These days, everybody’s talking about putting technology to work in your business. If you look around the industry you’ll see trucks with technicians carrying laptop computers, cell phones and the latest in communications gear. Some businesses even have data transmission capabilities available in their trucks. Are those of us who don’t have all this equipment missing out; are we running an inefficient business, soon to be eclipsed by those competitors with the “latest and greatest?”

Let me give you my view of what technology can offer and how we use modern communications equipment.

When businesses switched to computers some years ago, the conventional wisdom was to buy the best you could afford and then try to keep up with upgrades in hardware and software. As long as you could afford the latest improvements, it seemed they paid off in increases in productivity. Fortunately, prices on hardware came down so you could purchase better and faster machines, even if you didn’t always have the machines on the leading edge of technology.

However, lately there has been a dramatic increase in what is available and the cost of keeping up with the most recent improvements. Now, I believe, the decision on what to buy should depend not on what’s new and exciting in the way of technology, but what can improve the way you do business. The criteria I think are important would include ways to better dispatch technicians, better account for jobs completed and parts used, just to mention a few.

Instead of focusing on the technology to adopt, we have found that it’s more important to first zero in on our procedures. Once these are efficiently defined, we can select the technology to accomplish what we need done in the most efficient and — sometimes it is easy to forget this part — the most cost-effective manner.

The Process: By reviewing the way we process customer service calls, you’ll see how we selected the equipment we did. In fact, one of our most effective devices costs only a few dollars a month. It’s a simple pager. Here’s how we use it:

Rather than use expensive two-way radios or cell phones or a central broadcasting type of system for dispatching technicians to jobs, we use alpha-numeric pagers. They provide all the data a technician needs to proceed to the next job — the name and address of the customer. They are simple, cheap and reliable. We avoid broadcasting the job assignment to all the technicians, which is what happens when you dispatch jobs over a radio on a common frequency. With our system, no one knows who was assigned what job. The technician who gets the job doesn’t even get information on the type of job it is. We do this intentionally to avoid some common problems.

By sending technicians only the information they really need, we avoid complaints and disputes over who got what job and how lucky or unlucky someone was to get a certain job. Additionally, we don’t permit the technician to prejudge a job before arriving. You could probably predict that a technician may become discouraged if he is told the job is a simple (read that “low pay”) drain stoppage instead of a more complex and financially rewarding job. We want our technicians to analyze all jobs and look around the customer’s home for work that legitimately needs to be done; not to be prejudiced and limited by the call taker’s description of the job.

Given our objectives, the low-cost pager works well. Is it high tech? I guess it is, but what is important is that the system works well and doesn’t cost much. Those goals are always high on my list, whether it means a high tech solution or not.

Centralized System: When the technician arrives at the customer’s home and again just before he completes the job he is working on, he calls our office. That way, we know he is on the job and we know when he is ready for another job. The data that the technician provides on his second call, right before he finishes, is important and is entered into a central computing system we have. He simply gives the dispatcher the task numbers of the jobs he completed, the computer does the rest.

Since we have a flat rate pricing system, those task numbers give us the information we need to: 1) compute his pay for the job; 2) set aside the parts used on the job in the warehouse, so his truck supplies can be replenished; 3) keep control of inventory in the warehouse; 4) maintain a very current record of sales (including sales by each technician) and 5) keep a record of which work was done for each customer. The warehouse person is alerted automatically to pull the needed parts and all the accounting data is already on file.

Within minutes of finishing his last job, the technician could pull up to the warehouse and load all the parts he used during the day into his truck.

The central computer system is the key to efficiency in our operations. It has allowed us to automate most of our office and record-keeping functions. Plus, it saves a significant amount of overhead because we only need a few office people to run the business. Between the integrated computer system that is networked in the company and the flat rate pricing structure we use, many of the tasks that were formerly performed manually are either eliminated or automated. That’s technology working well.

I have heard there are systems out there that can print invoices from a laptop computer and small, portable printer. Clearly, implementing that type of system uses more technology than we use with our pricing manual. Would it pay off for us? Although it might further automate our system, I think it is important for the customer to see where the price for the job came from. They like to see the price of the job in the price book. At this point, I think a laptop may intimidate some customers. Certainly, it wouldn’t maintain the comfort level we have established with our manuals. So from this perspective, “low tech” seems to work just fine. Remember, it’s not a maximum level of technology that you are searching for, it’s effective procedures that you can automate. In the case of in-truck laptops, I don’t see how they fit into our proven system — particularly when considering the extra expense of a few thousand dollars for each truck. I like technology but it has to pay for itself in productivity. If you don’t have proven and effective systems, no amount of technology will overcome your weakness.