There is certainly no shortage of new technology projects being pitched to companies. Every five seconds, somewhere a project manager or vendor is saying: “This new e-widget will make jobs easier, save time and money and expand capabilities.” And two minutes later, a bean counter is saying: “Show me the numbers.”
Nothing speaks better for a new technology solution than having it pay for itself in less than six months. Just ask Black Hills FiberCom (BHFC), where an innovative wireless communication system has field techs working more productively, dispatchers working more efficiently and dollar-watchers more than pleased.
BHFC, located in Rapid City, S.D., is the telecom subsidiary of Black Hills Corporation, a $1.3 billion diversified energy company. BHFC provides local and long-distance telephone service, high-speed Internet access and cable television to a regional market with more than 26,000 customers.
But like many companies in its industry, BHFC was struggling with inefficiencies in its field work, particularly with communication issues involving install and repair technicians. Each of the company’s 40 field techs was handling an average of eight to 12 service appointments per day. For each of those visits, the tech used a cell phone to make a series of calls: confirming arrival, relaying any change orders, clarifying work orders, troubleshooting problems, confirming departure and updating schedules. Each tech averaged six calls per appointment and nearly 90 minutes a day on the phone. Beyond dealing with a gargantuan phone bill (80,000-plus cell phone minutes a month), BHFC recognized that the process was far from optimal.
“We had to ramp-up personnel at the dispatch
end just to keep up with the phone calls,” says Don Strachan, an information systems manager with BHFC. “We really needed to reduce our labor costs, especially for overtime.”
Additionally, because of the nature of their job, the techs’ schedules were constantly changing, so they needed a real-time communications tool. The cell phone had been the best solution in the past, but BHFC set out to find the best solution for today.
Getting to Know You
The first component the telecom settled on was a software application from Passport Corporation. “Passport inField connects mobile workers to backend systems,” says Dave Peters, senior VP of sales and marketing for Passport Corporation. “Our software gives BHFC techs real-time access in the field to information previously only available to dispatchers in the home office.”
With the software in hand, BHFC continued its search for the right handheld device. Bob Ewing, field services operations manager for BHFC, came across the TDS Recon rugged handheld computer from Tripod Data Systems. “We were considering several devices,” he says, “but all of them were larger, bulkier and more expensive, and most didn’t have color screens like the Recon does. Plus, it runs Windows Mobile, so it’s compatible with our industry software and hardware. And best of all, none of the other handhelds came close on the price—even with the color screen.”
With the combination of software and a rugged handheld selected, BHFC collaborated with TDS and Passport to configure its new system. While customizing the software, BHFC gave a dozen handhelds to its field techs, to let them “get to know” the Recon.
“When you can get people to accept a new system before you can even provide it, you’ve got success,” says Ewing, who encouraged the techs to experiment with the Recons, accessing e-mail, exploring applications and generally finding uses for them. The strategy worked.
“We had to pry them out of the techs’ hands to get them back to program them,” he says, laughing. “And then they were in here every day, asking when they were going to be able to take them on the job.”
The Recon’s ruggedness got an early test, too. “We had an accidental 20-foot drop out of a bucket truck,” says Ewing. “It was a muddy day, and when our guy picked up the Recon after it fell, he just wiped the mud off and kept right on working with it.”
The software customization went equally well. “One of inField’s key features is rapid application development, so it was easy to set up initial screens to show the field techs,” says Passport’s Peters.
Using the Recons and inField, techs now receive their initial daily schedules each morning, review appointment and trouble ticket information and enter service information directly into the Recon in the field. As each call is completed, updated information is transmitted in real time directly back to the home office or stored until the tech is back in coverage. Schedule changes and updates can be sent to the techs on the fly, and if one service team completes its assignments early, it can call up appointments from other teams that might be running behind. With this kind of real-time information and adjustment available, techs are less likely to require overtime, and dispatchers are able to deploy field resources more efficiently.
BHFC also used a little imagination and some corporate synergy to create its innovative in-the-field communication system. While commercial wireless carriers offer good coverage in Rapid City, you don’t have to go far out of town to lose service. Knowing that BHFC’s regional telecom conglomerate included the necessary infrastructure, the company got creative.
“We needed real-time access, but how to connect from a series of living rooms to the home office?” says Strachan. “Commercial carriers aren’t the answer today.” So each service truck is a mobile hotspot, allowing 300 feet of connection—plenty to reach the house from the street or driveway. Techs typically only need wireless access in the house or while parked outside, so it’s a simple but effective solution.
However, BHFC’s territory does extend outside Rapid City to numerous small outlying towns beyond their own infrastructure. BHFC solved the problem by installing hotspots in appropriate locations in each town—next to a common lunch-break restaurant, or near a convenience store—and techs can stop by to get updates on their Recons.
“We’re just starting to put this equipment to use in the field,” says Strachan, “and the impact is immediate. Just putting our appointment call process on the handhelds, we figure to recapture one to two hours per day of essentially lost time for each field tech—that’s about 20 percent of their typical 10-hour day. Now our techs can complete two more trouble tickets a day or do extra maintenance work—either way, it cuts down on our labor and overtime costs. And with access to better information in the field, we can do the job right the first time and deliver better service to our customers.”
What’s more, because of the more efficient communication—most of it done through inField and
without a cell phone—BHFC has reduced its need for dispatchers from four to just one, resulting in a major labor cost savings. And as changes are made to the application, there is no need to bring the devices back to the office or install any new code; Passport automatically delivers the updates to the devices, minimizing device and software management costs.
Strachan delivers the words accounting departments everywhere love to hear: “Once this system is fully deployed, it should entirely pay for itself in six months. This first phase is about communication and scheduling,” he continues. “The next step is to work toward a paperless process. We’re looking to eliminate hard copies and data entry in the office—we’ll be 99.5 percent paperless when we’re done.”•