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Behind the Scenes with Stansell Electric: A Q&A with A Viewpoint Technology Award Winner
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, our clients simply amaze us with the innovative ways they use our software. One of our clients, Stansell Electric, was having difficulty communicating with its field team. They couldn’t confidently let them know whether or not certain job sites had the green light to dig in certain areas without hitting utility lines. The team at Stansell used Vista and the Viewpoint Field Management portal to create a custom app that would allow their field teams to see which sites were ok to start digging and which ones had complications. We interviewed Matt Smith, Delivery Team Leader; Kenny McDonald, Senior Project Manager; and Michael Arnold, IT Manager, on their experience with Viewpoint and how the innovative special app came about. Read the full interview below or skip to the video.
Viewpoint: Primarily, what type of work does your company do?
Arnold: Stansell Electric is a specialty electrical contractor. We are heavily involved in the transportation infrastructure space. If you drive through an intersection in Middle Tennessee, chances are Stansell Electric put it up. So, that's now evolved to intelligent traffic systems, but we also are involved in industrial, commercial work, bridge lighting, highway lighting, residential, and large scale. If there's electricity running through, we’re involved. We've developed a reputation for being able to take on large projects, mainly in our region, that might intimidate other contractors.
Viewpoint: Can we talk about how you became a Viewpoint client? Prior to using Viewpoint, what were some of the pain points that you experienced with your previous software and/or processes?
Arnold: We've been a Viewpoint Vista customer since 2002. In terms of how Stansell Electric became a Viewpoint client, we owe that to our current owner, David Stansell. David had some experience prior to joining the family business in the software industry himself. When he came back to the company, they were running on Unix or DOS — something not good is basically how I'd describe it. There was a rigorous selection process and they arrived at Viewpoint because it was everything you need to run a construction business— from HR, general ledger, accounting, accounts payable, accounts receivable and the ability to effectively manage jobs and project costs.
Over the years, Vista helped us go from paper time cards to digital payroll. It's helped remove some of the paper in our finance processes. Over time, the software helped build competency in our project management staff so they could make more accurate and sophisticated job cost projections. Eventually, this led to delivering more projects safely and successfully, which helped us continue to be a viable, healthy company. So, it's really been a key part of the last 15 years in terms of the company being able to keep up with and manage growth as it's happening.
Viewpoint: What was it specifically that appealed to Stansell Electric about Vista?
Arnold: Conversations I've had with David point to favoring a SQL-based solution and the customer having the ability to get access to data that drives business decisions. The way the user database enabled customization without it being a conflict point was something that appealed to him because he knew that having that flexibility and visibility was going to really help him keep a pulse on how the company was doing.
Viewpoint: Has Vista helped you access data within the organization to better connect the office, field and project teams together?
Arnold: Yeah, absolutely. The data being easily accessible in the SQL server, the combination of the out-of-the-box reports and the ability to develop your own SSRS reports can really help present data in an accessible way depending on your audience. Having timely data can make a huge difference whether it's motivating for performance or avoiding a critical mistake. Most importantly, it helps keep the team safe so they're aware of any risks or hazards. So, absolutely — having the data on hand has been a big help.
Viewpoint: How do you feel about Viewpoint in addressing the needs of contractors like yours through our technology investment and development?
Kenny McDonald, Sr. Project Manager
McDonald: I've used quite a few different solutions in the past, and I have to say, Viewpoint is the most responsive. From the help desk side, late at night, you give them a call, and they're right there for you. If the person you speak to doesn't have the answer immediately, they get back to you the next day with an answer. From the innovation side, I really love what they do for us. We're not a “regular contractor.” We have special needs. We have other items that a regular electrical contractor may not have. Since we're working out in the field at traffic signals and on SmartWay transportation devices, what I've seen is they're able to track and keep that information readily available; whether it be the superintendent or the foreman in the field, the project manager for billing and everything else in between that needs data.
Viewpoint: In terms of working smarter, how does Vista give you the ability to drill down into data to help you achieve better business intelligence and a picture of your overall organization health?
Smith: On a per project basis, it's extremely useful. For example, being able to look at the Job Cost Projection report to see what the software is telling you based on current production, and what that forecast is going to be for each phase of work is a good barometer to look at. It helps us understand what the project manager is projecting to say. For instance, "No. I truly think that we're going to be able to pick up and gain speed on the remainder of this phase versus what we've done in the beginning." So, at a granular, project-specific level, it's incredibly powerful. It allows us to ask the project manager or the foreman critical questions like, "Okay, well, I now see you're projecting you're going to beat what the software is forecasting. What changes are going to be made in the field, in the office, in our means and methods to achieve the right production?"
Having the data readily available to be able to ask those informed questions is very critical. It leads to a lot of sometimes difficult discussions that challenge project managers and foremen to forecast based on real-world data and what it is we've completed to date.
