March 23, 2006



Posted: 01.07.05
From the Desk of Teresa von Fuchs: Our Modern World
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We’ve all experienced the frustrations of computer crashes. You’re right in the middle of something and the screen just freezes up—no matter how many buttons you hit or how long you wait, the system just isn’t responding. Though this pain-in-the-arse is a common annoyance for most of us, as we become more reliant on automated systems in the work world to run key business processes, shut-downs can be more than just an annoyance.  

By Teresa von Fuchs

Case in point this holiday season when Delta subsidiary Comair canceled 1,100 flights on Christmas day and was essentially grounded for three or four days during a busy travel season. It’s a surprisingly familiar story—an overloaded legacy scheduling system just up and quit. A company spokesman actually said, “Cancelled flights caused the system to be overwhelmed … it just stopped operating.”

I’ll spare you the details of the how and why this happens, because customers, frankly, don’t care. As customers, we just want to know that when we pay for a flight from Cincinnati to Sheboygan on December 23, pending a natural or national disaster, we’ll get there as planned. Customers couldn’t give a whit about the detailed ins and outs of failed back-up systems or legacy scheduling applications, even if they’re using a bulletin board, pushpins and paper planes. What we care about is a reliable level of service and efficiency.

As a journalist on the beat of new technology, I do care about the detailed ins and outs of backend scheduling apps. When I first started at Field Force Automation, I think that’s all I ever wrote about: How you can get your techs to the problem faster and more efficiently, upping productivity and improving customer satisfaction. And so it’s both as a customer and as a voice in the industry that I’m frustrated when these issues keep cropping up.

Let’s look at another story. I recently moved and ordered new Verizon service for my apartment. (C’mon, what are columns if not soapboxes.) When the phone jack didn’t work, I called the service repair tech and scheduled a service visit. While I was waiting in my four-hour window, I remembered the bell didn’t work. I called back to see if it was possible for the repair tech to call me when he or she was outside. The operator told me techs didn’t carry cell phones.

Now this is a telecom company with over 142 million wired customers in the United States, ranked 12th in the Fortune 500, with over 200,000 employees in the United States and with a wireless phone company affiliation. And, essentially, a phone company with employees who don’t have phones?! So I pressed the operator, “Is there anyway of reaching the tech, to let them know some new piece of information, such as a bell doesn’t work, knock hard and loud?” No, I was told. There is no way to reach techs once they are in the field.

When the tech finally showed up (a week later), I talked to him and he filled in the missing pieces. Techs are given paper form workloads. Based on proximity and educated guesses, dispatchers try to give each tech about four hours’ worth of requests. When finished, techs return to the repair center, fill in the necessary paperwork and pick up more trouble tickets. In the field, techs have no way to contact the repair center, and dispatch has no way of contacting them.

In my experience writing about this industry, this is a classic model for a case study. Now would be the part where any number of scheduling and dispatch service providers step in and save the day. Where the company in question could report ROI in less than six months, hours of tech productivity, time saved and millions more happy smiling customers who can’t believe how efficiently their problems were solved.

I corroborated my disbelief by placing a call to Verizon public relations and innocently asking if its field techs were using any sort of mobile technology. The PR person checked into it and told me no. That he could “see how it might make sense, but they just weren’t there yet.” In fact, he “didn’t know of any utility companies using it.”

Well I know of a few, and from talking to their customers, even people who aren’t interested in furthering technology are quite happy about the improvements. Companies like Comair and Verizon should listen up.
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