The right software can be a boon to any business, minimizing manual data entry, managing finances, and ensuring that sales and inventory are tracked properly. So, it makes sense that some pool/spa business owners are thinking about making a switch.

Whether your business has outgrown its current business software or you’re looking to make the transition away from manual recordkeeping, finding the right software system and making the change can feel daunting. The options are vast, with both programs specific to the pool/spa industry and more general business softwares available.

Selecting a new software isn’t something a business should rush. In fact, pool/spa retail veteran and industry consultant Mallory Bjekich-Wachowski recommends spending a year to a year-and-a-half just looking for the software.

Then it takes time to implement the new program and train staff, emphasizes the co-owner of Toolbox for Excellence, a company that provides pool/spa dealer training aimed at keeping clients updated on industry best practices and changes. This conversion isn’t something you would want to redo because a software doesn’t work out.

Identify current needs or pain points

To start the selection process, you want to take a deep dive into how the business is currently functioning. What’s working well, and what needs to be adjusted?

Bjekich-Wachowski encourages managers to ask if anything is costing the company money or time, or if customers and employees complain about recurring issues that a different software might fix.

She suggests companies work with an upper management team or the entire company (depending on the company’s size) to get feedback on existing problem areas. Consult those who work on the ground and are most familiar with problems that arise. One question she recommends asking: Can you tell me one thing about our current software or lack of software that makes your job harder?

“In our experience, the transition to a routing software was driven by the need to manage increasing workloads more effectively, replacing inefficient paper-based route sheets,” says Marshal Davis, president and founder at Ascendly Marketing and former owner of Beyond Blue Pools.

For Dallas-area company Gohlke Pools, it was time to make a change, as it had outgrown the pool-industry software it used for nearly 20 years. The team needed software that was more comprehensive and could move them away from what General Manager Nick Day describes as a piecemeal solution combining industry-specific software with general business systems to fill the gaps. The team needed to remove one major pain point — the firm still had to crunch numbers manually and send them to an accountant each month, so it took much longer than necessary to find out each month’s performance.

After looking for several years, they decided to choose a mid-sized business software with a more general accounting-based platform that they could “tie on construction modules and service modules to make it all cohesive,” Day explains.

Shop around

Cost is also a factor. Software programs generally require a monthly or annual fee. Of course, that regular cost is worth it if the program helps optimize your business. So weigh the potential savings against the costs.

When it comes to inventory management, for instance, “some of these softwares can really alleviate major issues, which absolutely does save money,” Bjekich-Wachowski says.

When assessing the costs, don’t just look at monthly fees. Also examine the credit card fees charged by the software company. This can present a savings opportunity or added costs. Gohlke Pools management believed it was overpaying in this area. Shopping around provided the opportunity to negotiate with potential new vendors for lower rates.

Shop around for the best rates associated with the systems. Even when software providers don’t advertise it, many are willing to negotiate here, notes Gaby Hermes, operations manager at public relations and marketing firm KNB Communications.

To avoid disappointment and make sure you get what you pay for, Davis recommends doing a small-scale test of the software before full implementation.

“Many software options may promise extensive capabilities but fall short in practice,” he says.

Some software companies provide a free trial period. And, if a consultant is helping your company with the changeover, they may be able to arrange for a trial with providers that normally don’t provide them.

Prepare for changes

Even with all the software options to choose from, you likely won’t find something that matches your current processes and procedures exactly. But this shouldn’t be a deterrent, Bjekich-Wachowski says.

Instead, she recommends going into the process with an open mind, knowing you will probably need to make some changes to better your business.

“I’ve seen companies that have adopted a software but didn’t dedicate the time to change processes, and they’re really not maximizing all of the things those softwares can do,” she says.

While you should be willing to make some adjustments to adapt, the software still should work in service to your company, not the other way around. Assess any changes to your company that would be required to maximize a software, and make sure they align with your business’s needs.

Hermes, who oversaw a software transition for KNB Communications, says her team analyzed the limitations and strengths of their current system before choosing something new. The firm reviewed about 10 software options, making a list of pros and cons for each.

“We involved our team in the decision-making process to ensure that those impacted would find the tool valuable,” she says.

Plan for the transition

Adopting a new software system doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, the whole process can take several months. Some businesses and industries can make quicker transitions than others, but failing to thoroughly plan the shift will drag out the process.

Some key areas to think about are employee training, transition timeline, and what to do with existing data. Employees who will be using the software should have an opportunity to get instruction, and that can come from other employees who have been part of the selection and testing process or from a representative at the software company. Some employees may be better with tech than others, so Day recommends budgeting time for training and understanding that not everyone will pick it up on the first day.

Bjekich-Wachowski points to data as a key factor in how long it takes to switch software. For instance, a retail store can transition fairly quickly if it doesn’t have a lot of data to move over, whereas a service business that needs to transfer more data would take longer.

If you have data to transfer, she says, it should be “clean.” To ensure that, she recommends going through the data that’s in your current system to make sure it’s complete and correct. For example, verify that customer names and addresses are accurate and not duplicated.

In some cases, you can export data from one system into a spreadsheet, then use that to load it into the new software. However, since software systems have different ways of loading data, you’ll likely need to go through the old data and make sure the spreadsheet is formatted to the new system’s import process. Programs that allow you to export the data from the software will sometimes export it as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Once data is in the spreadsheet, you can use Excel’s features to reorganize it for upload into the new software program.

When she switched software programs for a water testing software, Bjekich-Wachowski opted to reformat the exported data and give it to the new software company to load into its system.

Once you’ve done enough training sessions and data prep to feel comfortable starting the software transition, plan how the process will start. Decide how and when the company will begin moving things from one software to the other. Some questions to ask yourself: Who will serve as the project lead or leads? When is the best time to do something that may disrupt your business?

Looking back, Day can see ways his company could have done better with the planning portion. The company signed with a new software company just before Thanksgiving, with a plan to start the five to six-month implementation period after the holidays in early January. However, a busy pool season in April and May led the company to put the transition on hold until after peak season.

“My best piece of advice is just make sure you budget enough time for it,” he says.

The time needed will vary from company to company. Bjekich-Wachowski has transitioned some dealers fairly quickly, while others can take weeks or even months. When determining how much time you need, consider things such as the amount of data you have to transfer; whether you must reformat and upload the data; whether you’ll need to change any procedures or other aspects of your operations to optimize the software; how much time staff can dedicate to the transfer if taking place during the busy season; and how much training your staff will need. Always set aside more time than you think you’ll need, Day suggests.

Also consider paying the added cost to enlist the help of a consultant with the new software company to help with the transition. This can especially make sense for those who are short on time and/or aren’t as tech-savvy.

Use goals to measure success

Throughout the process of changing software, set goals for making the most of it. These can be used to keep you on track and to measure success.

For example, a company that manually tracks sales and inventory may prioritize handling inventory management through the new software system. To achieve this goal, the company would need to set a date to begin tracking inventory with the new software, then conduct any necessary changes to its operations, as well as train staff before that date. Then track the results.

Some of Day’s goals included automating the manual spreadsheet work the company was doing and reducing the number of software programs they were using down to one. He also wanted Gohlke Pools to have software the company could use and build on for the next generation.

When evaluating a new software after the switch, Bjekich-Wachowski recommends giving it a year, then measuring your performance, especially regarding your top goals from the new system. You don’t have to stop at the initial goals, she says. Challenge yourself to dig into unused software features in the off-season or slow time.

“I find that the dealers who are most successful truly understand how small changes in their daily operations can change their bottom line significantly,” she says.