Why Stock Control Automation is Essential for Your Plumbing Business

Rhys Pattimore
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We’ve spoken many times before about how digital solutions help you manage time-consuming, repetitive tasks in a more efficient way.

However, in this article, we’re keen to revisit something you’ll no doubt be very familiar with, and that’s stock control. 

Alongside some fantastic insights from Paul Harrison, eBusiness Trading Manager at Wolseley UK, we’re excited to dive in to more of the reasons why an automated stock control solution (and taking full advantage of job management software) is essential for your plumbing and heating business. 

With almost 20 years of experience under his belt, we picked Paul’s brain to gain additional insight into stock management, process automation, and hear his thoughts on having a digital job management solution for your business. 

There’s a lot to digest, but whether it’s considering if you should prioritise business efficiency over focusing on customer growth, exploring the consequences of not adopting stock control technology, or understanding the benefits of digital stock management, there’s plenty that you’re sure to find useful. 

  1. Prioritising business efficiency over customer growth
  2. Why stock control automation is essential (3 reasons)
  3. Overcome pushback and forge a productive team

1. Prioritising business efficiency over customer growth

Before we tackle stock control directly, let’s think about the importance of efficiency.

Introducing process automation (of any kind) should come from a desire of wanting to improve your business. However, I’d argue that introducing process automation should first  be about making your company more efficient, more so than focusing on winning new business. 

Sure, earning quick profits and growing fast is nice, but it’s often unsustainable and can leave you more exposed to the inevitable ups-and-downs of the market. By focusing on strengthening your business, you can guarantee that as you grow, you’ll be able to sustain that rhythm and not succumb to cash flow or office task issues that so often plague businesses who have bitten off more than they can chew, all to chase short-term profits. 

Quite simply: efficiency matters.

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You know this already: just like installing the most efficient boiler for your customers, a finely tuned business makes everything run more smoothly and translates into reliable growth. Many businesses will be concerned about acquiring customers—and you’re not wrong: they’re your bread and butter, after all—but rushing to grow will have a negative impact if you’re not prepared to manage that growth. 

The great thing is, laying that groundwork doesn’t have to take forever. Job management software and automation solutions are more intricate now than they’ve ever been, but they’re also more affordable and accessible too. Together, they allow you to take control of complex, time-consuming tasks in a user-friendly way. 

Paul gave his two cents when we discussed field service job management software, saying: 

“It's a completely off-the-shelf product that is affordable on a subscription model. So there's no vast investment required. It used to only be the largest customers that were really using tech. Whereas now, you've got a lot of small or medium enterprise customers that are using job management [systems] to run their business and who would be absolutely lost without them [...] It just makes it easy”.

Optimising your efficiency doesn’t have to be complicated. Whether you’re a large business or an SMB, have been around for decades or are just starting out, you can lay your groundwork without spending large sums of money to build your own solution and improve processes in a way that suits you. 

2. Why stock control automation is essential:

3 Reasons:

  1. To “delight the customer”
  2. To eliminate human error and increase accuracy
  3. To avoid wasting time and make better decisions

i. To “delight the customer”

Your decision to take control over stock (amongst other automated solutions) goes hand in hand with thinking about how you can improve your customer experience.

Paul pointed out that, for Wolseley UK, as the stock merchant of choice for many plumbing and heating businesses, one of their key outputs is to:

"Think about the efficiency and productivity of your organisation and how you can use gains in these areas to delight the customer.”

In the case of your business, it means making obtaining stock and managing it as easy as possible. By using a digital software solution, you can achieve precisely that. In some cases, engineers can obtain real-time data from a supplier and, with the help of their mobile workforce app, check the status of their own stock, too. 

Rather than having to make a phone call or scour a stockroom themselves, a digital stockroom allows engineers to see where the part is; if the part hasn't been (for example) received the day before an appointment, the engineer or office manager can then call the customer to reschedule the appointment.

Information like this allows staff to resolve queries faster and improve first time fix rates, which will have a marked improvement on customer satisfaction. Particularly when you have a mobile workforce that covers many, many miles each day (often with stock in their own in a van), it’s incredibly valuable to have a remote solution that’s accessible to everyone, regardless of whether they’re in an office or on the road.

“From a van stock replenishment point of view [...]” Paul continues, “that's working capital tied up in our customer's business and if they want to work out what is the cheapest fulfilment method, it could be that it's cheaper for them to go and collect [at a branch] in a five, ten-minute drive or, see if it’s better to actually go back the following day”

The ability to weigh up a decision thanks to a smart, time-saving solution allows engineers to solve problems in real-time. No business wants to become stagnant or lose time by waiting around, but avoiding implementing an automation solution puts you at risk of doing just that.

What’s worse, you risk falling behind your competitors who’re already using software to bolster their services (and many will be).

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Taking control of your stock with a digital solution is one way to ensure that your business runs smoothly. You use parts every day, so it’s a no brainer to think of the impact this can have on a job-by-job basis. While you should certainly take steps to automate, it’s also true that optimisation will—like any change—require patience and time to adjust.

