Building service contractors are tossing aside their prehistoric laptops and replacing them with lightweight, lightning-quick tablets, which are becoming the computing device of choice for executives, sales staff and field managers throughout the cleaning industry.

Contractors are performing inspection reports, sharing information across their enterprise and capturing market share with the help of these sleek devices that can be purchased for a few hundred dollars a piece.

“It’s about efficiencies, it’s about saving time and it’s about image to your clients,” says Joseph Jenkins, president of Bearcom Building Services Inc., in Midvale, Utah. “What’s great about it now is that it is so much cheaper than it ever has been. So it’s affordable to do now.”

Walking and working

Tablets are hybrids, mixing elements of traditional computers and smartphones to offer the best of both worlds. Users have the storage capability and memory of a computer, but the ease of use — facilitated by features like a touch screen, photo and video — found with a smaller, lighter device.

A prime example of how BSCs can use tablets is when field managers perform inspections with the software specially made for the industry installed on the devices. Several software applications now allow field managers to input inspection information on a tablet as they walk and talk.

“When you complete the inspection and push send, customers have the inspection, [our] operations team has the inspection and I have the inspection, so it’s instant communication with everybody,” says Paul Greenland, president of Aetna Building Services in Columbus, Ohio.  

Greenland’s staff also utilizes applications on their tablet to create work orders on the spot from the tablet when they see a problem out in the field. This eliminates the need to coordinate over the phone with managers and maintenance staff, ultimately saving time and creating a more efficient enterprise where problems are solved more quickly.

“The technology is just instantaneous,” Greenland says. “When someone is out in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee and they find a problem, they can do a work order right then and there, and boom — it gets shot up here real quick to headquarters or to whoever needs to get it.”

Management Services Northwest, Ferndale, Wash., is adapting to using tablets with about half a dozen executive and business development team members using them on a regular basis.

“The benefit of using the tablet is that you can easily do presentations as well as take notes and take pictures, and store them all to one area,” says Terell Weg, the head of business development.

According to Weg, one of the big advantages of tablets versus smartphones is the staff’s ability to take notes either with a stylus or by connecting a small keyboard to the device. Being able to take notes in a standing position while inspecting a client’s facility is valuable to front-line building service professionals.

“It’s really great, because it is like writing on a piece of paper, essentially,” Weg says. “As we are doing the walk-through, we can also take photographs and then insert them into that document so that way we have all of our pictures and notes in one file.”

Beyond inspections

Several applications, or apps, even make it possible to turn a handwritten note on the tablet into a text document that can be distributed through e-mail with a couple of taps on the screen. That functionality creates efficiency by alleviating the need to distribute hard copies of inspection reports or sales proposals to internal staff and clients.

This practice also saves money by cutting down on paper, according to Jenkins, who noted that a strong case can be made for using tablets if a BSC is serious about sustainability and going green.  

Another way BSCs are effectively using tablets is in their sales department. Before tablets, account executives in the field needed to haul their heavy laptops and heavier projectors into a client meeting and hope they can quickly connect the two devices and begin their sales presentation smoothly.

“It definitely projects an image that you are tech-savvy, and that you are utilizing technology to benefit your business and to benefit your clients,” Jenkins says.

Now, all a sales rep needs is a tablet and a mobile projector that connects through a USB cord to do a presentation, creating a sense of control during client meetings.   

“With a tablet, all you have to do is set it on the desk and it’s ready to go,” Weg says.

In the same vein, tablets have become valuable training tools in the field. Instead of trying to get a crew of janitors together in front of a laptop and projector, a manager can show them a training video on a tablet.  

Another benefit BSCs are experiencing is the ease at which they are able to utilize social media on the tablets. Executives, especially in small firms, are becoming more apt to Tweet or post to Facebook on their device because those platforms seem to be more accessible on a tablet, especially for those on the go.

“I do a lot of social media management. I do it for our company and a couple organizations that we belong to so it’s important to me to utilize a larger screen and the different apps to help you schedule posts,” says Kathleen Bands Schindler, vice president, My Cleaning Service Inc., in Baltimore.

She adds that tablets can help ease the generational challenges that BSCs face when implementing new technology.

“They are user-friendly compared to a large computer that is cumbersome and is slow,” Bands Schindler says.

Factoring costs, limitations

BSCs should be aware of the indirect costs associated with operating a cache of tablets when they are analyzing a potential investment in the devices. Companies should build in some slack to the bottom line cost for the device for breakage and malfunctions, especially if they believe the tablets will get a lot of use in the field and in the office.

One cost consideration is software. Although apps are typically inexpensive, costs can accumulate over time.

Another indirect expense that BSCs should take into account is the price for keyboards and mice. Components such as mobile projectors, cases and extra chargers and batteries can greatly increase the price tag on tablets. Some technical experts suggest that firms split some of these extra costs with the employee who uses the device. For instance, if the sales manager would like an extra charger for their car or a monogrammed leather case, they are on their own to cover that expense.

To get the full effect of the mobile device it needs to be connected to the Internet through a wireless network or through a service provider.

“Some of the buildings that we clean, we can’t get cell service so some of the challenge is certainly connectivity,” Greenland says.

Other drawbacks or considerations include the technology being used by employees for personal reasons and security issues that arise with sensitive company information, such as documents containing bids or proprietary information, being out in the field.

Ultimately, BSCs must remember that they are in the business to maintain facilities and not test the new-fangled technology. Whatever the tool — whether it be a decade-old laptop or the latest tablet on the market — it must make business sense to continue to use or invest in it.  

“You cannot get so wrapped up in the technology that you forget the reason why you’re here,” Jenkins says. “Every single company is going to have to take a look at this and ask, ‘Is this going to be good for us, and why?’ Not to do it just because other companies are doing it.”

Brendan O’Brien is a freelance writer based in Greenfield, Wis.