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September 2003

Field Report

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Flushing Out Productivity

Roto-Rooter is counting on new mobile workforce technology to increase efficiency and ease customer headaches.

By Matt Purdue



When the blockbuster animated film “Finding Nemo” hit theaters this summer, the phones at Pixar’s animation studio were ringing off the hook. But studio honcho Steve Jobs’ lines weren’t the only ones swamped. Taking to heart the movie’s saccharine notion that all drains lead to the sea, golden-hearted kids across North America took it upon themselves to “free” their goldfish by tossing them in basins and toilets.

So when the inevitable tears started, there was one place moms everywhere turned to in valiant efforts to find their own Nemos: Roto-Rooter. According to the Los Angeles Times, a Roto-Rooter dispatch center in California received some 70 closely spaced calls from frantic parents begging for service techs to come and rescue family fish. “I hear kids crying in the background,” a dispatcher told the Times. “But there’s nothing we can do. They’re gone.”

Founded by Samuel Blanc in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1935, Roto-Rooter has become synonymous with plumbing repair and drain cleaning. The company boasts more than 3,300 employees and sales of more than $314 million in 2002.

Roto-Rooter operates businesses in more than 100 company-owned territories and more than 500 franchise territories, serving approximately 90 percent of the U.S. population and 55 percent of Canada’s residents. Considering the sheer volume flowing through the company on a daily basis—masses of parts and millions of dollars traveling hundreds of thousands of miles—keeping track of it all has become a Herculean effort.

Just getting the right techs to the right jobs at the right time has become yeoman’s work. But today wireless technology is boosting that effort. Roto-Rooter recently embarked on an ambitious plan to deploy wireless devices and software to make field techs more productive and customers happier.

The program is currently being piloted in Chicago, and Stephen Poppe, the company’s CIO, plans to roll out the system to 1,700 techs across the U.S. by the first quarter of 2004. Phase one consists of equipping technicians with Motorola i58sr smartphones running on Nextel’s wireless network. The i58sr is the industry’s first ruggedized, GPS-enabled phone. The assisted GPS (AGPS) technology allows dispatchers to locate technicians and drivers to receive accurate directions to service calls.

“It started out as a way of keeping track of where they are and what they are doing,” admits Poppe, who has been with Roto-Rooter nearly 20 years. “The trucks are rolling warehouses and inventory was updated once a week. Our drivers should be at their assigned location, not at the donut shop with the cops.”

Utilizing a hosted wireless solution called etrace from Gearworks in Minneapolis, Roto-Rooter dispatchers can track the whereabouts of trucks on digital fleet maps. Field techs rely on the system to send messages, report job status and obtain directions to proceeding jobs. According to Poppe, this should boost customer service. “Our customers make grudge purchases. Our customers are agitated to begin with, so when we give them a two-hour window, for example, between 8 and 10, they only hear one word: 8.”

With the new technology, a tech runs through a simple menu on his smartphone when he completes a job. This transmits the closed ticket back to the dispatch center and alerts dispatchers that he’s ready for another assignment. When he receives the new job on his smartphone, he can obtain driving directions with the touch of the keypad. “It is all numerically driven using menus and submenus,” Poppe explains. “Using the logic of it, we haven’t changed how our techs perceive the job. They press 1 for name and address, 2 for driving instructions.”

Before this system was implemented, techs relied on radios, cellphones and two-way pagers to communicate with dispatchers, and often had to wait on hold to receive new assignments. “It has become increasingly important to know when a tech is available after completing a job,” says Poppe. “If we save 10 to 15 minutes per tech between each job, that will give us an opportunity to do many things to improve productivity.”

Aside from the customer’s name and address, technicians also receive details about the caller’s trouble, such as whether it is an acute or ongoing problem. Even data such as the physical location of a building’s drain plug can save a technician 20 minutes of searching in a dark basement. Customer data is stored not by Gearworks but on Roto-Rooter’s IBM AS400 servers in the back office. “I am not comfortable with the whole ASP concept,” Poppe says. “I keep the data I want and Gearworks takes the data I am not interested in.”

According to Poppe, the next phase of the project will involve coding out the invoicing process and adding wireless credit card readers and portable printers to the techs’ toolkit. Techs will be able to take payments on-site and leave customers with an invoice.

Poppe expects the project to reach ROI in less than 12 months. “I’m happy with the hard-dollar savings,” he intones. “If we break even we’ve hit a home run because all the soft-dollar savings will go right to the bottom line.”

Copyright 2004 Leisure Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
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