Frozen Assets
August 2003 - By Eric M. Zeman

Now that the dog days of summer are here in full force, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a frozen drink. Whether you’re in a movie theater, on the road making sales calls or at an amusement park, odds are you’ll grab a Smoothie or Arctic Blast from ICEE to cool your heels.

Beverage entrepreneur Omar Knedlik originally derived the ICEE idea from frozen soda and developed the first machine in the late 1950s to serve the frosty, carbonated drink now known as the ICEE. In the 40-plus years since the first machine debuted, ICEE has grown into a nationally recognized company that manufactures, distributes and services machines and snack foods found at more than 30,000 locations in North America, including convenience stores, mass merchandisers and malls.

In order to maintain such a vast army of machines, a sizeable field force is required. Employing over 450 food service technicians to provide on-site maintenance and support, ICEE counts on its techs to keep the machines running and its retailers happy. The aging, manual information system used to schedule and route the techs, however, was not quite as cool as its famous drinks.

Emerging from the Ice Age

Bogged down by limited communications with dispatchers, a high rate of data-entry errors and a slow billing cycle, the field service techs were not able to get to customer locations quickly enough to assuage problems when they arose. ICEE, however, didn’t want its customers to think it was giving them the cold shoulder.

Though ICEE had originally developed its own customer service system (CSS) using Microsoft’s Visual Basic, ICEE sought outside assistance in creating a top-notch mobile solution for its field techs. ICEE didn’t want to start completely from scratch and wanted to be able to tie the new solution into its existing databases. Knowing it needed to improve communications, invoicing and data collection, ICEE teamed with Interlink and Tolt Technologies to formulate a solution around Microsoft’s .NET framework. “We did quite a bit of research,” says John Griffith, director of information systems at ICEE, “but we always wanted to go with Microsoft. Tolt and Symbol know their stuff pretty well. They brought Countermind to the table with their mobile intelligence platform [MIP] package, which allows a thinner client that can continually update their applications and dynamically change the information.”

Beginning in September 2002, the three companies worked together to create the solution. The end result, first launched in February 2003, has been dubbed the Field Service Automation (FSA) system. Able to link with the existing CSS system, the new solution has both mobile client and server components that use XML Web services to communicate with one another. Alerts, messages and dispatches from the CSS system go to the FSA server, where they are converted into XML messages and then sent out to the field techs, who access the data on Symbol PPT28 and PPT81 handhelds.

Because ICEE wanted a clear understanding of ROI and the opportunity to compare the FSA to its manual system to see the impact of intangible benefits on efficiencies, the company implemented an initial pilot rollout of 18 devices. “The pilot phase produced strong results,” notes Griffiths. The secondary pilot is already underway, with the entire Los Angeles division employing the devices. ICEE plans to eventually deploy the solution to all 450 of its service techs.

As for training, “The ICEE machine is pretty complicated to service, so the techs spend a lot of time learning to service it at our FCBU, which is Frozen Carbonated Beverage University,” explains Griffith. Once the techs know how to service the machine, normally field trainers from the company’s six regional zones teach the reps how to handle service calls. “Some techs were hesitant with the technology, but the mobile application is simple enough to use and it walks them through each call. We’ll include it as part of the FCBU training,” adds Griffith.

Armed with wirelessly enabled handhelds, ICEE field techs can now receive the Web-based messages via LAN, WLAN or WWAN (the devices are equipped with both 802.11b and GPRS radios), depending on available coverage. AT&T Wireless provides ICEE with access to its wireless data network. As the field techs work and complete each job, they use the applications on their handhelds to fill out forms and capture data, which are then translated and sent back to the FSA server. “The hot keys have been configured to make the tech’s life as easy as possible,” says Griffith. The semi-rugged Symbol devices were chosen for their durability. “The hardened nature of the casing is good. The techs are going to be around moisture and syrup; water resistance is important.”

Chilling Effects

So far the techs have been very receptive to the solution. “Though there were a few hurdles and problems that we experienced, some techs out in the field won’t give the devices back,” says Griffith. The streamlined communications with the dispatch offices make their workday simpler and more efficient. “Tight integration makes the dispatcher’s job much easier. The application is all drag and drop.

With a handheld-enabled tech, the dispatchers are now able to grab a call and drop it on a tech; that call is then placed in that tech’s queue. As soon as the device synchs, the tech is able to pick up the message and take the job. Dispatchers are also able to reassign priorities for the tech’s so they can be rerouted for more urgent calls,” adds Griffith.

ICEE expects some paybacks to be almost immediate, particularly service time savings and turn-around for invoicing. Given the significant investment in hardware and software, ICEE is very confident that they’ll gain the efficiencies and improvements in customer service they need from the new FSA system.

With such a cool new solution in place, ICEE is looking forward to hotter business. I don’t know about you, but I am going to run out and grab myself an FCB.


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