Wouldn’t it be great to just push a key on a computer keyboard and know the location of every service truck you have? And their average speed when being driven? Or their exact route? Dispatching would be a dream.

Almost seems like science fiction, doesn’t it? But it’s a reality today thanks to the latest space age technology. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology relies on a constellation of satellites orbiting the earth. These satellites beam a continuous signal 24 hours a day, seven days a week. By picking up these signals and comparing the distances to different satellites, a position anywhere on the globe can be quickly determined.

All this data is available — at a price. The receivers themselves are not that expensive. Generally, they are combined with two other elements:

  • Special software keeps track of all the trucks on the system and records and recalls their whereabouts at any selected time.
  • The data must be transmitted to the computer so you’ll also need some communications equipment, such as digital telephone lines.

Plus, you need receivers in every truck you want to keep track of. Obviously, you’ll need to budget time and money for training your dispatchers and technicians on using this new technology. When you combine the communications gear, hardware and software, you have a system that may cost six or seven figures.

Due to the high cost, most customers opt to buy a monthly locator service. Typically, such users pay the company providing the data a monthly fee and a charge for each inquiry. Charges vary with the level of service you contract for and the number of trucks, but could run more than $1,000 per month — and that doesn’t include the inquiry fees.

Although it may be interesting, maybe even amusing, for you to locate your trucks any time of the day or night, what really counts is whether you get as much financial advantage from the system as it costs you. Let’s look at reasons why a service company may want to use a locator system:

On the most basic level, technicians driving trucks occasionally get lost or have trouble finding directions to a customer’s house. In my opinion, you can just get the simple GPS units without the sophisticated reporting and tracking system to meet that need.

Keeping Track

A much more important consideration is policing where your trucks go. Are technicians spending time at the grocery store or bank or, worse, moonlighting with the truck? To me, however, that raises other management issues.

If discipline is a problem, I think the problem is not automatically solved just because you can detect your technicians’ whereabouts and prove it. That’s an issue that must be addressed with technicians when they start working for the company. Using an expensive locator system for disciplinary action seems extravagant and may give honest technicians the feeling of being spied on. That’s a decision you’ll have to make — based on both economic reasons and management policy.

We minimize some of these concerns by implementing other management policies. For example, we pay our people on an incentive basis rather than just by the hour. They know the more work they complete the more money they make. So it is unlikely to find our technicians doing errands or sitting around someplace while on company time. They are eager to complete all the jobs that need doing at the customer’s home, then get to the next job, where they will earn more by completing more tasks. Using technology to gather data is not a solution for a fundamental management or discipline problem.

Most companies, however, do have a need to identify the locations of their trucks — if for no other reason than to schedule a technician for a nearby service call. The more trucks a company has the more complex this scheduling job becomes. Accurate and timely information about the location of each service truck improves the dispatch department’s flexibility and allows for better customer service.

In larger companies in large cities it makes more sense to be able to quickly pinpoint the location of any truck for the next service call. And it probably makes more economic sense, too. Be aware, though, that it adds a new range of tasks for the dispatch operation.

Simpler Option

We have more than 50 trucks and are in a large metropolitan area, but we can use a simpler, less costly system than one that can tell us where any truck is at any given time. The decision for us was a combination of economics and our management system, which has some monitoring built in. Let me describe what we use and that may help you get a perspective on the tasks that need to be accomplished and the choices available to accomplish them.

We have tried cell phones, radios with all technicians on the same frequency and many other methods to dispatch and keep track of the locations of our trucks. The challenge has been to meet our goals and keep costs down at the same time.

Cell phones are handy but charges add up rapidly — particularly if they are your primary method of communicating with technicians in the field. Oftentimes, the ability to speak at length with the dispatcher was a disadvantage. We didn’t want extensive discussions over why that technician was assigned that particular service call, etc. So we have limited cell phone use.

In addition, open radio channels seemed to invite criticism from technicians on job assignments, too. There was too much chatter. What we needed was to send specific information to each technician for the service call. And we didn’t want to encourage second-guessing of the calls, or even what type of call was assigned.

What we have determined to be the most cost-effective system was a combination of an alphanumeric pager and an economical mobile radio. Specific job assignments are delivered by pager. The technician has the address of his next service call displayed on the pager. The technician can then use his radio to notify the dispatcher when he has arrived at the customer’s home. We also have him call before completing the job so our dispatch department knows he is ready for the next service appointment.

Our dispatcher has a computer with software that assists him in keeping track of each job in progress and a list of the jobs scheduled, so he can assign a technician. We also provide him with the training and certification background of the available technicians so he can have all the information he needs to assign the right technician for the job. The location of each job is displayed so he knows where each technician and service truck is, simplifying his choice for assigning technicians to new jobs.

Like any service and repair business, we need to know the location of our trucks. Given the current alternatives and costs, we have implemented some control factors that assist us in our planning and discipline requirements. For example, we call the customer after the job is completed and confirm the job was done properly and the time the technician was there.

The call supports our strong effort to maintain customer service and quality control. In addition, the call serves as backup data for maintaining control of our trucks. We are confident that our technicians rarely misuse our trucks.

To minimize the difficulty in finding customer’s addresses, we provide our technicians with map books that permit easy identification of streets anywhere in the many hundreds of square miles we serve.

I know that some day all trucks will be equipped with GPS units. Not long after that the fee for monitoring systems, for even a small number of trucks, will be financially irresistible. It will be a question of how great a need managers have to track their trucks and what they are willing to pay for that information. I have shared my analysis, you’ll have to do one for your company.