March 23, 2006



Posted: 07.01.05

All In a Day’s Work

Safelite’s well-equipped techs offer at-your-office service.
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By Lee Gimpel

For more than 50 years, Safelite has been synonymous with auto glass. But over the course of the last decade, the privately held company’s business model has changed dramatically. Moving from a traditional brick-and-mortar model, where customers would bring in their vehicles to get windows repaired or replaced, the Columbus-based company is now very much a business on the go, as most installations are done in the field. A customer can, for instance, request that a technician show up at his or her office during the workday and complete the job in the parking lot.

As one of the country’s largest auto glass retailers, Safelite serves more than 2 million customers each year. And with its recent mobile deployment, the company is aiming to stay on top. Today, the staff of 6,300 employees—of which 1,800 are mobile—operates in all 50 states through 81 districts and five regional dispatch centers.

Working in their mobile environment, technicians first used a paper-based system and a standard CB radio for communications. The next evolution was to mobile phones—an obvious improvement. Jon Nafzger, Safelite’s technician manager in Columbus, says the phones allowed individual techs to reach a dispatcher without having to spend the day listening to every conversation carried over the CB network. The downside was the amount of time that technicians and dispatchers spent on the phone.

And there were lots of calls; anytime anything happened, it required a phone call. If the customer changed the appointment, an outbound call would be placed from dispatch. For a tech to touch base and simply say, “I’ve arrived,” or, “I’m running late,” required a call. With each dispatcher handling 25 to 30 techs, every call placed to dispatch would last two to three minutes or longer, with much of the time spent on hold.

“With this environment, it creates a tremendous burden on the dispatchers,” says Rod Ghani, assistant VP of business development and technical applications.

Perhaps more importantly, the system did not lend itself to serving customers. If someone called wondering when a tech would show up, it meant holding while the dispatcher tried to track down the tech and get his location and schedule. More time would slip away as techs searched for the correct address, perhaps adding 10 to 15 minutes on some jobs. It was clear that the system meant to get customers’ windshields fixed quickly had some cracks of its own.

So, four years ago Safelite started looking to modernize, but the right mobile solution was just not in the budget. Ghani says that both the hardware (such as GPS-enabled devices made by Intermec or Symbol) and software were too expensive. The cost per technician was projected to run $3,000.

Finding a suitable technology partner meant attending trade shows, buying research from technology consultancies and even evaluating offshore development options. While Ghani says that many vendors had viable technology, the decision to select Gearworks was based largely on Safelite’s belief that the company would be a good partner, willing to cooperate on the project.

Todd Krautkremer, CEO of Gearworks, describes his company’s offerings as falling into three basic, tiered deployment categories: first, it gives companies an understanding of its processes, then it provides control over these processes and finally it offers a competitive advantage in the mobile arena. To this end, Gearworks’etrace line is simplified into the worksight, workflow and worksmart products. Thus far, Safelite has implemented the first two levels.

“They just didn’t have a lot of visibility into what was happening in their business. They wanted to improve their customer service, and yet they didn’t really know if they were arriving on time for their customer appointments, they didn’t know how long it took them to load their vehicles in the morning and they didn’t know how optimized their routes were,” says Chris Heim, director of business development and engagement services at Gearworks.

From the green light, it took only two months to get a proof of concept in place. Krautkremer attributes the relatively quick deployment to two factors. First, he says, Gearworks’ software is configurable, versus customizable, adding that the difference is more than semantic; configuring the software for a specific client does not require changes at the programming level as traditional customization does. The same software that Safelite is using is also being used by florists and plumbers. Second, the Gearworks solution is remotely hosted, which makes deployment and pricing easier.

Indeed, rather than spending thousands of dollars per tech, Ghani is now looking at a much more palatable price. Safelite paid a fixed cost of about $100 for each Nextel i58 phone. Pricing per employee per month comes out to about $40 for the hosted Gearworks applications, $12.99 for a Nextel 1MB data plan and another $30 or so for the voice plan. The office-side dispatch and visualization applications are accessed over the Web, while the local application for the phone can be downloaded through Nextel’s network. Krautkremer figures he is able to deliver his device- and network-agnostic solution for less than $3 per employee per day, thanks to what he calls a “perfect storm” coalescence of inexpensive GPS and Java-enabled devices, the acceptance of on-demand, hosted applications and Web-based programming, which allows for more dynamic content.

Despite the hosted solution, some integration was still required. Weaving in systems from CRM to finance was handled by Safelite’s own IT staff. Data exchange between Safelite and Gearworks is handled using XML and HTTP text format.
The first test involved only two technicians and lasted three weeks. The pilot was then expanded to another half dozen employees for another month, at which point the system was tweaked. Now, 150 techs are using the solution in five markets. The rollout is inline with Ghani’s feeling that slow and steady is the best course for such a major change.

“How is it going to affect our business process? How is it going to affect the technicians? Culturally, it’s a huge change. And we struggle with that,” he says, noting that fixing issues when they affect only a handful of people is preferable to doing so on a grand scale.

Technicians usually complete about five jobs each day. The new mobile solution largely supplants the system based on voice traffic; the wasted phone time has now been replaced by a few button clicks. The solution also offers other value-adds. First, techs can now clock in and out each day with the system, although they still have to go into the office to pick up windshields for the day’s jobs. Another benefit for the technicians is the solution’s integration with the phones’ GPS mapping capability. As an on-site service company, it is crucial that mobile employees know where they are and where they’re going. If a tech does not know the exact location of an address, it leads to frustration, lost time and wasted gas. Regular paper maps still ride shotgun in Safelite’s trucks, but they don’t get very much use when the alternative is GPS driving directions.

For managers and dispatchers the GPS functionality has another benefit: oversight and tracking. Safelite acknowledges that it does track its employees throughout the day, which raises a question of privacy that was initially met with some opposition.

“If you’re where you’re supposed to be, that’s not a problem,” says Nafzger. GPS included, the technology has been well-received on the whole.

While the fuzzier numbers are a good sign, it is ultimately the bottom line that determines success, and so far the results have been positive. Although Ghani says the finance folks have their own metrics for ROI, he figures that “the system has paid for itself already in the first couple months.” He points to the numbers, notably a 14 percent reduction in cancellation rates and an 11 percent increase in work order yield.

The next step will be to continue to refine the application in the selected test markets, moving to a second version that will include electronic signature capture and a credit card swipe that connects to the phones via Bluetooth. The goal of phase two is to create a paperless process. Eventually the system will be rolled out to all technicians—but not too fast, says Ghani.

“The key to our success so far is staged roll out, very methodical, and you can’t do ‘big bang’ methodology,” he says. “This is very sensitive, not just the technology, but it also hits the business culture, it hits the back office process. So there are a lot of things you don’t think about until you physically do it. So you start with one and you learn from it, and you add a little bit. So you have to [approach] it really slowly before you start rolling out.”•
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