Feedback From the Field Drives Innovation in Business Software

The site-map screen on A Plus Tree’s Treezi. A mobile app and web accessible, Treezi is A Plus Tree’s original ArborPlus software repackaged and redesigned. Image courtesy of A Plus Tree.

This is the second in a two-part series on industry-specific software companies in 2020. Part 1, “Leveraging Business Software in the Age of COVID-19,” ran in the September 2020 issue of TCI Magazine.

Commercial arborists you talk with will give different reasons why software is good for their business and what aspects of the software they value most.

For Stacy Hughes, owner of Terry Hughes Tree Service, a 28-year TCIA member company based in Gretna, Nebraska, important parts include the reporting on discounts and sales tax and tracking the sales and production commissions of his employees.

“The reporting is big for everyone, building reports to get the information you need to run your business effectively,” Hughes says. “I’ve seen people throw together reports and get information out, but they’re wrong and you make mistakes. When we talk about commission structures and things like that, and sales tax, if they’re not correct, it can come back to bite you. So it’s important to get them right, and I trust (ServSuite) to do that.”

Hughes has been a 20-year client of ServicePro and its ServSuite management software, and serves on ServicePro’s advisory board, which he describes as an informal arrangement where “they’ll call me and a couple of other people” seeking feedback from the field.

“He has actually had a lot of input in a lot of things that are currently and eventually going to be in ServSuite,” says Mike Triplett, sales manager for ServicePro, a five-year TCIA Corporate Member company based in Columbus, Ohio. “I have a close relationship with Stacy, and he and his staff have provided a lot of input toward improvements into ServSuite. Their fingerprints are all over the system.”

People want to be heard, and the software companies that serve the tree care industry like to hear from them. Across the board, developers say they’ve built a better product by getting feedback from their clientele and acting on it.

Use of software by the tree care industry has grown steadily over the years, and its products have improved with it, in large part guided by users.

While the global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has had severe consequences in many industries, according to software providers spoken with for these articles, most of the tree industry rebounded well after a mid-March lull when the nation went into self-isolation.

“I ask my customers, ‘How’s business?’ and most of them are saying, ‘Business is rocking,’” says Mark Smith, owner/engineer at Creative Automation Solutions, Inc., which makes the ArborSoftWorx family of software products for the green industry. When asked to explain, Smith responds, “Well, they (clients) are all at home. So they’re looking outside and going, ‘Yeah, that tree needs work. This over here needs something. Ah, we’ve got to get this fixed.’ From the standpoint across the country of how’s business? It’s good!”

Business is also good for developers of industry-specific software, who have received more website traffic and inquiries than usual and saw broader use of the software by their current tree care clients. Customers were seeking less face-to-face contact with – and less paper to handle from – tree care salespeople and crews, more tree care employees were working from home and leadership took the opportunity to see what other advantages they could find from their software.

For the developers of ArborSoftWorx, ServSuite and Treezi – three companies with long but different histories – and other software providers, feedback from the field has been an important part of their success.

ArborSoftWorx

Customer feedback is one of the three primary drivers for development for the tree care industry, according to Mark Smith at Creative Automation Solutions, a 21-year TCIA Corporate Member Company based in Fallston, Maryland.

ArborSoftWorx’ Customer Screen, above, has all the information for the customer in one place.

“One, two, three – customers have desires, technology changes, regulations change,” says Smith, explaining that improvements are generally “on a wish list,” and customer feedback can influence the priorities on the list.

The GIS Inventory screen. Images courtesy of ArborSoftWorx.

“What we’ve done over time is simply expand the tools in the toolbox. If I’ve got (a tree care client) who says, ‘This would be really good,’ and I get one, two or three votes on that, that would be an enhancement for the feature list and would come up in the near term or in a future version.”

ArborSoftWorx has a 30-year history and a clientele made up predominantly of large and mid-size companies (and, presumably, companies with those aspirations). The software system offers a lot of features that not only allow employees to work remotely but also do a lot more, according to Smith. Extending the analogy from the previous paragraph, Smith notes that, “It’s a big toolbox. I daresay there’s not one of my customers who uses all the tools in the toolbox, and I have customers in the United States, Canada, Australia and the Middle East.”

One of the company’s primary goals is to be secure, with restrictions on permissions and other safeguards in place to protect the client company’s interests.

“Our number-one objective has always been, ‘Don’t lose the customer’s data,’” Smith says. “Have it be quality data. So there are a lot of rules in place on what you can do and what you can’t do. Some pieces of software will let you do anything you want and delete whatever you want to delete.”

As one example, he provides the following hypothetical: “Someone walks through the door with $5,000 cash. Jane the secretary says, ‘I’ll take the cash, and I’ll delete the work order and everything else, and nobody will find it.’ ArborSoftWorx won’t let you cheat.”

The protection of data is a particularly important part of the company mission.

“I have a number of companies that, over time, will put in that 25 years of experience; they will have that sweet Rolodex, they will have quality data in that Rolodex. And they get paid for it.”

If your company goal is to grow your business and sell it when it becomes substantial, the bigger buyers in tree care want thick data, not thin. Says Smith, “They’ll pay for quality data. That big company’s not interested in four broken-down trucks. They want your Rolodex. They want quality data to feed their system to keep the ball moving.”

Treezi

A Plus Tree Care is an accredited, 17-year TCIA member company that specializes in commercial work, with a large and diversified portfolio that includes utilities, municipalities, homeowner associations, apartment complexes, businesses and more.

A Plus Tree’s Treezi Proposal, Job Detail and Job Map screens. Images courtesy of A Plus Tree.