However, the reward for doing so outweighs the struggles you’ll face if you don’t upgrade and remain stagnant. One such struggle to keep in mind is human error...

ii. To eliminate human error to increase accuracy

“The first part of an issue with a manual process can be accuracy. In terms of manual processes, that’s just putting another opportunity for failure in place, isn't it?”

Paul’s not wrong. We’ve all been there. An unclear signature, a smudge of ink, it’s a simple problem but you know that a 9 instead of a 0 can be detrimental, so being able to safeguard against errors—even with something as simple as an auto-correct or auto-fill feature to streamline communication—lets you make sure that you’re not getting things wrong. 

“Typos in catalogue numbers could be catastrophic, you type the wrong letter that could be either a completely different size of pipe”, which results in a fix being delayed, which wastes time, money, and effort for everyone involved.

Whilst it’s important to remember that no system is 100% accurate, the reduction in errors can be significant, particularly when you’re not faced with handling paper and out of date sheets.

That sort of stuff we had in the old days,'' it's no longer a problem with these solutions in place “[...] in terms of the reduction of the manual process it’s part of the evolution of tech. It just completely lowers the operational costs… We talk a lot about saving our customers hassle, but essentially that just means making it easy for them.”

The same can be said for you too, as you take steps to make your business more productive, in both acquiring and accurately managing your stock, you make it easier on yourself to deliver a quality, efficient service for your customers.

Why would you hinder yourself by doing things any other way?

iii. To stop wasting time and make better decisions

It may be a cliché to say that “time is money”, but wasting time inevitably means wasting money. On the flipside, a more efficient office and mobile workforce who aren’t bogged down in time consuming tasks will—quite simply—allow you to get more done and (in time) make more money. After all, if you are able to do 1 more job per day with the same number of engineers, that’s 5 extra jobs per week. You can do the maths from here on, but that’s all extra work done at no additional cost.

Real-time data is essential, especially in this day and age where everything has to happen now. Short of being able to magically make the right piece of stock appear when you need it, stock control can let you see where parts are in real-time. 

No one is expecting miracles, but it’s true that delays are becoming unacceptable, but it’s also true that it’s a lot easier to provide answers. As Paul explains: 

“By having real-time data, you can make an informed decision ... And that's the bit that, with API technology, that's what it absolutely gives our customers. The ability to use the data and work out what is best for their business outcome in that moment in time. So, whether that’s simply checking stock: they can do it [...] they can then work out in terms of where they are and do a livestock check [... it] just completely streamlines the procurement process and creates better decision making.”

Having real-time data directly influences the accuracy of stock-related business decisions and practically, as Paul says, eliminating “the cost of a return visit: of not having a first time fix, is huge because they've not got to deploy an engineer all over again.”

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It provides a simple solution that’s scaleable in multiple areas, to suit different business needs. The point is, it’s there to make your life easier and can mean you can move from one job to the next, resolving problems quickly and more efficiently. 

3. Overcome pushback and forge a productive team

We all have habits, for better or worse, and these habits can make handling change a challenge for even the most open-minded workforce. Change may seem inconvenient at first, but it’s rarely an issue with the actual product that’s the problem when a team is trying to adapt. Instead, it’s often a lack of training and the reluctance from staff to change that can be a bigger hurdle to overcome. In Paul’s own experience, he tells us that: 

“People can look at it in terms of, they think you’re pushing back to them to solve their own problems”.

But, similar to a value proposition with a customer, it’s selling the fact to your own staff that a software solution will enable them to achieve more.

When presented in the right way, it becomes obvious that a solution encourages people to easily overcome problems they’d been having and, once adopted, people will rarely want to go back. 

So, what does that mean when it comes to automating stock control? 

Well, if you can demonstrate the benefits we’ve discussed, such as delighting the customer, reducing errors, and saving time, then the value becomes clear. These are essential reasons  why automating your stock control (along with other tools) will put you in a position to succeed and improve your business outcomes.

They will benefit your entire team and though there may be a short-term hassle, it will help prevent long-term struggle and can even prevent outright failure.

The Takeaway

The important thing here is to keep the value proposition in mind: a delighted customer is precisely why you and your staff should feel motivated to adopt technological solutions to boost your business.

However, it’s also important to remember that having digital solutions to these problems is becoming a must-have these days, with ever growing customer expectations and intense competition in the plumbing & heating industry. 

As Paul concludes:

“By using tech it's a lot easier to scale your business and you don't need to put as much administrative cost  into your business because your processes are automated through tech [...] Otherwise it's convoluted, full of manual processes and requires a lot more labour investment that actually inhibits your ability to grow the bottom line as quick.”

If you enjoyed the insights from Paul and are interested to gain more insight into ordering parts, you may be interested to check out a previous Interview we had with Wolseley in 2018. 

With plenty more expert insights and engagement to come, you may want to subscribe to our Business Blog. We update every week, so be sure to take a look below to subscribe, and be sure to connect with us on social media: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!

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