How project-centric systems are redefining the AEC customer experience

In for a dime, in for a dollar. Colorado-based Sopris Systems, a Microsoft Service Industries Partner, helps project-centric companies deploy cloud-based software solutions that collectively respond to client needs throughout a project’s lifecycle.

Among its offerings is Microsoft Dynamics 365, a platform capable of supplying complete project accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP) for architects, engineers and other members of the construction industry, as well as customer relationship management (CRM); content management; mobile field services and an impressive array of tools that optimize individual job performance.

Sopris Systems' Matt Pfohl
Sopris Systems CEO Matt Pfohl

The common denominator is information — more pointedly the methods by which it is managed to enhance transparency and foster collaboration among project team endeavors to avoid problems ranging from cost overruns to scheduling mishaps, according to Sopris CEO Matt Pfohl.

Although Sopris solutions are driven by client demand, the engineering and construction sector as a whole remains dogged by information gaps and project team members who aren’t fully responsive to the needs of their clients, said Pfohl.

Conditions, however, are improving, Pfohl indicated during a recent discussion with BuiltWorlds.

How are expectations evolving in terms of what owners or clients require of project team members and the data they generate?

Collaboration is key: Owners are seeking project team members that can seamlessly onboard them on project and leverage software to identify and get ahead of financial or project risks, allowing owners to make informed decisions before problems occur and, as a result, avoid potential cost overruns.

MP: Owners are seeking firms — architects, engineers and subcontractors — that are good at what they do and able to manage projects efficiently. However, they also are looking for firms that can assist them in strategizing. From a technological standpoint, there remain gaps in project monitoring at a time when clients are requesting more information, but not getting it.

Fortunately, cloud computing has evolved substantially in the past four years, providing access to systems that allows practice managers and project team members to more readily share information on costs, billing and other financial metrics throughout the project lifecycle.

Owners also want project team members and system suppliers that are easy to work with and operate as true partners — enterprises that seamlessly onboard them on to the project and partner with them all the way through project completion. If onboarding gets off on the wrong foot, the experience can set the tone for an uncomfortable relationship. As a result, we see high attrition rates, whether among specialty contractors or CMs, because they’re regarded as difficult to work with regardless of their skills.

Are programs that promote project oversight, integration and transparency throughout the project’s lifecycle gaining more traction in the marketplace?

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MP: Yes. It’s a matter of getting the right systems in place at the right time to promote collaboration among architect, engineer, and contractor and provide the owner with greater transparency throughout project delivery. One area of particular importance is risk — availability of software systems that allow project team members to identify and get ahead of financial or project risks, so the owner can make informed decisions before problems occur and, as a result, avoid potential cost overruns. Situations such as those are driving greater demand for easy access to accurate intelligence in formats tailored to the organization.

How easy is it to obtain the required intelligence?

MP: Unfortunately, many firms are highly non-integrated in terms of structure, with data residing in multiple silos. That’s when you run into problems.

The good news is that, assuming the information is available, it’s now possible to create customer portal apps that promote transparency in formats unique to the customers needs — say billing data exchanged by app, portal or e-mail.

Is participation in risk management an ongoing process among team members in all phases the project?

MP: Yes. Over the course of a three-year project, an owner may plan to implement a significant change in business, and it’s up to project team members to gather intelligence and present resulting risks before the owner proceeds. Let’s take the example of an cold-storage operation that assumes a new line of business or an acquisition opportunity.

The owner may see a new revenue source without recognizing the risks associated with alterations to the facility. That’s where the design and construction team enters the picture, leveraging artificial intelligence to model and predict the impact of those potential decisions and help the owner make an informed decision.

BIM systems have become part and parcel of so many construction projects. When implemented, is it being leveraged to the full extent possible?

MP: The problem is that BIM often resides in a disconnected world — meaning it may not be integrated with real-time accounting, resource management and project management information to present a complete picture of financial implications over the course of a three-year project.

The ideal solution would be to tie BIM to ERP applications. The combination of the two would make it much easier to develop a meaningful model. Project team members could quickly provide financial and risk management information without repeating the entire design cycle.

“I believe we have crossed the hill. What were once buzzwords — mobile, cloud, BIM, collaboration — are now a reality.” — Matt Pfohl

What building-related technologies in Sopris’s part of the world are undergoing the greatest changes?

MP: CRM and the manner in which firms in the built world are leveraging these platforms has changed greatly. What was once seen as a business development tool has grown into a full client lifecycle management tool. Today, CRM incorporates data mining for locating additional customers, identifying the correct party while in pursuit of RFQs, and determining whether a potential user previously has engaged with a particular project type. We also are seeing customers leverage CRM to improve onboarding and deliver a consistent customer experience from contract negotiation through planning and delivery.

Bottom line: CRM is no longer simply a means of sales pursuit and marketing automation, but a means to create a competitive advantage throughout the entire project lifecycle. Microsoft’s Dynamic CRM platform is a great example of this with its native capabilities involving project management and field service automation.

Can you be more specific? How does Dynamics improve user flexibility?

MP: Microsoft Dynamics 365 provides a single platform that allows users to begin with CRM, then add project management, project costing, human resources and other applications as circumstances dictate. Users don’t need to launch every application at once, only those that make sense at a particular time. In its aggregate, Dynamics 365 is breaking down silos, allowing the customer — the owner — to collaborate on a common platform that can be easily modified for each project, providing stakeholders with real-time design information, contracts, invoices and other data.

Imagine having all of these disconnected key performance indicators — budget, milestones, risk management — on a single dashboard. Previously, pulling together all those indicators on some facsimile of a dashboard was too expensive and time prohibitive.

Is industry adoption of cloud computing lagging?

Specialty contractor solutions: Dynamics CRM assists builders in managing customer relationships from first contact through contract and project implementation.

MP: There aren’t as many barriers to entry as there once were. Architecturally, the cloud is much more open than in the past, making it easier to create integrations with apps that promote better project collaboration among owners, architects, engineers, contractors and subs. Microsoft 365, for example, runs on phones, tablets, Apple, Androids, and Windows. The result is a structure that promotes partnership and is less disruptive to an organization. Ease of configuring applications is easier and less costly.

So has the time of greater collaboration and integration among project team members finally arrived?

MP: I believe we have crossed the hill. What were once buzzwords — mobile, cloud, BIM, collaboration — are now a reality.

As applications grow more complex and incorporate additional software, has Sopris found itself engaging in additional system support?

MP: Yes — 100% so. If you look at our service model, manage service has grown from a small to very large part of what we do. We realize that more and more customers subscribe to and consumer services as they need them rather engaging in multi-year investments as they once did.

How quickly we onboard a customer alone has a huge impact, and we’ve embedded programs in Dynamics 365 to assist in daily tasks. We’ve also embedded assistance applications — click throughs, demos and so forth. Again, the quicker we can onboard those customers, the quicker their time to value.

This article was sponsored by Sopris Systems. For more on the company, visit their directory page.