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Friday, July 01, 2005

Acts of Utility

In an industry where service is paramount, the heat is on to up performance.
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By William Gillis




We’ve all been there before. The electricity is out. The heater is down. No hot water. These situations are a lot more serious than, let’s say, losing cable service. Anyone who has spent a cold winter night without heat knows that tuning in to The Bachelor offers little consolation when your teeth are chattering.

It is little surprise, then, that utility providers have adopted state-of-the-art solutions for their field forces to provide timely, quality service to designated customers. Mobile workforce solutions allow them to reduce costs, respond to more customer calls each day and satisfy customers by providing real-time information about the status of their calls.

An important factor for many utility service providers in both the United States and Canada is deregulation. In many states and provinces, certain utilities, or in some cases, just utility services, have been deregulated. That means competition is fierce and customer service is paramount.
What are utilities doing to streamline their field operations, optimize service and stay ahead of the competition? Take a look at these leading examples.

Got Gaz?

Gaz M´etropolitain Plus, based in Quebec, Canada, represents the cutting-edge in service optimization and field force automation solutions. Gaz maintains and repairs gas furnaces and water heaters for more than 30,000 residential and commercial customers in the province. Its 50 field technicians make 50,000 service calls per year.
Yvan Lefebvre, director of information technology for Gaz, says the company is providing top-notch customer service, and implementing ClickSoftware’s ClickSchedule service optimization solution in April 2004 is one of the biggest reasons. For Gaz, says Lefebvre, ClickSchedule has been a simple, intuitive system that required little training. When a dispatcher receives a service call, the ClickSchedule software automatically determines which technician should respond to the job based on the technician’s location, status of current assignment and skill set.

Lefebvre says that a trouble call might require an average of five or six skills, whereas yearly maintenance calls require only basic skills. “We don’t send a technician if they don’t have the skills or tools to do a job,” Lefebvre says.

A year ago, Gaz technicians were using cell phones to communicate with the dispatch center. Today, they’re equipped with tablet PCs running the ClickSchedule mobile Web application. When a technician is assigned a job, he can update job status on his tablet PC. So if a customer calls asking for a status report, a dispatcher can quickly tell the customer, “He’s on his way,” if the status reads “en route.” Customers are happier, too, because Gaz has narrowed its time windows. Previously, a customer could
only expect a technician to arrive in the morning, afternoon or evening; with ClickSchedule, however, Gaz can offer three-hour windows.

When a technician completes a job, the customer now signs a note of confirmation on the tablet and, using a 4-inch wireless printer, the technician supplies a receipt. The technician also records what parts are used, and the truck’s inventory status is automatically updated. Lefebvre says the technicians use cell phones once in a while to communicate with the dispatch center, but those calls have been reduced by 80 percent. Even more impressive, Gaz technicians are completing 20 percent more service calls every day.

Excelling, North and South

Of course, cutting-edge field service and customer optimization are not restricted to our Canadian neighbors. Deep in the heart of Texas, Austin-based TXU serves 2.8 million electric customers. For the past year, its 400 field technicians have used laptops equipped with PC Cards that allow them to link into a wireless network. The communication hardware and software is supplied by AirLink, a California-based provider of fixed and mobile wireless data solutions.

Before AirLink, TXU technicians and dispatchers used voice-to-voice radio for dispatching. Trouble calls are now dispatched to the technicians’ notebooks. When a trouble call requires multiple technicians, each technician receives information about the job automatically. Before, a dispatcher was required to round up each technician by radio. AirLink also supplies GPS electronic mapping, so dispatchers can see right away which technician is closest to a trouble case.

Mark Sine, distribution operation center technical analyst for TXU, says he does not have complete data yet, but the data he does have indicates that technicians are responding faster than before. Customer satisfaction has been improved in that the status of a call is now automatically pumped from a technician’s laptop into the network, so dispatchers can give real-time status reports to customers.

Today, when a technician arrives within a pre-defined range, he manually uses GPS to update his status; Sine hopes that soon the update will happen automatically.
More than 1,000 miles to the north, Xcel Energy in Minneapolis, Minn., provides electric and natural gas service to 11 Midwestern states. It has more than 10,000 employees, 3.3 million electric customers and nearly 2 million gas customers.

Xcel is on the forefront of service optimization with a unique partnership called the Utility Innovations initiative. Xcel brought together IBM, Itron, Indus, Mercury and SPL WorldGroup to improve its field operations. Indus supplied its Service Suite, which provides scheduling and resource optimization, while Itron supplied meter data management solutions.

To the southwest of Excel’s territory, Utility Innovations, in Arvada, Colo., rolled out a pilot project in July 2004. The planner and three engineers responsible for the electric distribution construction design were equipped with laptops that communicate wirelessly with the back office. The four were able to build an electrical distribution map right on their laptops, whereas previously they used paper.
Drew Wilson, electric operations manager for Xcel in Arvada, says the Indus Service Suite acts as the scheduling backbone that allows field technicians to handle the entire workflow of a job assignment. The system was easy to use, and the field workers had no problem adjusting to the new system. “They were not computer-savvy,” says Wilson, “but they picked it up quickly.”

While the Utility Innovations pilot involved only four field workers in a huge company, Wilson says the Arvada site is planning to roll out the system to all of its field workers. And Xcel is expanding its use of mobile communications—its Minneapolis office recently implemented 200 mobile data terminals for its electric and gas emergency response technicians.

What’s Up Next?

While companies like Gaz, TXU and Xcel have adopted mobile communications technology, there are still plenty of utility companies using two-way radios and pencil and paper.
Iain Gillott, founder of iGillott Research in Austin, Texas, says the acceptance of mobile technology is still an issue for any service organization. “I’m still not sure it’s accepted that mobile devices in the field are normal,” he says.

Jeff Kwan, VP of solutions for Indus International, says both managers and field workers have to be made comfortable with new technology. “There is a learning factor, almost a trust factor, that needs to be involved,” Kwan explains. “The field force needs to be confident that their flexibility and decision-making capabilities are not taken away.”

Utility companies that do decide to deploy mobile technology solutions are usually looking to improve scheduling and dispatching processes, says David Schapiro, executive VP of markets and products for ClickSoftware. “In the future, scheduling will only be a small part of the solution.”



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