Cell phones: You make the call

Though you may remember life before cell phones, it may be hard to imagine life without them.

Even so, many large urban contractors have already moved on to a new generation of job communication technology. Through personal digital assistants, handheld computers, laptops, and online project websites, project managers in the field can download drawings, blueprints, sketches, documents, specs, photos, and emails.

By contrast, rural builders undertake post-frame projects that last days or weeks instead of months or years. Contracts are valued in thousands of dollars rather than millions, and the work is often performed by crews that can be counted on one hand. For that reason, cell phones have proven to be a flexible and affordable option for enhancing communication between home office and jobsite.

“We issue cell phones to all crew foremen and customer service reps, altogether about 40 people,” reports Derek Gore, head of customer service at Ark-La-Tex Shop Builders in Haughton, La. The firm constructs steel-skinned post-frame buildings within a 100-mile radius of its home office, as its 70 employees fan out between Arkansas, Louisiana, and East Texas. Projects include commercial and residential structures, shop buildings, and horse barns.

Cell phones enable Ark-La-Tex personnel to “instantly communicate between the office and the jobsites,” explains Gore. “So if there’s a rain delay or a change order, for example, we can deal with it efficiently and avoid downtime.” Such coordination is vital for a company that performs all its work with its own forces. Each crew is specialized; one comes along to pour the concrete, another for the carpentry, another for the metal skin, and so on.

Instant communication is also a boon because of Ark-La-Tex’s payment policy. No deposit is required (though clients who cancel are charged a 20 percent restocking fee) and instead each customer pays one-third after framing, one-third after the concrete is completed, and one-third after finishing. One the job is fully paid, the warranty goes into effect.

The payment policy has helped Ark-La-Tex gain a competitive edge. In fact, its workforce has grown from 17 to 70 employees in just three years. “But because of the way we handle payment and commit ourselves without any deposit,” Gore explains, “if a customer ever has a problem at the jobsite then it’s important that we resolve things right away. In that case, the foreman can call me, so that I can check and verify what was contracted and what’s in the drawings. We can resolve the issue in 30 minutes, not in five days.”

With crews traveling a 100-mile radius that extends across three states, even a simple flat tire can cause significant downtime. But with Gore only a cell phone call away, he can quickly dispatch help — or if necessary, a replacement crew — on short notice. “And as for my own work, and that of our other reps,” he adds, “we can use our cell phones to manage appointments, get directions, and make sure someone is available if a customer requests a meeting.”

Since Ark-La-Tex is a rural builder, Gore continues, “by definition we tend to get the worst cell phone coverage.” The company started out with AT&T, was switched to Cingular, and experienced numerous dropped calls and dead zones. What did the company do? “We talked to our customers,” he says, “since their locations are the places where we do our work. We asked them what cell phone service they use. When the clear consensus was Alltel, we switched.”Cell-Stendel1.jpg

Gore does not bad-mouth AT&T or Cingular. Instead, he only points out that, in a given rural area, some carriers inevitably have better coverage than others. “Our customers are way out in the boonies,” he observes, “and somehow it just worked out that Alltel, even though they have a smaller coverage map than Cingular, has better coverage in the places we go.”

Ark-La-Tex’s construction personnel have been issued cell phones with a “walkie-talkie” feature for direct connections. Sales and customer service reps have Bluetooth technology that permits them to make hands-free calls while driving. The camera phones also permit reps to take pictures of potential non-standard projects “so that we can decide if we even want that project and, if so, how much it will cost,” says Gore. Construction employees, however, use digital cameras if jobsite photos are needed.

“Our reps also now take laptops with us,” Gore adds. “It’s like having a electronic presentation book, since we can use the slideshow feature to present photos of past projects to potential customers.” Yet even if cell phones allow Ark-La-Tex employees to keep in touch with customers while on the move, the company continues to believe that a personal touch is still vital. “When people call, it’s important to answer with a live voice,” he believes. “Customers want immediacy and they want to talk with real people.”

