Each summer, residents and businesses across the country rely on HVAC service technicians to keep their air conditioning systems running and ensure everyone is cool and comfortable. If a two-week heat wave with temperatures in the 90s hits and the AC system breaks down, customers will demand immediate service. As a rule, the HVAC industry is proud of its responsiveness and ability to fix breakdowns.
The HVAC industry faces unique challenges to providing timely, first-time service and repair. These issues shape the strategies of HVAC companies as they strive to optimize their field service operations. In this article, we will examine those strategies and some of the field force solutions HVAC businesses have deployed.
It’s Getting Hot in Here
Unlike most field service businesses, HVAC is seasonal and weather-dependent. During the hot summer months both residential and business customers push their air conditioning systems to the max. During a heat wave, air conditioning use can reach epic proportions and breakdowns are common. However, the HVAC industry can’t take the winter months off and vacation in tropical locales. During the coldest months of the year, a functioning, reliable heating system is a necessity for any resident or business.
According to Amit Bendov, VP of product marketing for ClickSoftware, a provider of field service optimization solutions, HVAC service companies must plan ahead to schedule the appropriate number of technicians to meet demand based on the seasons and the weather. Direct Energy, based in Toronto, serves about 2 million residential and business customers in Canada and Texas and handles about 500,000 service calls a year. Direct Energy uses ClickSoftware’s application, ClickSchedule, a scheduling system that links with Direct Energy’s service order-entry system. When an appointment request is made by a customer, ClickSchedule assigns technicians based on the optimum mixture of time, location, skills and parts availability.
“With the automated scheduling method, we’re able to make a commitment to the customer at the point of order initiation,” says Ivan Mraz, business systems manager for Direct Energy. “So at call taking, our systems automatically schedule a call to a technician and schedule that technician’s time. We’re able to make commitments to customers and keep them… This system is a live link into our actual capacity at any given time. So as the day is progressing, we’re able to bring in additional resources should we be approaching a capacity threshold, or move staff around.” According to ClickSoftware, Direct Energy has reduced dispatch labor by 70 percent and increased technician productivity by 20 percent since implementing ClickSchedule.
Direct Energy has also deployed an automated field invoice process. When a Direct Energy technician completes a job, he or she keys in the job’s details, such as work performed and parts used, on a Panasonic CFM34 Toughbook. That information is then relayed over an RF network to the host system, which records the billing record for the customer, decrements the on-hand inventory balance from that technician’s truck and triggers replenishment if that item level has gone below a re-order threshold.
On Board Service is an Oregon City, Ore., business providing HVAC and refrigeration equipment service for convenience stores in the Northwest. In February 2003, On Board deployed ServiceWorks Mobile, a solution from H2 Technologies, a Stone Mountain, Ga.-based provider of dispatch solutions for specialty contractors. Donna Kutsch, On Board Service business manager and part-owner of the company, says that her field technicians traditionally completed work orders on paper after completing a job, then mailed them in to the home office. Sometimes, it would take as many as two or three weeks for the office to receive that information from the techs.
Today, On Board’s technicians are outfitted with Symbol handhelds equipped with a scanner, which is used to record part numbers. The technicians then synchronize that information to the back office using Motorola phones on Nextel’s wireless network; whenever they synchronize, they also receive their job schedule for the day. Kutsch says ServiceWorks Mobile has also enabled On Board to lower inventory in its field service trucks. “By having the information in the office today, we know what we have to order and put back in the trucks tomorrow,” she says. “And by lowering inventory you don’t pay the business tax you would with a higher inventory.”
H2’s President John McCarthy has worked with many companies in the HVAC industry to optimize their field service operations. He agrees that the industry is quite unique. “The thing with HVAC is that there are specific issues like service contracts, industry pricing, warranty recalls, that kind of stuff,” says McCarthy. “That kind of information needs to be available on the technicians’ handhelds. You have to be able to handle these industry specifics on the mobile device.”
Direct Energy’s Mraz agrees that providing information that field service personnel can access while on the job is essential, because few customers are able to provide information about their HVAC system. “If you think about PC repairs, generally a customer can describe exactly which make and model PC they have,” says Mraz. “We’re servicing equipment that’s potentially decades old. And we didn’t sell it, so we don’t necessarily know exactly the make and model that we’re servicing. And, similarly, even the same make and model may or may not have the same components, based on the manufacturing process, sourcing circuit boards from one vendor or another. We don’t necessarily know what exactly we will service on any given day.”
