The Search for a Software Solution

The Search for a Software Solution

By Mike Cramer

There are two things that I spend most of my time doing: drag racing and providing pet care services. I started my drag racing hobby because I wanted to drive fast and compete. I built the car so I could go to the local track and race on weekends. It was a blast, and I enjoyed it. As I became more experienced, I wanted to go faster and race more. The National and International Hot Rod Associations have specific technical requirements to build and race a car in order to run different times and at what speed. They don’t want someone’s minivan trying to race a car that runs 300 mph in a quarter mile. Since everything was specific, we had technical requirements to build my car.

I started out small with my pet boarding business, doing what I liked and making some money. There came a point where I wanted to take control and grow. The difference in pet care is there is not much that is standard, and there is not an industry book that you can go to, which tells you exactly what to do or what you need. You can’t open a book that says “Z” is the software standard needed to run your business. Our industry has very small services and very large services with technical requirements as different as the counties in which we operate. Some use paper schedules, and some have online interaction. Sometimes I think the only thing common in pet care is that we care for pets. The rest is driven by location and client.

I want to stress how identifying requirements and processes should be the first consideration for selecting a software package for your service. You need to set the standards and requirements. You can always re-evaluate your requirements once you see what is available, but it is a little late when you buy a package and realize it doesn’t fulfill your services.

In this context, a process is the repetitive and identifiable steps in getting from point A to point B in an effective and efficient way. A requirement is what you must have to make the processes work. You plan on booking clients, so a requirement is a booking calendar. The process you follow to book a client will dictate how the calendar needs to function (another requirement). As an example, my pet care service will book a client but not confirm the booking until vaccinations are current. An e-mail will be sent to notify them of expired vaccinations that need to be corrected by a set date or the booking will be dropped. For the booking software, we had a requirement for e-mail notification. We will not charge clients that check in after 6 p.m., so a requirement is a system that would automatically not charge if checked in after a certain time. We require each client to have an email address so we can document communications for services, so a requirement is a system that requires an e-mail address to be entered before a new client or booking can be made. These are examples and may not be your specific requirement.

Let’s say you own a pet care facility and have the financial means to develop software to use. It is built with your service and processes in mind. It is tailored to your business. It works extremely well, so you decide to sell it to others. As the software is sold to other facilities, it becomes more modified to fit a broader audience, or the facilities need to change to meet the process of the software. This is how a lot of service-related software packages get started, not just for pet services. Not that this is bad in and of itself, but it may not match your processes.

I have seen process take large companies to their knees. A large pharmaceutical company decided to implement a new Enterprise Resource Planning system (ERP). When the ERP system went live, it stopped production for about a week. In fact it made news in the Wall Street Journal. I was part of this project, but fortunately my oversight at this point was over the infrastructure. Basically the ERP software required a strict process to be followed, and no deviation could be made without a release or change. In the old system, production could start and product could be made before a release. It just couldn’t be released until everything was entered into the system. The new system would not allow them to go into production until everything was released and approved down to the detail of how many labels the production run required. They were not used to entering everything into the system as they performed their tasks, and the tasks had to be completed in the proper order.

Most software packages are built with a process or processes in the design. Do you know what processes you have at your facility with which you want the software to work? Your process is something you need to consider prior to the purchase and add to your requirements list. Each service you provide has a process. It may be documented or unconsciously followed.

To obtain the process requirements, follow each step as your client would. Document each step so you know where you may need to enter data or retrieve data from the software. Now document each step the pet goes through for the service(s) for the same software interaction. Some things to consider: If you have a pet for the day and the client wants to switch them to overnight, can you do that in a system without reentering? Can you add services after the initial booking? Do you have a different process for feeding, exercise, walking, and play time? Do you charge by the hour, day, or night? You will need to know your service inside and out so that you can have an informed discussion with a software vendor.

You have a pet service that you are operating or want to build. You have wanted to look into a pet service software system to help you run your business, but you don’t know what you need or where to start. In fact, you may not even know what questions to ask. To discover what system you need, you must first look at what the requirements for a system are. Requirements are what you need from the system to help you manage your business. Identifying the requirements will point you to a solution before you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars. The requirements need to be developed before looking at software programs. The best pet service software in the world might be your worst if it doesn’t meet your requirements.

Let’s imagine you and your significant other asked your friends which was the best cruise they went on. They said cruise line “Y” was their best cruise experience. You trust the person, so you book with cruise line “Y.” A day into the cruise, you realize that the cruise is full of children running around. Not that children are bad, but you and your partner wanted to get away on a relaxing cruise that was quiet and full of other adults. To the friend, a cruise with loud children was quiet and relaxing. To the friend, there was enough monitored activity so they could relax and not worry about their own kids. You booked the cruise without any requirements in mind. This is a simplistic example of why you need requirements before selecting a pet service software system, but the results are the same. You paid money for something that you don’t like. I might add that at this point, the money you spend for the software is usually dwarfed by the amount of time you dedicate to training and getting it populated with data.

Here are some things you need to consider when looking at requirements: How do you plan on interacting with your clients? Are they going to schedule services online? Are they going to check themselves in? Do you have an interview process before they can book? Will you need two computers? Will you need to access the application remotely? What are your operating hours? Will multiple people use the application at the same time? Do you need some kind of report? Do you need to switch a pet between a boarding stay to a daycare stay? What additional services may be added to a stay? Does it need to interface or connect to and transfer data between two applications like accounting? Can you continue to operate if you buy a web service and the Internet is down? If you grow, will it grow with you? Even if you have just basic requirements, it is better than none when you meet with a software vendor. They are in the business of providing solutions to your problems. They need your help by having you do some homework like requirement gathering.

I have not mentioned anything about the software vendors’ system requirements. That is what their software requires for hardware and operating system. I would suggest that you ask if their software would conflict with any software that you are running on your computers. Conflict between software packages running on the same computer has been less of a concern as operating systems improve. Not all software will run on Windows 8, and the ability to purchase new systems with Windows 7 is getting harder and more expensive.

Last Bit of Advice
When you speak with software companies, make sure your questions are direct and precise, and their answers are explained. As an example, you want to know if you can change a daycare booking to a boarding. They say yes. Great question and answer, but what does it mean? Your thought behind the question is how easy it is to move them between services. Their yes makes you think a simple click. Their yes may mean delete the daycare booking and create a boarding. Your question should have been “How do we move a daycare booking to a boarding?” I don’t believe their motives are deceitful, because if they are, they wouldn’t be in business long. They just don’t know what the expectation is behind your question. Unless you are familiar with software packages, I wouldn’t recommend downloading a test version. You may get so frustrated in trying to make it work that you will overlook it. It would be best to have a demonstration, perhaps remotely, so you can see it work with data already in it, and you can ask questions on the roll.

Mike Cramer is owner of My Best Friend’s Inn, which provides dog boarding, dog daycare, dog training, and grooming in Otsego, Michigan. His daughter Erin is the Operations Manager of the facility. Mike also consults for people, government, and companies to purchase, maintain, upgrade, and manage projects for computer systems, applications, telecommunications, and IT services. Mike spent 25-plus years in pharmaceutical and healthcare managing application developers, web developers, application and technical support, telecommunications, and IT/IS facilities. He also spent several years in purchasing of IT services and negotiating contracts. His background in animals came from working on his family’s farm and uncle’s ranch. Mike currently resides in Alamo, Michigan, with his wife Cynthia, who is a second grade teacher. If you would like to contact Mike, you can reach him at (269) 350-3832 or [email protected].

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