Prairie Software was not scaling with The Lawn Builders. This alone created the need for a new system.
One large concern updating. Prairie Software had not been updated since 2003, over 12 years. Additionally, after we started looking through it, we discovered it relied on a database system, FoxPro, whose last version was released in 1994. It was running on a Windows XP machine in compatibility mode. There was very little chance that it could ever run on anything newer.
However, by far the largest issue was bulk printing. First, It only had the capability to use an old, out of production printer. This printer had already been replaced once with a used one from eBay. There was no telling how many of these printers were still around and would be for sale the next time it broke. Second, the printer extremely slow. Printing thousands of pages at 3 pages per minutes takes a very long time. Add with paper changes and jams, this made for a good chunk of time every year spent just printing.
Creating a New Software Platform
After analysing these issues, we worked with The Lawn Builders to develop a new platform that would meet their needs. We offered two solutions: desktop and cloud. Desktop is advantageous because you control the installation and the data, but are responsible for the maintenance. Cloud software outsources software, data storage, and maintenance. Cloud software is also advantageous because there is only one installation, minimizing the necessary installation and testing time.
The Lawn Builders opted for a cloud software solution. They were in the process of upgrading their office equipment and wanted a product that would work with everything.
CRM & Invoicing System
The CRM piece is the core of both new and old systems. Prarie Software's Customer Relations piece worked very well for this type of industry, therefore we stayed as close as possible in this particular aspect while creating the new software.
We did massively upgrade two areas, service lookups and customer filtering. Services in Prairie Software were baked into the core of the program. There was limited flexibility is service types and pricing. Our software massively expanded the possibilities for pricing structures and types. More importantly, The Lawn Builders needed a better way to lookup clients. While they had a number of ways previously, the filtering was not expansive enough to really get the lists they needed for sending out proposal and invoices. Quite a bit of lookups had to be combined manually, making for a very labor intensive process. Our software eliminated this need by allowing filtering by a plethora of data.
Bulk Proposals and Invoices
Prior to contacting us, The Lawn Builds purchased a large printer/copier in anticipation of printing their own proposal and invoices. In addition to offsetting the labor cost of printing, they also wanted to eliminate the purchasing pre-printed templates.
The Lawn Builders had a number of templates, both invoicing and proposals, they used over the course of a year. These templates changed from year to year. The data on these templates needed to be merged with customer and invoice records. The diversity of these requirement necessitates and flexible system.
HTML being the most common markup language, we developed a flexible system using lookup variables and HTML that compiled into a well formatted PDF temple. An unlimited number of customer or invoices can now be merged with a template and printed on any printer. Using PDFs as the final format had a number of other advantages: cross platform compatibility, consistent display, and consistent printing.
Extracting and Importing Customer Data
One of the biggest challenges was moving the customer data from Prairie Software to the new system we developed. With such a large customer database, manually moving this data would have take months. After some research, trial, and error, we were able to export the FoxPro database into CSV. From the CSV, we were able to process the data into our format in import it into the new database.
Views from new software
As of today, The Lawn Builders successfully generated and printed all their proposals for the 2016 season. This process, normally taking weeks, was completed in less than a day. Over time we are hoping to work with them to further develop the product into a full featured platform.