Field Service Communications Comes Out of the Bottle
In the not-too-distant past, field service companies relied on pagers, cellular phones, and two-way radios to communicate with field technicians. This was inefficient: Customers had no easy way to find out the status of their jobs, and the main office and the technicians in the field had a hard time sharing essential information. Communication was the industry's bottleneck.
Today, thanks to new wireless and handheld computing technology, successful field service organizations have streamlined office operations, including scheduling and dispatch, accounting functions, and inventory systems. These companies have seen marked improvements in the efficiency of their home offices. The industry is out of the bottle. Let's look at the old way of doing things, then the new.
Manual Field ServiceBefore the revolution in field service, booking and servicing a call was time consuming and prone to error. The dispatcher would receive a phone call from a customer with a plumbing or HVAC problem and would write all the information on a blank work order. At this point, the dispatcher spent a lot of time deciding which technician would best be suited to the job, guessing who was about to finish a job and be available, and divining which tech was preferred by a customer. Finally, the dispatcher verbally communicated the work order to the technician via two-way radio, pager, or cell phone, most likely interrupting the technician in his current job.
The technician would have to write down all the information, duplicating what the dispatcher had done. Then the tech would have to find the site and the equipment location. When the tech arrived, the troubleshooting began. Unless he had worked on the building before, he had to start from scratch to find the equipment and diagnose the problem, because he had no access to past service records. Or he had to ask the dispatcher to search file cabinets and relay the information.
When the job was completed, the technician turned in his time sheets and work orders (often days later), and accounting had to try to reconcile the time sheet and the work order. This usually required more conversations with the technician. Days or weeks later, the work order information was entered for the third time into the invoice system for billing purposes. Often billing couldn't be sent out for 30 or more days after the job was completed.
The entire process led to customer dissatisfaction, low technician and dispatcher productivity, and delayed billings.
Automating WorkflowsToday's service call, through field service automation software, is a different story.
The dispatcher can access the software system from any location by logging onto the Internet and entering the correct password. When a current customer calls with a plumbing problem (some things haven't changed), the dispatcher instantly pulls up the customer and jobsite history. The dispatcher creates an online work order with base information already filled in from the company database. The system automatically provides a list of available technicians and their current job status. The dispatcher sends an electronic work order that includes job site information, equipment-specific diagnostics and work steps to a technician's handheld PC (HPC) and receives confirmation of receipt of the work order. The technician can request a complete history of the job site from the central database.
If parts are required, the software will track them from the vendor purchases until they are applied to a work order and billed, sent to inventory, returned, or taken as write-off. As the work is performed, the technician checks off from a pre-set list the diagnosis and tasks and records any parts used and additional work opportunities he has noticed. The customer signs right on the computer screen after reviewing the completed work order online, and the customer signature is automatically sent back to the office where it can be viewed by accounting, which can instantly prepare a bill or send out a notice of job completion. Alternatively, the technician can print a bill on site.
Dispatch reviews the completed work order. Using integration software, this information is immediately transferred to the customer's existing accounting system. The sales department is instantly notified of any additional sales opportunities that the technician has recorded directly on his computer and sent directly by wireless communication. When the technician arrives at the office on Monday morning, his time sheets have already been generated and the customer billed. The result is increased productivity, improved cash flow, enhanced customer service, and a huge competitive advantage.
Today, successful field service organizations have used technology to streamline office operations, including scheduling and dispatch, accounting functions, and inventory systems. So what happened? What so radically and suddenly changed the perception-and the reality-of field service automation? In 1998, a series of major developments in software, handheld computers, wireless communications, the Internet, thin-client architecture and commercial software set the stage for true mobile software solutions to help field service organizations increase productivity, reduce costs, increase profits, and enhance customer service.
The Perfect PlatformIn 1998, Microsoft Corp. made available the Windows CE operating system, a sophisticated software platform for mobile computing. Created as a series of building blocks, Windows CE offered an industry-standard operating system that provided unparalleled flexibility to meet the needs of individuals and companies requiring wireless computing. Projected to eventually top 120 million licenses, surpassing its Windows desktop platform, Windows CE is designated by Microsoft as its base for mobile computing. Tremendous functionality is now available from both Microsoft and companies that are developing applications to run on CE.
Handheld ComputersThe new handheld PCs (HPCs) offer many benefits over earlier computers for field technicians because they are pocket-sized, and offer a touchscreen, "instant on," and a full-day battery life. Because HPCs do not have hard drives, which are easily damaged, they stand up to the real work of the field service technician, a key factor in the success of field service automation. Some devices are so rugged they are even warranteed against immersion in water or being dropped from a countertop.
This new generation of HPCs offers excellent wireless data communication capabilities that make possible real-time connectivity between the field and the home office. Note that wireless computing, as opposed to cellular phones, is the sending of data rather than voice.
Wireless CommunicationsThe wireless communications industry has recently matured, providing field service companies with unprecedented business advantages. Wireless coverage in the U.S. has topped 94 percent in the major metropolitan service areas. As a result, technicians are virtually always within range for real-time communications. For the few instances when a technician is out of range, a well-designed disconnected mobile application stores the work order and complete work order history on the computer so the technician can continue working under all circumstances. Upon re-entering a coverage area, the software automatically sends and receives updates. The cost of wireless communications is continuing to drop. Charges are now as low as $30 a month per user.
As wireless data exchange with HPCs becomes affordable, field service companies can eliminate many of the costly communications devices currently in use. These devices include two-way radios, cellular phones, and standard and voice pagers. Instead, companies can communicate almost exclusively using HPCs.
Wireless communication helps keep technicians and dispatchers productive and armed with the most up-to-date information, while eliminating half or more of all calls between dispatch and the technician.
The InternetPerhaps the most sweeping change in recent commercial history has been the impact of the Internet on business computing. International Data Corporation, a research and analysis company, estimates that 320 million people will have access to the World Wide Web by 2002, dramatically increasing access to business information. Field service companies can capitalize on the Internet to reap a variety of benefits.
Via the Internet, customers can instantly access the status of their service request, or even initiate new work orders. Self-service has the advantages of reducing dispatch workload, eliminating miscommunication between the service requester and the dispatcher, and eliminating the "on hold" complaint. Customers also can access their service history at any time, providing added value with no workload impact to the field service company.
Just as customers can have instant access to information, so can the field service company's employees. Technicians, sales representatives, dispatchers, and executives with an Internet connection now have customer information at their fingertips-reducing the costs of connecting while improving productivity and performance. Today, information captured by dispatch or by the technician at the job site is usually written on a work ticket that is then filed and never seen again-if indeed it is written down at all.
Thin-Client ComputingThin-client computing describes a software application that has been designed to operate over the Internet. The software self-loads from an Internet site onto the user's computer as required.
The thin-client architecture of an enterprise software program lends itself perfectly to field service companies. With thin-client computing, the vast majority of the application resides on the server, with only a minimum of software on the client, which is the dispatcher's computer. So all software configuration, installation, and administration tasks are performed centrally and self-install on the desktop PC on demand, substantially reducing the total cost of ownership.