Such uncertainty makes it imperative for HVAC companies to provide as much information to their field technicians as possible. One way Direct Energy has put more information into its techs’ hands is by building a part-sourcing application in-house that has been installed on the Toughbooks. Techs can enter rudimentary information about a part and, because the system knows what truck he is driving, it can tell the technician if there are any alternate parts or universals available on the truck. “That’s expanded the technicians’ capacity to perform a repair first time, on site, rather than having to order parts and return,” says Mraz. “Now we’re also installing on the same PC digitized manufacturer information and all the installation manuals and manufacturer troubleshooting guides.”
Customer Service 101
While the HVAC industry might face scheduling and information challenges, the reality is that few customers will stand for delayed service. When a customer’s heating goes out during a January snowstorm, or the air conditioning system goes haywire during the dog days of August, responding quickly to fix the problem is essential. After all, heating and air conditioning failure is a bit more imperative than being unable to watch “The Bachelor” because the cable is malfunctioning.
“Usually, when you need these guys, you’re in trouble,” says ClickSoftware’s Bendov. “If you have a baby in your home and your heating doesn’t work in the winter, it’s very stressful. So the
customer service experience is extremely important. A reassuring response is key. But you not only have to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. If you mess up, you can lose the customer for life. It’s very important to impress the customer not only with promises, but to deliver.”
Direct Energy’s Mraz explains that in HVAC, good customer service and field service is not only good business, it can impact lives. “If you’re without heating in the winter, then that’s an emergency,” he says. “Similarly, in the summer, a lot of clients have medical problems, so air conditioning is really a health issue. They expect us to come out and repair these items.”
Relatively simple solutions like providing technicians with the ability to print a receipt for a customer after finishing a job has helped Direct Energy and On Board Service ensure customer satisfaction. In turn, scrapping a pen-and-paper system can reduce
mistakes and do away with time-consuming rekeying of information. And of course, not everybody has superb penmanship. “I have worked in this business for about 30 years now,” says On Board’s Kutsch. “And I’ve found that technicians are great repair people; they can go out and fix whatever they want. But paperwork and penmanship—forget it.”
Bendov of ClickSoftware recounts an anecdote that demonstrates how real-time access to field service information in the back office can result in outstanding customer service. “Direct Energy got a call from a customer, who asked, ‘Where the heck is your technician?’,” says Bendov. “And after looking at the system, the dispatcher said, ‘Well, he’s at your house,’ and the customer said, ‘Well, no he’s not.’ And as they are speaking, the dispatcher hears the doorbell ringing—of course, it’s the technician.”
But Who Has Deployed?
It’s not clear exactly how many HVAC businesses have deployed field service solutions. Jim Wenninger, president of WennSoft, a New Berlin, Wisc.-based solutions developer for various industries including HVAC, believes that many HVAC contractors are taking a “wait and see” approach. “I think what you’ve seen over the last two years is a lot of hype in the technology industry,” says Wenninger. “I believe that the contractors buy into that, but they’re contractors. And their motive is, ‘When I see enough people doing it, then I’ll add it to my system.’ I just don’t know if they’re convinced that the technology is all there.”
Rochester, N.Y.-based Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning is an example of an HVAC business taking a wait and see strategy to field force automation solutions. Don’t assume, however, that Isaac Heating is technophobic. In fact, in 1982 Isaac Heating began using one of the first computerized field service dispatching systems in the country. Today, they use a fully integrated back-office system that has brought together inventory, accounts payable, accounts receivable, inventory maintenance and much more.
Ray Isaac, Isaac Heating general manager, says that his company makes 30,000 service calls a year and has 100 trucks servicing the greater Rochester area. “We’ve taken a more laid-back approach,” says Isaac. “We’ve done that with the GPS and tracking and all that as well. I see a lot of that technology as a band-aid for poor dispatching practices, or poor policies and procedures in your service department.”
Isaac does keep up-to-date with the latest solutions being deployed by other HVAC businesses via e-mail chat groups and his involvement in Air Conditioning Contractors of America. For now, he’s happy to wait and see how other companies in his industry fare deploying field force automation solutions. “Let the first guys pave the way,” he says. “If you look back through history, it’s usually not the first or even the second company or process that turns out to be the long-standing one.”
While some HVAC companies like Isaac Heating take the conservative approach, the improvements that Direct Energy and On Board Service have enjoyed by deploying field service management solutions demonstrate the value of field force automation. Perhaps most HVAC companies aren’t willing to make a similar plunge just yet. But, as they say in sports, just wait until next year. •
William Gillis is a freelance writer based in Athens, Ohio.