When a driver pulls a truck into a service shop for a repair, scheduled or not, a service writer must bring together a lot of information before a work order can be generated.

At the bare minimum, the service writer must record what needs to be done, what parts will be used, what authorization is needed from the truck owner, warranty information and any fleet-specific requirements. The service writer then must present an accurate estimate of what the service will cost and how long it will take.

This information must be gathered from various sources. Without an automated system, it typically requires a significant amount of time and several phone calls. The service writer must determine what parts will be required and how much they cost; whether they are on hand or need to be ordered; how much labor will be required; and specific warranty or campaign information. All of that may require numerous pieces of paper and interacting with several other people, including the truck's owner, the shop's parts person, the service scheduler, the parts warehouse, etc.

With a manual system, this information would typically be collected in a job jacket. It might include the paperwork filled out from the walkaround, parts requisition forms, inspection sheets, warranty info, etc. In theory, the job jacket will have all the information the technician needs so he won't have to come back with questions.

Once the truck is in the shop, there will be a process to create an estimate for the fleet manager. A technician fills out a parts requisition form and takes it to the parts guy, where it gets entered into their system to create a parts list to go into the estimate. That may create another piece of paper - the parts list - to be added to the job jacket. An estimate is faxed to the fleet; the fleet manager calls and authorizes the work.

By then, the shop has all the pieces of information they need to start the job, but getting those pieces lined up again may be difficult. If the shop can't get the pieces lined up, there is a good chance the invoice won't be correct. When that happens, either the customer is unhappy or the shop loses money because it made an adjustment.

How automation works

An automated system takes the paper out of the process and accurately gathers the information needed to create an accurate estimate.

"Finding that information and bringing it together so a fleet manger can get a complete picture in order to make his decision on the repair is a very labor-intensive, difficult process," explains Dick Hyatt, president of Decisiv, Glen Allen, Va. Decisiv provides software to fleets and service providers that allow their business systems to link up to share various data related to repair and maintenance work.

When a truck arrives at a repair location using the Decisiv system, the serial number is entered and matched up to the fleet. If that fleet has a profile stored in the system, it alerts the repair facility to specific inspections or other work that needs to be done. That information is included in the initial write-up so it doesn't have to be added in later.

The Decisiv system automates the process of reaching into these various systems to collect information on parts, warranties, labor requirements, etc. It allows a verydetailed, accurate representation of what needs to be done on that truck. The dialogue can go back and forth a few times until the fleet manager agrees to the work and sends the service location a purchase order for the repairs.

Everything is documented - both sides can see the same thing via a Web portal. The system keeps track of the communication - the thread - and it's all time stamped. Because it is an open communication between both the service provider and fleet customer in which all parties can access the information, there aren't any surprises at the end that result in an adjusted invoice.

System offerings

AutoPower, Lake Mary, Fla., provides business management software for single- and multiple-location warehouse/distributors, service providers and installers. The company's truck shop management application includes a vehicle service work order module that collects vehicle information, customer work requests, work-performed information for preparation of job estimates and shop work orders. Parts and labor can be added to the work order via shop terminals or bar code readers.

Features include the ability to mix flat rate and time and material jobs on the same work order, or multiple shop operations on the same order.

Karmak, Carlinville, Ill., provides business management software for heavy-duty dealers, parts warehouse/ distributors and service/repair facilities. The company's offerings include the full-featured Karmak BMS, Karmak DS for small- to medium-size shops and distributors, and Karmak Velocity, designed for repair shops. Their solutions include an automated repair order process. The company also offers a remote write-up module that allows service writers to carry a Windows-based tablet PC or laptop to start work orders. They can fill in the order as they do a walk-around of the truck. The data can then be uploaded into Karmak's BMS via a wired or wireless connection to create a new repair order.

Karmak Chief Technology Officer John Lebel says the remote write-up module "saves the pieces of paper the service writer would normally take out on a clipboard." That information can be used to generate quote or estimate. Once approved by the customer, that quote or estimate is turned into a work order.

Lebel says he has seen a lot more use of electronic quoting and approval processes that are integrated with the shop operation's management system. Systems such as Karmak's also include electronic scheduling, so service shops can get rid of the white board hanging on the shop wall.

Duff Bell, Karmak's director of sales, notes that an automated work order system can send alerts to customers when the repair job is done. "As soon as you invoice a repair, the system can spit out an email to the customer saying, 'Your truck is done,'" he says.

Pluss Corp., Columbia Falls, Mont., provides software for truck and automotive repair shops, dealers and parts distributors. Its PTMVision package keeps track of all customers and their unit histories.

A service writer enters the customer name, vehicle number or other identifier and retrieves the customer information instantly. The system also records detailed estimates that can be saved as an open work order/estimate. A time limit can be applied per the shop's pricing policy that automatically archives the estimate if a customer has not responded within the time limit.

A repricing utility automatically recalculates the pricing if the customer comes back after the price guarantee has expired. If the customer gives the go-ahead, that estimate is then converted into an active work order.

The right one for you

Software packages for shops or parts warehouses are available in various levels of sophistication, sometimes including work order modules or other tools to streamline the process. Many of these systems are capable of integrating with fleet customer business management systems, allowing the sharing of information such as maintenance schedules and warranty details. Some are available as Web-based applications.

The key for all of these systems is that data only has to be entered once, at the beginning of the workorder process - there's no need for a clerk to enter a hand-written estimate into a system. In the case of those integrated with the customer's system, a VIN may be all that's needed to pull up a customer's name and other information. Bar code readers can be used to look up customer names, unit numbers, repair type and VIN. They also can be used in the shop to record parts and labor. This means a more accurate estimate regarding parts, labor and time.

Smoothing the work order process can also make you look good in your customers' eyes. If it takes your shop a long time to prepare an estimate, or if you have to update a parts list a number of times during a repair, the customer may begin to doubt your capabilities. If the estimate is provided quickly and the work done on time with no surprises, you may have made that customer a regular.