March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 11.04
Have Smartphone, Will Smile
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A dental supply company optimizes scheduling and dispatch, leaving customers with big grins.  

By Eric M. Zeman




Most people associate a trip to the dentist’s office with pain and the bone-chilling sound of dental drills. For the people at Benco Dental, the nation’s largest independent dental supply distributor, a trip to the dentist is just another day on the job.

Since Benco’s field service operation installs and maintains a full range of dental equipment, it needed a scheduling application that was suited to service environments and could exhibit some degree of same-day response. Benco’s schedule often has jobs that over-run or under-run their estimated duration, and urgent service requests, such as fixing a broken X-ray machine, can pop up at anytime. With this need in mind, Benco set out to find a scheduling program that could help it avoid painful pitfalls.

Powerful Ally

According to Rick Cohen, VP of operations for Benco, “We settled on ServicePower as our vendor for this project as a result of an extensive selection process. First we surveyed the market and came up with a list of five or six companies that looked like they could offer us a reasonable scheduling and dispatch solution. The companies that got ruled out at this stage did a poor job of showing that they understood our business. Those that got through to the next stage were able to apply their technology to our business—at least in concept. The next stage in our process was designed to test whether the selected company could really handle the complexity and variety of business scenarios we encounter. ServicePower excelled in this environment. It was obvious that its team understood field service scheduling and dispatch and that its software could handle the detail required in our environment.”

Benco started the project in September 2003 and began deploying in February 2004. ServicePower’s scheduling software was fully deployed to all 180 technicians by June. This implementation time included the time to design, develop and test the interface between ServicePower and Benco’s service management system.

The majority of Benco’s technicians use Nextel cell phones. ServicePower sends a text message to the technician describing the service item to be performed. The use of text messaging, however, means that Benco is limited as far as the information it can send to the phone. Another limitation is that status updates (technician arrived on site, technician completed job, etc.) have to be communicated by voice back to the dispatcher.

Benco also trialed the use of more intelligent mobile devices for its techs. “We now have about 20 technicians using a combined phone/PDA from Samsung,” says Cohen. The Samsung i700 runs on PocketPC and has ServicePower’s ServiceMobility application loaded. The application automatically creates and maintains work schedules and, at the appropriate time, dispatches work over Verizon’s wireless network to a technician’s device. The tech uses ServiceMobility to view his dispatched work orders and to send feedback to the scheduling system. “We can send more service order details to the technician via ServiceMobility than was possible using text messaging,” adds Cohen.

Benco also installed two new Windows-based servers in its data center to run the ServicePower application. One runs the scheduling application and the other runs the communications service for the wireless dispatch system. These systems communicate with Benco’s business application via the ServicePower interface.

Drilling Down

Training Benco’s 180 techs was a fairly painless procedure. “For technicians receiving work via their Nextel phones, the training really was very simple,” says Cohen. They basically used a conference call to explain what a service order looks like on the phone and how they wanted the techs to proceed with each job. For technicians using smartphones and ServiceMobility, Benco ran a two-hour orientation course. “Our technicians are very capable. We have found they enjoy learning about the Samsung phone/PDA and that the application itself is very easy to use. We then keep a careful eye on them for the first few weeks to ensure that they are able to use the device and that they are prompt in reporting.

“We were warned that this project would necessitate change for the technicians,” notes Cohen. “Whereas before the technicians had a lot of flexibility in how to organize their days, now the work is done for them and they have less control. The big win for the company, of course, is that we can be more efficient. We worked hard with our technicians during the implementation to ensure that they understood the rationale for what we were doing. For the most part, this careful attention to detail has worked.”

The technicians are spending less time on voice calls than they did before. Before Benco introduced this system, its field techs were less in tune with the urgent same-day work that it received. Now they see that work immediately—as the call center sees it—and as a result, they’re able to respond more effectively to the needs of their customers.

Managers now have much better visibility into how each technician’s day is progressing. The system proactively flags jobs that are running into trouble. Field managers can therefore spot the technicians that need assistance early and can keep the customer informed of the issue. “We’ve found that the relationship with our customers has improved as managers have been able to get more involved with problem resolution and become more proactive. Customers understand that problems do occur in real life, but with the improved communication they appreciate the efforts to which we go to minimize the effects these problems have on their business,” adds Cohen.

The technicians and managers have seen additional benefits from the choice of a device they hadn’t originally envisioned. For example, managers now e-mail their technicians throughout the day, and technicians use the camera on the phone to send their managers pictures of trouble-spots on the equipment they are servicing.

Jobs per-day and per-tech vary enormously by type of work done. For example, installation work typically takes a day or more, whereas several repair jobs can be completed in a single day. “This project has enabled our existing technicians to accomplish more work per day. Equally important, we are getting to our customers faster and getting their equipment back up and operational faster. That’s very important to our customer base—down time of key dental equipment can really impact a small dentist’s ability to provide his service and generate revenue,” says Cohen. “At the end of the day, our business is about keeping our dentists happy. ServicePower understood that from day one, and it continues to be a technology partner that we can rely on.”•
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