Want to run a more productive service department? Pool & Spa News identified three key areas that may need a tune-up: safety, technology and operations.

Safety first

Jason Karamanol has seen it all: Messy service vehicles; haphazardly stored chemicals; warehouses in disarray; employees straining to lift bulk materials off the floor and lugging heavy bags of salt over their shoulders from vehicle to pool.

Totally unsafe.

But what does safety have to do with efficiency? Everything. Workplace injuries and sick days cost nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars annually, with Medicare, Medicaid and insurance providers taking much of the hit, according to recent research from J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at the University of California, Davis.

As a risk control consultant with Chicago-based CNA, Karamanol offers customers an outsider’s perspective on the way they do business. By assessing process flow, he spots a lot of red flags that pose potential health risks and bog down operations.

“How organized is your van? How much time do you spend fishing for parts?” Karamanol poses these questions to pool pros for two reasons: A disorganized vehicle is an accident waiting to happen, and it’s not conducive to quickness.

His mission is to break the cycle of inefficiency and introduce them to new ways of working smarter and safer.

Want healthy employees? Here’s an idea: Only hire healthy ones. Pool service is physically demanding, yet few firms put applicants through a pre-hire physical. Conducted by a medical professional, these screenings can help prevent hiring employees who may not be able to perform the job’s physical requirements, which can cause problems down the road.

Meanwhile, current personnel can take precautions to curb occupational accidents, such as using gantry cranes and rolling carts to do the heavy lifting.

That message isn’t lost on Jason (Oggie) Ogston. The service manager at Johnson Pool & Spa in Sonoma County, Calif. conducts monthly meetings to discuss on-the-job hazards. And there are the common-sense practices he drills into his team, such as not lifting anything too heavy in the morning. “I always tell them to wait until the afternoon after your back has had a chance to stretch,” says Ogston.

Incentivizing your employees to practice safety first might sound like a good idea, but Karamanol cautions against it. Some firms celebrate with pizza parties or bonuses if employees go a length of time without any injuries or sick days, but that might only be encouraging them to not report accidents, or work while ill.

Instead, consider circulating an internal memo on a regular basis that covers safety topics. Have crew members sign that they read it. “It’s a reinforcement of safe workplace practices that takes very little time to do and administer.”

Upgrade your tech

Klapprodt Pools is nothing if not cutting edge. The firm, based in the Dallas area, has an iPad-equipped workforce that can access and input data anywhere, anytime.

Co-owner Jeremy Klapprodt credits the touch-screen device and a custom software program called Pool Pro Office for streamlining operations across the company’s construction, service and retail divisions.

Several years ago, Klapprodt engineered the switch from a clunky IT system that utilized several software programs to a slick all-in-one solution enabling his crew to instantly receive information. Example: If a service tech in the field is questioned by a customer on whether or not a pool pump is still under warranty, he or she can tap an iPad to access the work-order history.

“That’s huge because, in the past, it was a phone call back to the office. Hopefully, someone answers. … Then it’s having to dig in and look at it and explain it over the phone,” says Klapprodt. “It’s obviously very convenient. It’s information in real-time.”

Instead of keeping records on paper, service technicians input information, such as work performed, chemicals added and equipment installed. They can email the invoice to the customer. Data syncs with the back-office so personnel can track from headquarters who is working on what and where.

The approximately $10,000 investment has already paid for itself in savings, Klapprodt says.

Mike Shea also has mobilized his crew with smart technology, cutting overhead and making paper largely a thing of the past. When Shea commissioned Evosus to develop a business management software solution, he was disheartened to learn that there wasn’t a mobile option at the time. With more than 1,000 service accounts, moving his 25-person tech team into the digital era was a must.

Evosus eventually did come up with a product, developing it with significant input from Shea, director of operations at Maximum Comfort Pool & Spa in Vail Valley, Colo. The Evosus Mobile Service app for Androids and tablets allows techs to view their schedule up to three days in advance and update tasks remotely. From a dropdown menu, service pros can record various data elements — chemical levels, hot tub temperatures, etc. They can also make on-the-spot sales. Say a customer is running low on bromine tablets, the tech can scan the product’s barcode with the smartphone’s camera.

All data entered is sent back to a database — eliminating the need for an employee to manually key in notes.

“We were never really able to keep up with paperwork and it would take us about two weeks to complete the billing,” Shea adds. “It’s way, way more efficient.”

Smooth operations

Johnson Pool & Spa’s Ogston has a background working for big-box retailers where he learned the value of departmentalizing. Why not take the same approach to pool maintenance?

That’s how the firm came to have a service department and a repair department. The service side has 11 employees; repair, five. The company implemented the change a little over a year ago and it hasn’t looked back since.

“By doing that, you have people who are specialists in these areas,” Ogston says. “I know everybody can kind of do everything, but if that’s all they’re working on, we’re the top-of-the-top in that area.”

It also makes sense from a logistics standpoint. Pool service should be fairly routine if a tech is to hit all of his or her scheduled stops. You don’t want them to get hung up on a three-hour repair job.

“When you have guys cleaning pools and doing repairs, I think you’re asking too much of them, and they can’t really do a good job with either one,” says Javier Payan, owner of Payan Pool Service in San Diego. In addition to letting his employees do what they’re best at — service or repairs — Payan also stresses that they pace themselves. That’s why he caps off their work load at 13 pools a day. He emphasizes quality over quantity.

Companies that properly designate tasks run smoother. That’s been E-Konomy Pool’s experience. Owners Steve and Bill DeCook didn’t want their service technicians fussing with the fleet. That’s why they have a separate division devoted to maintaining the Tucson, Ariz. firm’s vehicles. These employees are responsible for tuning up, fueling and loading all equipment and chemicals. Techs return trucks to headquarters at the end of the day.

“A lot of people today try to breed the generalist,” Karamonal says. And that’s one of the biggest missteps a pool firm can make. That’s why he encourages a company culture that places a value on continued education. “I would highly recommend, if you want to be an efficient company, you send your folks to get those certifications,” he says.

Closing the gap

A gap analysis compares your department’s current level of productivity with its potential for optimal performance. It may sound like MBA mumbo-jumbo, but it can be an effective way to identify your business’ weak spots.

Here’s how it works: Have your employees, from managers to entry level staff, fill out a questionnaire. Because they’re asked to remain anonymous, you’ll, hopefully, get some honest answers about how much time they spend on certain tasks and their attitude toward safety.

Compare those findings with your desired outcome and you’ll likely notice some problem areas.

What then?

“Just start with the greatest inefficiency that you can find and make small changes,” suggests Jason Karamanol, a risk control consulting director with commercial insurance provider CNA. “If you can change your company’s operation even in a small way, five or 10 percent, that’s a great start and the effect will snowball.”