Managing the Business of Tree Care - Essential Arb
Managing trees is generally no problem but managing a tree care business can be an altogether different matter and much more difficult task even for the best arborist. The best business management ideas are invariably conceived and developed by those with ‘hands-on’ expertise and experience in the field, and so it was for Mark Hines at Digital Green Solutions who developed ‘ARB Pro’, a dedicated PC software package that enables tree contractors to manage their business more easily and effectively.
Dr Terry Mabbett from EssentialArb came to see Arb Pro Software's Mark Hines at Hythe in Southampton to learn first-hand of his journey, from tree surgeon and climber, in the early 1990s, to the development of a unique software package with real potential to make the management of any arboriculture business a whole lot easier and effective and much more profitable.
Mark’s story is a prime example of what can be achieved by an observant worker/manager who sees gaps in the management tools available to keep complete tabs on what has happened, is happening and could happen, to the benefit of a business, in this case arboriculture.
I first began my tree surgery career in 1992, working as a groundsman and progressing to climber until 1994 when I enrolled at Merrist Wood College for the National Diploma in Arboriculture (NDArb), completing the 3-year course on schedule in 1997,” said Mark.
After Merrist Wood, he continued to work in a freelance capacity as a climber for various companies in and around London, as well as spending time as a climber and tree surgeon in San Francisco, California, on the west coast of the United States.
Mark set up his own small tree contracting business in 1999, running it successfully for four years before joining New Forest Council as Tree Preservation Order (TPO) Review Officer. Promotion was rapid and within one year he was Corporate Tree Manager, responsible for the council’s tree stock including implementation of structure (policy and procedures), managing the entire tree stock and all the contractors used by the council.
But he already had other things on his mind, like filling the void in dedicated software tools available to arb companies to effectively run and manage their business. So he re-entered the industry at the ‘sharp end’ as contracts manager for Christopher Hoare Tree Services Limited where his ideas began to take shape.
An idea is born
Whilst the seed had been sown while Mark was working for New Forest Council it germinated at Christopher Hoare Tree Services when Mark realised there was absolutely no specific IT dedicated to running this type of business.
“It was this particular sequence of employment events which enabled successful development of Tree Contracting Software,” says Mark.
According to Mark the average arboriculture business only has access to standard computer programmes such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Publisher and has to use these tools to try and manage all data collected and collated by the company on a daily basis from jobs and clients.
“There was absolutely nothing on the market,” says Mark, “so I invested time and money to train up in Access Database Development and achieved Advanced Certification in the subject. “Previously I had been ‘playing around’ in the field but with this dedicated IT training I was able to bring ideas together and realise my first stage ambition by structuring the databases and building several different formalised versions over the following years.”
The next major milestone happened when external accreditation bodies, who were coming in at Christopher Hoare Tree Services, expressed amazement at both what he had already achieved and was doing with the company’s data. Many said they had never seen anything like it before and these were people who were visiting and appraising all manner of businesses. “It was at this point I realised the absolute novelty of my ideas and their potential for application to a wider range of business,” says Mark.
It was 2007 when things really took off with the construction of his first working database management system. A year later and Mark was confident enough to show these models to arboricultural companies who were now on the verge of becoming prospective clients. Many responded with positive feedback which Mark incorporated into his fledgling
systems. This feedback allowed Mark to see first-hand the sorts of practical problems companies were facing and to go back to the computer and ensure future clients would have at their fingertips software that could overcome these problems. Mark’s system was now at the stage where information gathered and collected by users could be captured and integrated to generate quotations and invoices. With a pool of clients created and lodged in one place users could manage their work via a specialist ‘booking calendar’. Until this point information collected had been static as dead information sitting in a folder but now fluid and dynamic data working for the user.
Sales and enquiries monitoring
“We are now in the realms of proactive marketing potential and creating opportunities,” says Mark, enthusiastically listing areas of arb marketing opportunities that can be monitored and exploited by the Arb Pro system:
Business generation – Use of pie charts to display sources from which enquiries are generated which means users know those areas working for their business
Client base and work type – Division according to tree pruning, hedge cutting, fruit tree management etc, so you know exactly how many clients and jobs there are in each category. “You are now in a position,” says Mark, “to generate letters and target a particular work type at existing and potential clients.” A good example is hedge cutting which is best carried out once in spring and again in autumn. “If you want a hedge which always looks reasonable and aesthetically pleasing then you must prune twice a year,” says Mark, adding that pruning only once in spring gives a gangly hedge.
Having your client base divided by work types means you can now select hedge cutting clients and write to them all during the two identified optimal times of the year, as well as keeping them informed regarding articles of interest or for any chosen topic. Keeping in regular touch with your clients is the key to maintaining a healthy active client base to target and generate/increase your annual work load. This same thinking and procedure can be transferred to all work types,” he says.
Success rate monitoring – “It is essential to know how successful your selling is,” says Mark, “by monitoring sales on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis. Alternatively you can combine years of sales and even look at lots of years. This is especially useful for identifying and forecasting ‘lean times’ to ensure you have enough money in the bank to tide the business over during such periods. With this achieved you can change sales techniques and price structure by dropping prices to bring in more work. Another useful dimension is the introduction of new sales approaches and ‘patters’ based on and enabled by improving the presentation and content of quotation packs. With the monitoring tools you are able to view sales’ highs and lows at different times and compare this to any changes you have made in your sales techniques.
Sales team member comparison – Where there are many salespersons the system can monitor an individual’s sales and therefore target his or her success rate. “You may be doing well as a company,” says Mark, “even though one particular salesperson has a poor success rate.”
Historic acceptance rate – Monitoring and description of acceptance rates according to different times of the year with comparisons year by year, month by month and even day to day are now all possible.
