Until now, probably the biggest contribution from technology to the service and repair business -- all businesses, for that matter -- has been the computer. Rarely do you see a business that is successfully run without personal computers. Usually, you see current software programs and frequently updated hardware.

These technological advances have revolutionized the way all of us do business. We can store lists of customers, automate our billing, inventory, payroll and a host of other systems to help us more efficiently run our business. Try to imagine what it would be like without your office computers and the systems they support. Hard to believe there was a time when we ran the business without them.

Now there is a new wave of technology that could impact our businesses as much as the computer itself: Global Positioning System truck tracking systems.

Formerly only available to the military, GPS allows you to pinpoint (within feet) the location of any object that has a GPS receiver on it by comparing information from satellites in the sky.

Today, GPS is used by airlines, civil airplanes, rental car companies, and is available in many luxury cars with a map and instruction to a destination. The satellites are operated by the military, but the data is available for anyone to use.

For tracking service vehicles, the system is combined with software that keeps track of speed, location, movements, arrival at any predetermined spots and much more. Plus the system can store the data for days or weeks.

Typical Systems

Companies have released software and GPS systems that include radios and even dispatch screens. Products like @Road and Secure Core Wireless seem to be gaining in popularity.

Some of the systems are Web-based while others use wireless cellular systems. Check out the details for the technical advantages of each to your satisfaction. For the people we spoke to, it seems to be a matter of personal preference and functionality as to which type of system is better.

The barriers to the decision to purchase such a system includes cost, effectiveness -- does it really work? -- and technicians' reactions. Technicians have objected, and we spoke to at least one service business owner who had a technician quit over being monitored. Yet everyone we spoke to using a GPS system found violations of company policy in the use of their trucks, some leading to dismissals.

Although most users do not sit down and measure the savings versus the costs, all users expressed an increase in the piece of mind they have about where their trucks are.

The advantages of knowing where your trucks are include more than just piece of mind or convenience. For one, dispatching is simplified if you can instantly identify the location of your trucks for assigning the next job. Another advantage is monitoring the time a truck leaves a job.

One of the problems in the industry continues to be moonlighting -- technicians using your trucks and equipment to perform service work on their own, collecting the money from the customer and keeping it. These off-the-books jobs are virtually eliminated if the technicians know their location is constantly monitored.

System Capability

Let me explain how this can work. If a technician goes to a prospective customer's home and reports only an estimate, that location can be marked on the GPS system reports. If the truck shows up there again, particularly after hours or on weekends, the system alerts the management that a company truck returned to a previous call site. It is easy to see if an invoice and payment are forthcoming -- or if it is a moonlighting job.

Virtually any location could be programmed into the GPS and the can be company alerted if the truck goes there. For example, restaurants, bars, etc. could be flagged on the company records when a truck arrives there without authorization.

Other features of these systems, and there are numerous items they can track, include monitoring the speed of the trucks or if two of your trucks are co-located. Also, directions from the office can keep a technician from getting lost and delaying a service call.

The fact that reports can be generated -- providing any truck's location at any hour, going back days or weeks -- is powerful information.

What The Owners Say

Mike Council of Mike Council Plumbing ,San Jose, Calif. (with eight trucks), sums it up this way: " I love GPS."

Though he admits he is relatively new in the business, he had heard about the unauthorized use of trucks as an industry problem. He didn't want any moonlighting at his company, and now there isn't any.

He has already had an experience with a moonlighting job. He confirmed the system's effectiveness; "We caught it and stopped it. Everybody knows we know where the truck is."

Mike bought the Secure Core Wireless System and is happy with it, despite a few setbacks. He explains, "We have had a few system crashes, but the company came out right away and fixed it. We use the three-minute interval for tracking, although the system will track a truck every three seconds if you need it. That much data seems to overload the system. Also, we don't use the alpha-numeric screens in the trucks like some companies do."

Rather than buy the system outright, Mike opted for the lease program, adding, "It's only about $59 a month per truck." He had to pay a $100 installation fee and elected to add a separate computer for the system, avoiding any conflict with other company data. He gets his reports off the screen but plans to connect a printer soon, since he can print any report he needs. He didn't set up the map feature for lost technicians.

Would he recommend it to other service companies? "I would absolutely recommend it. It's getting better all the time," he said without hesitation. His view is that it pays for itself in the comfort of knowing where his trucks are -- and the technicians know he knows.

Marc Hess also purchased the Secure Core Wireless for his company, Action Plumbing. He supports his decision based on the fact he gets radios, too, "For $15 a month more than just the radios alone, why not get it?" He continued, "It keeps our guys honest and more productive."

Marc's partner Russ Keller confirmed the system was cost-effective, but noted the dispatchers and office manager do not use it as much as he and Marc do. They plan to increase the reliance on the system; old habits change slowly.

Marc and Russ didn't tell the technicians they had the GPS system at first (it's a decision you must make), and they immediately caught and disciplined an employee logging out of a job on the timesheet three hours after the truck left the site. No more of that, now that all the technicians know.

Problems they have had? Their system crashed a few times, but was repaired promptly. Other wishes they had: "It would be nice if it was integrated into our dispatch system; we have a separate system." They have not experienced much resistance from technicians.

John Malcolm of Mr. Rooter, Corvina, Calif., decided to use the Web-based @Roads system. He agreed their GPS has paid for itself.

"We already recovered one vehicle from unauthorized use. And it helps in accident reports in case someone says our truck was speeding." But after a year of owning it he admits, "It has a lot more features than I know about." His dispatchers use it without hesitation.

New Directions

Supplementing the already capable systems seems to be the new direction in GPS systems. Though not every user appears to use all the features, many suggest it would be nice to integrate the system into their other management information systems.

Business owners expressed a concern, though not much in the way of actual incidents, about the ease in which the units can be disconnected. So additional security would be nice.

Though it is not without some problems, it seems GPS is the cost effective way to keep track of your trucks (and let the technicians know you are doing so). The systems, according to our discussions with users:

  • Pay for themselves by avoiding the problems of moonlighting and unauthorized truck use;
  • Experience some breakdowns, but are usually fixed by the vendor promptly;
  • Seem to catch employees violating company policy at most locations where they are installed (all users we spoke with had caught violations of policy at least once);
  • All of the service business owners we spoke with would recommend it;
  • Techs, generally don't have a big problem with it -- unless they intend to moonlight or violate company policies for truck use;
  • Most of the systems have more features than you will use;
  • Integrating the system into dispatch and accounting are desirable;
  • Integrating the GPS with radios adds a cost-savings;
  • Better protection/security from disconnection would be nice.
You have an introduction to GPS. If you want to know where your trucks are, I can't think of a better way. Technology helps us run our businesses once again.