As CEO Cyrus DeVere explains, in 2012, founder Jeremy Tibbets “had a vision with the internet and Google GPS mapping. He, at the age of just 32, thought to himself, ‘There’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be a way I can share with my clients all of our work that we do, on a map, and keep track of the healthcare of the urban forest and all the tree care, and have a repository where they can keep all of their treatments and professional care for trees, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

A high-school graduate with no programming background, Tibbets went to work, and in 2014-15 launched ArborPlus, a cloud-based software developed on the iOS platform from the very beginning. His feedback from the field came from his own company and from his friends in the industry.

“He invited friends, family and other independent tree companies to come along for the ride,” DeVere says. “He charged some, he gave software away for free. He used it in his own trade market. He did many things you would not normally do. He did many things that were not good to do. He made a lot of mistakes. He had software that was kind of stolen at one point.”

In the spring of 2017, Tibbets reached out to DeVere through a search company and, over a period of several months, convinced DeVere to become the CEO of his company while Tibbets worked on the software development and marketing. DeVere was a Southern California native who had just moved his family to Park City, Utah, and wasn’t wild about relocating again to the Bay Area of California. But Tibbets was vibrant, bold and charismatic, and ultimately persuaded DeVere to come on board.

“He knew he was going to change the industry through this software,” recalls DeVere, who says Tibbets refused offers to sell his entire company from potential buyers whose primary interest was the software. “ArborNote did not exist and Arborgold did not exist, and both of those companies were developed to compete with ArborPlus in the early years.”

On DeVere’s sixth day on the job – October 14, 2017 – Tibbets, at the age of 37, had a heart attack and died. Shortly thereafter, in a move DeVere terms “very unpopular,” the company pulled the software from more than 45 companies within a week.

“We gave everyone a copy of their data and we shut it down, and we only used it internally as our internal operating system,” says DeVere, who had discovered a development team hired by a company that was using the software. “I caught them in our code, copying our code. That was the last straw.”

A Plus Tree brought the software in-house and put an in-house development team to work creating a parallel program on the same code base: Treezi. After a 16-month pilot, it was launched quietly to a handful of tree companies in fall 2019. DeVere says, “We are in the infancy stage of allowing people to use it. It’s a very modest subscription fee.”

Treezi is designed for the niche of an owner-operator with one truck, one chipper and a four-person team, providing a big database of tree treatments, multi-year plans, digital proposals, invoicing, time cards, time management and more to run a business, including syncing with QuickBooks. “We have anecdote after anecdote of how this has helped businesses double their growth almost immediately,” he says.

As DeVere sees it, it’s a way for Tibbets’ legacy to continue.

“We will use it to allow small, independent tree companies that were just like Jeremy’s. That was his vision – to help other companies grow their business, like he did.”

ServSuite

For some established companies with technology in place, the pandemic became what ServicePro’s Mike Triplett refers to as “a call to action to start implementing these (tools).” It also has brought new (client) companies on board.

Screenshots of, clockwise from top left, ServicePro’s ServSuite Line Item Proposal with ServSign, Scheduler, Route Optimization, ServSales and Plant Inventory. Images courtesy of ServicePro.

“In the industry in general, there was a lot of face-to-face prior to COVID-19, in terms of doing estimates and bidding, putting a completed work order/invoice on the door or handing it to the customer upon completion. Software affords you the opportunity to go contactless,” says Triplett, noting that tree companies forced to stay home were expanding through print-to-mail or electronic invoicing. A growing trend even before COVID-19, “All that (use of technology) not only helps the contactless efforts and management of remote operations, it creates more operational efficiency within the company, because what may take two to four hours a week printing, folding, stuffing and stamping is now just a click of a button, and they go on to the next task.”

A family-owned business with a 25-year history that originated with tree and lawn care, ServicePro has added the pest-control industry to its catalogue.

“We really cut our teeth in the tree and lawn industry, mainly because Richard Deering, the founder and president of the company, ran a turf and ornamental company for many years and actually developed the software to manage his business. That’s how we got into the software business.”

As Deering recognized from the start, industry-specific software provides an advantage over other application packages, from marketing through the sales and production processes, and to administrative tasks from billing to payroll. It keeps things organized in an industry where many companies remain tied to paper recordkeeping or simple, general software tools.

“Some had already realized this, but with COVID, people realize now that software is not something you may optionally consider as an investment for your business, but it’s every bit as important as PPE, bucket trucks, safety plans, etcetera. It’s part of the business,” Triplett says. “In order to better communicate – and more safely communicate – internally and with customers, and to better run your operations, software is every bit as important as all the other assets owners purchase to operate their businesses.”

New with ServSuite this year: a fully-integrated tree/plant-inventory application that will include long-term recommendations, with data that can be digitally connected to marketing tools for upsells, invasive-species protection or managing pricing and contract renewals over time.

Other new services include custom branding of documents created by the ServSuite design team to match the company’s logo and the inclusion of marketing offers.

The company is always enhancing its products, and this year it has enhanced scheduling and routing applications, as well as ServSales.

Stacy Hughes says he’s looked at other products over his 20 years as a customer, but always has been happy to maintain his relationship with ServSuite.

“They’ve been very dependable and reliable,” Hughes says. “They’ve evolved as the software industry has evolved. It’s been a very good long-term partnership.”

While Hughes has given valuable feedback, the company seeks feedback from customers and non-customers alike.

“It’s not just a bunch of developers and sales folks in a room within ServicePro who are coming up with ideas and developing them,” Triplett says. “We stay connected to the industry and those in it to give us direct input on how these things should flow and be built.”

Conclusion

Creators of business software are adapting products to meet the needs of the industry at the same time tree care providers are looking to move more customer interactions online. To paraphrase the last line of Casablanca, spoken by Humphrey Bogart, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” or, at the very least, a mutually beneficial relationship.

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