by Bill Smith, president of Elite Software

Every software company in the world claims their software is easy to use. Whether for hvac load calculations, estimating, accounting or service management software is supposed to be so easy to use that complete novices can learn it in fifteen minutes or less. With all the changes going on in HVAC computerization, such claims are quite appealing. If a program takes too much time to learn it simply won't be used no matter what it's features and benefits.

When software companies are questioned closely about program ease of use contractors quickly discover that it's a relative thing. Some software companies go so far as to unconditionally guarantee that a beginner can quickly use the software even without training. Others qualify their ease of use claim by saying that once training is completed using the software becomes second nature. Still others are ambiguous by saying that experienced users can use the software immediately but beginners may need a little help. However, in all cases the software is always touted as being extremely easy to use.

Whether a contractor finds a particular program easy or hard to use depends more on the computer experience and knowledge of the contractor than it does on the actual ease of use of the program. Of course the thought and logic behind a program also significantly affects whether a program will be generally perceived as difficult or easy to use. Still, some computer expert contractors find almost any program easy to use while anti-computer contractors typically complain that all software is hard to use.

It is possible for some contractors to obtain a personal computer and learn to use it with no help from others but such cases are rare. For the majority of hvac contractors computer training is almost essential for the successful utilization of hvac software. There are countless personal computers sitting virtually idle in the offices of contractors all around the country. This woeful waste of resources is due mostly to the lack of specific knowledge readily available through training.

Most contractors know the value of training from the perspective of what it takes to train an hvac technician. However, for computers and software many contractors view training as an expense that they would like to avoid at all costs. As compared to the low prices of personal computers and some hvac software the cost of training can appear quite high. However, the cost of not buying training when it's truly needed is the potential waste of all the money invested in a computer with software.

There are two types of computer training a contractor should consider: general and software specific. General computer training is what every new computer user needs. It covers such basic things as how to turn the computer on, view file directories, copy and erase files, change subdirectories and drives and run simple programs. This kind of knowledge is fundamental to the successful operation of many hvac programs. Once one person in a company knows computer basics that person can then train all others in the firm.

General computer training is readily available through computer stores and local consultants. Often there are community classes on general computer usage. Since basic computer training can be taught to groups it usually is not very expensive.

The need for software specific training depends both on the software being used and the background of the people using the software. People with limited backgrounds in computer usage benefit greatly from training even for the simplest programs such as for load calculations, duct sizing and operating cost analysis. Experienced computer users can generally run simple software easily with no training whatsoever. On the other hand, even experienced users need training on large comprehensive software packages such as for estimating, service management and financial accounting.

For contractors new to computers the need for some degree of training is a given no matter what software is used. For computer literate contractors the need for training must be evaluated for each new software application. As mentioned previously, the more experience a contractor has with computers the better chance he has of using new software without training.

There are several ways a contractor can determine if training is needed to successfully implement a new software application. The first step is to listen to the advice of the company that developed the software. If a software company says training is highly recommended that usually means training is absolutely essential. If the software company says some need training and some don't that usually means that a select few have used the software with no training but the vast majority need it. If the software company says virtually anybody can run the software with no training that means experienced users can easily run the software but that novices will struggle without training.

What all this means is that most software sales people are overly optimistic about whether a prospective buyer can use software without training. The only way a contractor can know for sure whether he needs training or not is to try the software on his own. With smaller programs (load calculations, etc.) there is not much risk in this approach as small programs typically do not require much time to setup and test. Conversely, testing large programs (service management, accounting etc.) without aid can be dangerous because those types of programs usually require a lot of organization and setup time before they can be started. Without an expert supervising the installation it is easy for a contractor to believe everything is ok even while things are greatly amiss.

Since training is so often essential to using large application programs the cost of training is typically built into the cost of the software. This is one of the reasons large programs are so expensive. With small application software training is usually optional and is nearly always more expensive than the software itself. In all cases, training costs are further exacerbated by travel and lodging expenses. In the rare instances where specific hvac software training is available locally it should be recognized as the bargain it is.

Interestingly enough, training problems crop up more often with small programs than with large ones. This is because most contractors are convinced of the need of training on large application software. However, very few contractors even those totally new to computers will spend money for training on small hvac software applications. Some contractors can easily adopt small hvac design programs but even those would be more productive with professional training.

For many contractors there is not so much an aversion to computer and software training as there is an affordability problem. Small contracting businesses need computers and software almost as much as large contractors but they simply cannot spend as much for hardware, software and training.

Smaller firms are best advised to align themselves with a local computer store consultant or computer expert friend. In this way the firm gains an experienced person that can give general computer training and help with the learning of hvac specific software. It is ideal if the computer consultant also has an understanding of the hvac business. Often times utility companies hvac equipment manufacturers and some of the better hvac supply houses offer computer consultation to contractors.

A firm with no computer experience but armed with expert guidance essentially gets to act as if it has experience and can buy software accordingly. The advantage is that good low cost software can be safely purchased and successfully implemented. The local computer consultant can help with the installation of the software and provide training at a fraction of the cost that the software company would charge to send someone out.

In summary, the contractor new to computers will be greatly benefitted by computer and software training. Although modern hvac software is very user friendly with built-in help screens, windows and mouse support it can all go to waste if a contractor doesn't have a basic understanding of his computer system. Computer training specific to hvac software is a rare and valuable commodity but hvac contractors should actively seek it out and avail themselves of it whenever possible. Whether expert or novice you can never know too much about computers and software specific to your business. Knowledge pays and the ones who have it prosper.

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