Locked into cells
At Eversole Builders of Lancaster, Ohio, president Steve Eversole runs five crews, has 15 employees, and mostly performs light commercial construction. Projects range from warehouses to offices to strip malls, can last anywhere from two days to six months, and may range in value up to half a million dollars.

“Cell phones are issued to all of our foremen,” Eversole says, “and we use Nextel because their walkie-talkie feature covers about 90 percent of our territory and we get unlimited usage.” Subcontractors and suppliers likewise take advantage of the Nextel walkie-talkie capability to stay in communication. “But since 90 percent of our work is obtained through referrals,” he adds, “we don’t have any sales reps.”

Eversole Builders has been in business for 25 years and began using cell phones about a decade ago. Yet Eversole has never been tempted to give up his land line. “Customers call our office phone,” he explains, “because if we gave out our cell phone numbers to everybody then we’d get bogged down. So we’re keeping our land line. Our company is big enough to employ a full-time office manager. That enables us to answer the phone with a live voice, which is important for building good relations with our customers.”

At the same time, however, Eversole has no desire to return to the days before cell phones. “Since cell phones came on the market,” he believes, “society has become more instantaneous. As a company, we’ve got to keep up with the pace. Besides, cell phones let us do more things with the same amount of people.”

Eversole has not “gone as far as getting camera phones,” he continues. Since the company only travels within a 40-mile radius, all vehicles and crews can return each to the home office. As such, digital cameras suffice for any photographs that need to be taken.

On the other, Eversole has tried using a BlackBerry for his business. “I haven’t had great success with it,” he admits. “The coverage isn’t always so great and my emails don’t always get to my BlackBerry. Also, you don’t get a confirmation that you’ve received a message. So I’ve thought about getting rid of it.”

At the same time, however, Eversole notes that “I’ve got a builder friend who has a PDA (personal digital assistant) that lets his foremen see invoices and documents. If we covered a larger area than a 40-mile radius, I could see how digital communication could be a help.”

Over the years, most companies have given up on blanket prohibitions against personal use of photocopiers, laser printers, emails, or telephones. Instead, employers often place limits or impose charges on personal use of office equipment. Company-issued cell phones present the same challenge. What is Eversole’s solution? “We allot our foremen a certain number of minutes per month,” he explains, “and if they go over, then they must reimburse the company.”

Cost-effective communication
Cell phones are also a fact of business life for president Bill Moseley of Garages-N-More Inc. of Alburtis, Pa. Compared to Ark-La-Tex and Eversole Builders, the company covers a smaller territory (50-mile radius), has fewer employees (just Moseley and his wife), and uses subcontractors for all its construction tasks. Yet the five-year-old firm has used cell phones since its 2001 inception.

Effective jobsite communication is vital since Moseley and his team perform a wide range of projects. “Residential garages are our bread-and-butter,” he explains, “but we also do horse barns, agricultural buildings, light commercial, and a few industrial jobs.” In addition, Garages-N-More provides turnkey projects to its customers, an approach that often requires Moseley to coordinate the work of subcontractors.

“Cell phones are important because I need to be in daily communication with my subs,” reports Moseley. “Since I’m both in the office and out in the field, cell phones allow me to keep in touch. Out of the 60 hours I generally work in a typical week, I’m probably out of the office about 20 hours.”

Though his subcontractors have Nextel service, Moseley chose Cingular “because my office is in a wooded, hilly area where Cingular provides me the best reception.” He and his wife Pamela, the only two people who man the company office, also use Cingular for their personal cell phone service.

“All my subs and suppliers are programmed into the speed-dial feature of my cell phone,” Moseley continues. He has opted to forego a camera phone and instead uses a digital camera when photos are needed. In the near future he plans to obtain a laptop computer for use in sales presentations to customers and for calculating job estimates.

Phone etiquette is important to Moseley. “When I go to meet with a customer,” he relates, “I leave my cell phone in my truck. My subs know I do this, and they know I’ll call them back within an hour if they can’t reach me. But I just don’t want to be interrupted when I’m with a customer. Besides, if it’s important then I probably don’t want to be discussing the issue in front of a customer, anyway.”

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