Tracking tree work
Monitoring sales and enquiries is a basic essential but there are many more aspects to the Arb Pro system which enable all manner of analyses of data collected from clients and jobs. There is the Tracking Section, which enables close accurate monitoring of, for instance, invoices, quotes sent in the last 28 days, work in progress and issues which have been recorded i.e. a ‘must do this’ category. “Essentially anything that you have noted or recorded as requiring attention (e.g. risk assessments, site visits, incomplete jobs and complaints) will be ‘flagged up’ as a reminder,” says Mark.
Catering for every client
The Arb Pro system allocates each client his/her own account number, allowing users to assign any data to that particular account. A typical quotation identifies each tree by number and species, description of the work required and value against each work item which is finally totalled with VAT to give a price.
With all the information entered the user proceeds to the ‘Action Platform’ to create reports and manage and print data associated with each individual quote. From the Action Platform he/she can also manage tree protection information – is the tree protected and if so make a planning application and subsequently monitor its progress; work programming and logistics (what do we have to do and how are we going to do it?) associated with the job, such as tools, equipment, machinery, transport and labour. This includes a comments section relating to site-specific information such as MEWP access; risk assessment for each job, which digitally captures all risks associated with the work and produces a Site-Specific Risk Assessment (SSRA) form. SSRA procedure begins with a pre-work (quotation stage) assessment of the risks then complemented by the crew on the day of the work to establish a complete and final SSRA form. Risk issues may include: emergencies, public and environment-related risks, tree work operation, machinery movement and working at height.
Following completion of the work and submission of paperwork by the crew the system will produce a ‘Quality Control Form’ used in the ongoing management and maintenance of a correct and consistent risk assessment process. Managing work load The hands-on benefits of the Arb Pro system can be highlighted by going through a real-time working situation in the office. The telephone rings and on the other end of the line is client who is accepting a quotation.
- The client provides his/her account and/or quotation number and the system navigates to the account.
- The user ticks the ‘quote accepted’ box, which triggers presentation of the ‘Tree Protection’ box, and proceeds if the tree is not protected. If the tree is protected you stop, make an application to the local authority and advise the client.
- The system now presents a colour coded ‘booking calendar’ with next available date and team which is confirmed with the client as ok.
- Book the work: update the system with start and end date for the work; allocate staff, produce invoices and payment due date. Payments that have passed due date are flagged up. The booking calendar is additionally used to produce and generate ‘work packs’ covering forthcoming work for use by staff. They will include (for each job) a works order, a schedule of work and a site-specific risk assessment.
On the job with Arb Pro Software Ltd (formerly Digital Green Solutions)
The Arb Pro system is sold for a fee depending on the system chosen plus an annual licence fee (ALF) covering aftersales support. This may include telephone support and on-line remote access support and includes upgrades as the systems evolve. Potential users require a Microsoft Windows operating platform.
The Arb Pro system is brand new and already used by four arb companies representing a range of size and spread across southeast England (London, Essex and Hampshire). The first user with the ‘Arb Pro 1’ version is Shawyer Tree Specialist of Eastleigh in Southampton, an AA approved contractor enthusiastic about the system and making full use of it. Edward Payne Tree Specialist of Wimbledon, the smallest user with two crews, followed on closely also with the ‘Arb Pro 1’ version.
Christopher Hoare Tree Services Ltd of Southampton came on board soon after in February 2011 with the ‘Arb Pro Elite’ version. Chris Hoare at Christopher Hoare Tree Services said, “We have been using the software developed by Mark for a number of years and recently installed his latest version. It has been of immense help in the organisation of our business and streamlined office tasks. Mark’s software is enabling the company to carry out proactive marketing and assisted us in making full use of our client base. The work management tools and booking calendar have helped organise and mobilise our staff and tools/machinery more efficiently. Management of quotes and invoices including overdue invoices is now a simple task. I would recommend it to any tree contracting company.”
The latest user, Writtle Park (Chelmsford in Essex) with the ‘Arb Pro Elite & Tablet’ version, has put most into the system, purchasing a completely bespoke software system showing Tree Contracting Software is not just ‘off the shelf’ and ‘out of the pack’. Writtle Park has the desktop version and the tablet version for field use, the latter being a small, compact, portable and all-touch mobile computer with the ability to sync data when the salesperson returns to the office following site visits. “Writtle Park is proving key to driving the system on, especially in its mobile dimension,” says Mark Hines.
Oliver Booth of Writtle Park told essentialARB, “Through Essex Business Link we became aware of entitlement to a 40% grant towards upgrading our computer systems. We put together all the procedures we had in place and were about to recruit a software company to develop a suitable programme. At this point we met Mark Hines who already had a system that would do all we wanted and more besides. We sat down with Mark and told him exactly what we needed and he adapted his system accordingly.
“As an ISO-registered company our main requirement is to record all information gained on site into a system that is immediately available and applicable to each and every job, in relation to risk assessment, invoices, questionnaires and indeed anything associated with administration,” says Oliver. It was from this fusion of ideas and developments that the tablet version of ‘Arb Pro Elite’ was born. “Over the last few months, in conjunction with Mark, we have been looking over and trialling the system which will be operational within our business by May 2011,” said Oliver Booth.
The system and its widespread capability in its current capacity has developed massively from the original inception back in 2005. This is largely due to the sharing of an idea with other arb contractors. Involving contractors in the early days provided invaluable feedback in the development of the software packages available today. As the system continues to grow and users increase, so in turn will the system capabilities and features improve year after year. These improvements will be made available to existing users as part of their annual subscription fee, ensuring the original building blocks of success – sharing ideas – is continued throughout the lifetime of the products.
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