Viewpoint: Let’s talk about your submission for the Viewpoint Technology Awards. You created a pretty cool app for utility line information lookup from Vista. Can you tell us why this was necessary and why field crews need this information?
Arnold: Yes, like most good ideas, they usually come from frontline employees that are encountering the issues and fixing them that makes a company succeed. So, the particular issue here is any contractor that works with underground is aware that every state has their 811 or “call before you dig” hotline and you had better call before you dig. Otherwise, you're going to have a public safety risk if you hit a gas line or a water line, and the public is going to be upset if you're the one responsible for a fiber cut. Lots of bad things happen if you don't have a job site correctly marked before you start digging.
So, the issue we had was our processes. They involved a spreadsheet. Folks would call into the agency, write down the relevant ticket information, then tell our crews when they were clear to dig. But the file was sitting on a network drive and when the remote team couldn't get on to the VPN or if they didn't want to deal with it, they would end up with the wrong information. So, we had a problem in terms of communication. Occasionally, we would just have unnecessary utility strikes which is costly and unsafe. So, in terms of the solution, we asked, “Can we do something better? Can I make it easier to figure out if I'm clear to dig?”
Michael Arnold, IT Manager
When I listened to the folks in the field and in the office, it became clear that Viewpoint's user database and using the Viewpoint Field Management (formerly Keystyle) portal ability to host SSRS applications or SSRS reporting should be able to solve this problem. So, we simply took the Excel sheet and we just created a UD form. The people in the office could manage putting in their tickets to know who is clear to dig. Once we had that information in the database, we could access it from the reporting layer. So, we developed a simple SSRS report. Now, when we send a crew out on site, they know what job they're working on.
In order to know if they're clear to dig, the foreman has to take out his phone, find the report in the portal, put in their job number, and they'll have a report right there in front of them that displays all the notes with what to dig, the ticket number, a link to the state's website (so they can view the sitemap to know where they're clear) and all the contact information for the utilities. When that's done, it gives them a lot more confidence to raise their hand and say, “Wait a second, we can't go out there yet.” Or, “Hey, we've got to wait before we start digging.” On some occasions, we've actually been able to have our ducks in a row because not every utility successfully marks their lines.
So, sometimes well-intentioned crews are still going to run into an issue where they might encounter a utility while digging. When the authorities are on site and you have all your documentation in front of you at your fingertips, you have a lot more credibility and you're a lot less likely to be held liable if you can demonstrate that you've taken the proper precautions. It was a simple idea, but in terms of the positive feedback from the field, it was a bit surprising. I didn't realize how big of a deal it was until folks started talking about, you know, what happens when you're out there. So, it's nice to see that that made them feel better about using technology.
Viewpoint: Let’s talk about your move to the cloud. What are some things that you are able to do now that you couldn't have done before you were operating in the cloud?
Smith: More efficient sharing of data. That is the greatest impact to date. We've had to rely on VPN connections on our own FTP sites or file sharing means and methods in the past. We've gained the ability to get information quickly from the office to the field. So, we're now more effective and more efficient because the foreman or the general superintendent and the field superintendent now have data readily available versus having to wait for an email or VPN connection that may be faulty depending on their location. I would say our productivity and our efficiency has increased.
Viewpoint: How well do you feel Viewpoint is at addressing the needs of contractors through technology investment and the development?
Matt Smith, Delivery Team Leader
Smith: I feel that we are well supported by the team at Viewpoint. Vista is an incredibly powerful tool that offers us the ability to modify it in ways that meet our business needs. It's not a one-size fits-all. It's easily customizable and, again, able to be modified to meet our business needs. It's very helpful.
Would you recommend Viewpoint to other peers, contractors?
Smith: Absolutely. Again, the insight that it gives us into the financial health of our projects, not only from a financial perspective, but from a productivity perspective, the scalability and way in which it can be easily modified to fit our business needs are all things that I feel are absolutely crucial to our success as a company.
McDonald: I already do and quite often. I have several people that I'm the contact for. Project managers to call and ask, “Hey, how do you do it? Where's the hurt points on this software?” And, really, there's none. It's very easy to use from a technology side, and then with all the apps and information, it's very user friendly.
Arnold: I would definitely recommend Viewpoint to other contractors and peers. It really is a one-stop shop for everything you need to run your construction business. Its core platform is set up in a way that integrates easily with other systems As a technology manager, I was looking at whether I wanted to get a third-party software or work directly with Viewpoint, yet I'm encouraged by the investments that Viewpoint is making in extending the product and adding more mobile features and bringing plan management, drawing management and document management into a well-connected platform. I think it's driven a lot of business here and I'm encouraged by the positive impact it will have on our company’s future.