Why CMS software is important for your technology strategy

March 23, 2018 By    

In the September issue of LP Gas, we explored the “internet of things” approach to a propane business and in the January issue I stressed the importance of developing a technology strategy.

Through a combination of considered choices and trial and error (OK, maybe mostly trial and error), we figured out our propane management system (or “CMS” – as in customer management system – for short) is the most important software component of our technology strategy. In fact, it’s so important that I’m going to devote my next two columns to it. This month we’ll focus on the importance of how the CMS software talks to other software and devices.

The good news: There is no shortage of CMS software options. CMS software is offered by a number of vendors at varying price points. The bad news: You have to pick one – very carefully. Here’s how each CMS software option’s connectivity with other devices and software may be important to your technology strategy:

Web portal. Synching new customer applications, propane orders and payments, and making order histories and customer balances available to customers online can be done one of two ways: automatically by your CMS software or manually by your employees.

If you want your CMS software to do it, you can eliminate a number of CMS vendors because they currently don’t have the capability. Alternatively, you may create your own web forms and do it manually. The choice is obvious until the CMS software provider quotes the cost of its web portal installation and annual support, which can range from $1,500 to $4,000 up-front and up to $2,000 for annual support for the average retailer. However, the cost may reduce overtime or even headcount, or it may pay for itself with less tangible benefits like allowing you to spend more time getting new customers or keeping existing customers, instead of shuffling paper and making manual entries. In either case, it needs to be evaluated against your specific strategy and technology list.

Bobtail connectivity. Four years ago we invested in digital meters and bobtail tablets to eliminate the delays, errors and inefficiencies of manual entry. For those with digital meters (or those with mechanical meters who should strongly consider going digital), the question is not whether your CMS software should connect to your bobtail, it’s how and how often.

How: Some CMS software requires specific (and sometimes costly) equipment – typically tablets – that is connected to the bobtail meter by cable. Other CMS software is more flexible and can communicate with the bobtail using a combination of tablet, iPhone or Android devices you may already own. The two biggest factors you need to evaluate are ease of use for your fleet staff and cost.

How often: Some CMS software does not communicate with bobtails well once the bobtail is in the field. If the ability to make route changes while bobtails are in the field is important to you, be sure to focus on this during your software evaluation.

Remote monitors. Most CMS software can work with a variety of tank monitor brands and systems. If you have a lot of monitors in the field, you’ll want to make very sure that the CMS software works with the brand(s) you use. You’ll also want to focus on how and how often the monitors and CMS software exchange information. For example, a colleague of ours recently experienced a data exchange that resulted in drivers showing up at customer sites even though the tanks had been recently filled.

General ledger. Some CMS software has its own general ledger module. Many have connectivity to popular general ledger systems (e.g., Quickbooks, Xero, Zoho). Others have no connectivity. This may be one of the most overlooked elements of system connectivity. Manual entry of sales and payments can be time-consuming and error prone, making availability of up-to-date financial statements a challenge.

The bottom line is that your CMS software needs to effectively connect and communicate with your software ecosystem, whether it be customer facing from website to CMS, back office from CMS to general ledger or in the field from CMS software to bobtails or remote tank monitors.

Christopher Caywood is a co-owner of Caywood Propane Gas Inc. Contact him at chris@caywoodpropane.com.

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