March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 12.04

Tick, Tick, Ticků

Time is quite literally money when it comes to scheduling and dispatching field technicians. So how are leading companies integrating these solutions into their mobile strategies?
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By Emily Kay




When service is a company’s bread and butter, showing up late to fix broken equipment, or even for routine maintenance operations, is a sure way to lose business.

“Estimating arrival times correctly is important to customers,” says Joseph Thomas, general manager of client fulfillment with The United Illuminating Co. (UI), a $1.1-billion electricity and energy service distributor based in New Haven, Conn. “Most of our customers can’t take two hours off without pay, so we’d better be there.” To speed the consignment and boost the productivity of 55 field technicians, UI deployed a wireless solution that helps the company efficiently schedule and dispatch its mobile field force. “We can assign resources with better precision,” adds Thomas.

Today, organizations for which service is a competitive necessity are turning to scheduling and dispatch software and wireless technology to help them ensure prompt and efficient fulfillment. With such solutions, companies like Fife can automate and optimize appointments based on variables that include customers, jobs, parts availability and technicians’ skill sets, experience and locations.

In the past, Fife’s manual operations often resulted in duplicate scheduling and—even worse—missed appointments. “We used to schedule field service guys with a grease pencil and a board,” says Eddie Engledow, customer service manager with Fife. A $25-million subsidiary of Maxcess International in Oklahoma City, Okla., Fife manufactures equipment used in manufacturing, such as machines that make potato chip bags. “Service customers expect you to show them they’re number one, even if you have 40,000 customers. If you don’t have the mechanisms in place to provide that, someone else will because it’s all about the ability to service customers better than the competition.”

That’s where software from leading-edge vendors comes in. These systems help companies capture and track field service information so they can most effectively match technicians with service calls, notes Don Blumberg, chief executive of D.F. Blumberg Associates, a service management consultancy in Fort Washington, Penn. Field service managers “don’t work in a vacuum. They need input about what problems the customer sees, who the right persons are to assign, who’s available and how much travel time they need to get there,” says Blumberg. “They also need to know if a customer is paying for fast, next-day response or something less rapid. Then they can determine the optimum scheduling and assignment process.”

Desperately Seeking Solutions

Scheduling and dispatching mobile workers is big business. The $1-billion market will grow to about $2 billion by 2006, according to Eugene Signorini, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group. Demand for such technology will accelerate as companies subcontract their internal plant and building maintenance work to outsourcers who are “desperate to get technology,” says Blumberg. Signorini agrees, noting that many mobile technicians still use paper solutions. “Of the almost 6 million field service workers in the U.S.,” he says, “fewer than 1 million of them are using wireless data field service solutions.”

The market potential has attracted traditional enterprise software giants like SAP and Siebel Systems. Although the software behemoths lack scheduling and dispatching expertise, they can integrate the overall process into sales, service and financial applications, notes Jim Brown, president of Tech-Clarity, a consultancy in Media, Penn.

Integration hassles concern organizations like UNICCO Service. To open and close work orders, UNICCO field technicians need access to time and materials data that reside in the company’s back-end PeopleSoft (formerly J.D. Edwards) billing system. Connecting Corrigo’s CorrigoNet mobile service solution with billing processes required UNICCO to “develop as if we were putting two solutions in place,” says Jeff Peterson, VP of IT with the $650-million facilities management firm in Newton, Mass.

Worcester Heat Systems (WHS) in the U.K. also met the integration challenge head on. One of the U.K.’s leading boiler companies, WHS needed to streamline after-sales support and eliminate a dispatch system based on seven regional offices sharing a job bookings system supported by manual scheduling. The company decided to roll out SAP Service Management and link it with a dynamic scheduler from ServicePower, which has offices in England and Maryland. After a six-week pilot, full integration of the two systems took seven months. A year later, WHS upgraded its SAP and ServicePower applications to take advantage of same-day scheduling.

Today the company completes 25 percent more jobs per day and is meeting its customer service goals. “We’re now receiving customer letters complimenting us on our service rather than complaints,” says Carl Arntzen, WHS’ customer services director.

Many service providers, however, use simpler back-end solutions requiring little integration work. Maintenance Resource, a 30-employee facilities-maintenance contractor, chose Aereon Solutions’ FieldMaster Pro largely because it links easily with the company’s Intuit QuickBooks Pro back-office accounting package. FieldMaster Pro, which Maintenance Resource runs on Intermec 700 Series rugged mobile computers, enables the company to “capture an additional two hours of billable labor per technician per week,” says John Weeber, president of Maintenance Resource in Grandville, Mich.

The system loads each technician’s computer with a daily work schedule that includes details such as customer schedules, service agreements, past histories, warranty information and locations of special problems. As the 15 technicians complete their calls, the system updates their schedules, including automatically programming uncompleted schedules for the next day. At the end of each day, technicians can upload directly to the company’s central databases the parts used, time spent on calls and charges. They can also print invoices on the spot.

