Fire Equipment rounds out its all-digital operations with electronic payment

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright August 25, 2021 Audio mode
Summary:
Going digital over the past decade has transformed the operations of New England life safety business Fire Equipment, enabling rapid expansion and helping it adapt to the pandemic.

Fire alarm switch and extinguisher on white wall © fongbeerredhot - shutterstock
(© fongbeerredhot - shutterstock)

Going digital in its operations has led to rapid growth at Fire Equipment, a family-owned firm founded in 1928 that provides life safety services to businesses and institutions throughout New England. Last year it added electronic payments to complete the end-to-end digital process, from initial quote to final settlement. As well as allowing expansion, doing everything digitally has meant the company can remain responsive for customers, even when offices are closed. Lynne Woodhouse, the company's CRM specialist, explains:

When we were just one office, we weren't able to expand because we had to have people come into the office — they had to pick up [paperwork] and just do different things. Now that we do things electronically, it's much easier to keep up with the demand, especially with emergencies and after-hours calls.

Fire Equipment's digital journey began in 2013, when it rolled out ServiceMax and Salesforce to manage customer service. The company designs, installs and maintains fire suppression and life safety systems for customers ranging from restaurants to museums, universities, biomedical companies and other businesses. Previously, everything had been paper-based, which meant that field technicians had to come into the office every morning to collect a folder containing their assignments for the day. Issued with laptops — nowadays they use iPhones — the new system meant they could check their schedule from home and set off directly to the customer. Once the job was complete, they filled out the statutory inspection report using the system, and submitted their callout report for approval and billing. They could also check in for any interim updates to their schedule during the day.

It took about six months for all of the technicians to come round to using the new system — some hankered after the familiarity of the old folders and sheets of paper. But the convenience of the digital records gradually won them over, as Woodhouse explains:

They realized that the laptop and using technology really helped them. Who created the last case? Who wrote up the last deficiency? They realized that they could call that person.

They realized that they could get information about all of the different cylinders and devices for a piece of equipment by just typing in the number on the system. So they didn't have to call the office and ask a lot of questions. Eventually, they realized that doing it through the system was really helpful to them.

Adding Conga and FinancialForce

After this initial roll-out, the company soon added Conga's document workflow app to automatically generate inspection reports and renewal quotes from Salesforce data, ready to email to customers. Then in 2014, it implemented FinancialForce in order to be able to digitally produce invoices from the same core dataset. Woodhouse says:

We could look at a customer and see everything from start to finish in terms of that customer. So we went full circle, and it allowed us to create reports, and to do a lot of forecasting metrics at that point ...

We could go to any account and see every case, every opportunity, every work order, every invoice, every completed inspection report. So truly everything — purchase orders, transactions — were all in the system in one place. And so we were able to provide a full circle of opportunity for the customer. At that point, we decided to give each customer their own account rep, their own schedule, and so each customer had a personalized team that could help them with all of their issues.

Having implemented this complete system in 2014 at its historic base in Medford, MA, the company realized that it then had the capacity to expand its operations. Between 2016 and 2021, Fire Equipment acquired five other life safety companies across New England, expanding the number of locations to six and earning recognition in 2019 as one of the fastest growing private companies in the US — "a very big deal for a family owned business," says Woodhouse. She sums up:

After we got everything in Medford situated, and we felt that we had a good way of dealing with our customers, we started to do some acquisitions. Because of technology we were able to grow.

Time for electronic payment

A new set of challenges arrived with the pandemic. Some customers closed for the lockdown, which meant making different arrangements when scheduling inspections. Office personnel were typically working remotely, with many customers working from home. The company had to adapt, as Woodhouse explains:

In order to do business, and to make sure everything was up to state requirements — because every state requires so many inspections per year — we had to be very creative in the way that we dealt with our customers. But throughout the pandemic, we always provided essential services.

Electronic payment had been on the roadmap, but the rise in remote working brought it to the forefront. With so many people now working from home, it was no longer convenient for many customers to manually produce checks. Fire Equipment decided to go with Asperato, a FinancialForce ISV partner, assisted by implementation partner Icon. The project was managed virtually over email and Zoom calls, with Icon staff contributing from Australia as well as their US locations, while Asperado is based in the UK. It went live successfully in November last year adding a 'Pay now' link to the Conga invoice, with the option of paying either by ACH bank transfer or with a credit card. It's been well received, with around 280 payment transations a month currently going through the system, and the prospect of more once people return to normal working. It's been a big time saver for the accounts and collectons teams, as Woodhouse explains:

We do have six offices. So we do have different people in different offices who do the accounting process and collections. It saves them time with making phone calls and then sending out follow-up emails. So that has been a big time saver, and the customers receive a payment receipt, so they don't need to call in or email our AR department. In that respect, we have saved a lot of time, both internally and externally. And it enables us to keep track of our payments in one place.

My take

The substance of Fire Equipment's business is solidly physical — protecting the occupants of restaurants, offices and university dormitories from the risk of fire. Like many such businesses, as Woodhouse puts it, "in terms of people using technology, construction tends to be a little bit behind the curve." But even in this industry, the past ten years have seen a huge change in acceptance of technology.

The impact of this digital transformation in its operations has been dramatic, freeing it from physical ties to its original location and enabling a rapid expansion supported by its newly streamlined processes. That expansion continues still, with the company this month announcing a further acquisition.

At diginomica, our term for this is Frictionless Enterprise because it's through removing the friction of paper-based and physically bound processes that digital connection has such a transformative impact —  especially when all of the various components are closely integrated, as in this case. The experience of the pandemic has only reinforced the importance of cutting out these physical constraints wherever possible and doubling down on digital alternatives.