Farewell, Spike and Drawer

The sophistication of scheduling and dispatching methods continues to evolve. Solutions have come a long way from pins on map boards and “spike and drawer,” which required call handlers to write service orders on paper and spike them to technicians’ cubby holes, Blumberg observes. Software providers now use rules-based engines and sophisticated mathematical algorithms to do far more than assign technicians to jobs. “Field service applications are more complex than just dispatch,” says Signorini. “It’s also diagnostics, inventory tracking, parts ordering and job completion.”

Field technicians have to submit timely and accurate data to central field service databases so their firms can maximize schedules and mobile capabilities, states Doug Peters, VP of e-business strategies with Metrix, a field service software vendor in Waukesha, Wisc. Even the most accurate schedule can change if a technician reaches a customer site and determines that a planned 30-minute job might actually require several hours. “Scheduling is only half the equation,” says Peters. “If you don’t have real-time data feedback from a mobile solution in the field, your optimized engine is only as good as your assumptions.”

United Illuminating uses such data to keep more service appointments. Before deploying ClickSoftware’s ClickSchedule as an integrated part of Axiom’s mobile workforce software in 1998, technicians made it to 83.4 percent of their engagements. Now they keep 99.6 percent of their appointments, which is significant when missed appointments cause increased costs for UI’s 318,000 customers, says Thomas.

UI’s Windows 2002-based ClickSchedule system consists of mobile dispatch, GPS-based automatic vehicle location and scheduling components. UI uses the system over a public network to schedule technicians for metering; field collection; and unregulated, billing-related work, including some 180,000 transfers annually. Field technicians use WalkAbout Hammerhead XRT rugged PCs mounted in trucks.

The solution eliminates delays in corporate data transmissions to customer service representatives and an SAP R/3 billing engine. “Wireless technology and mobile scheduling and dispatching let us start creating customer commitments, making appointments and getting performance metrics that let us know how well we are doing,” says Thomas. UI can also track the number of customer appointments that technicians keep and miss. The company may use that data in the future to offer risk-sharing service guarantees. “We would pay customers predetermined fees if we miss appointments; if customers miss appointments, they would pay us,” Thomas notes.

UNICCO employs a different mobile approach with its 50 field technicians. The 20,000-employee company integrated CorrigoNet into its national operations center using UNICCO’s route maintenance service. The Web-based platform—which Corrigo operates from its Redwood City, Calif., headquarters—uses Motorola wireless handsets running on Nextel’s cellular network to coordinate maintenance services.

Real-time information helps Peterson manage the service-delivery process, from customer request through technician deployment. When UNICCO’s call center receives requests for scheduled procedures or emergency maintenance, CorrigoNet automatically dispatches the appropriate technicians based on their location or expertise. Route maintenance workers use mobile phones to access CorrigoNet for work orders and to close completed jobs, log times and detail inventory parts used.

CorrigoNet replaces phone calls or faxes to regional dispatch centers or individual technicians, which, in the past, caused delays and uncertainties about job status. “The solution makes it easy to confirm receipt of the order, and puts a level of accountability into the process that we’ve never had before,” says Peterson.

Better, Faster, More Lucrative

As scheduling and dispatching capabilities become more sophisticated, service organizations become more strategic. With the increase in impact—and visibility—companies expect to accrue more revenue from their service businesses.

“It’s easy to schedule technicians to fix something,” says Marc McCluskey, service lifecycle management research director with AMR Research. “Now companies want to be better, faster and charge more. They need to know where parts, people and abilities are, and how, in the future, to staff to make more money.”

Fife executives recognize that need. As competitors have eroded its market share over the years, the company’s service arm had to “work smarter and be more efficient,” says Engledow.

To keep cash flowing, Fife had to bill some 35,000 field service customers faster. The firm deployed Alliance CRM Suite’s integrated service integration from Astea International to support field service scheduling, inventory management, wireless connectivity to six field engineers and warranty and repairs tracking. Field engineers use wireless connections from their Windows-based Dell Latitude D600 and D800 notebook computers over a virtual private network to the corporate IBM AS/400 server to download parts used, labor and expenses.

The system lets customer service workers bill within three days instead of the six weeks the process used to take. Quicker billing for a 300-employee company that bills up to $5,000 for a typical field service call is significant, Engledow notes.

Such benefits are typical of those that companies can achieve by optimizing their mobile field service staffs, industry experts agree. Moshe BenBassat, CEO of Burlington, Mass.-based ClickSoftware, estimates that companies with 1,000 field technicians working 200 days annually on appointments worth $50 each can use his firm’s software to generate an additional $10 million in annual revenue by adding just one appointment to each technician’s daily schedule.

“And,” claims BenBassat, “that’s only the beginning.” •

Emily Kay writes about technology as a principal of Choice Communications, an editorial consulting firm in Chelmsford, Mass.
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