New technology offers field technicians access to all office records.

A field technician completes a service call, exchanges pleasantries with the customer and asks for a favor: "May I please use your telephone?"

There are probably still some small operators of service and repair companies who have their technicians use the customer's telephone to check in and receive dispatch instructions to the next job - and there likely will always be such companies, letting technology pass them by. However, those are not the companies that will lead the industry in the coming years of increased competition and, potentially, shrinking margins. Today, to keep up (and lead), service and repair companies need to be aware of the latest advances in technology and automation. If you are unaware of what's out there, you may be missing opportunities to increase the efficiency of your dispatching, your technicians and possibly even your call takers - essentially, the whole field service team.

So you can catch up to the rapidly changing technology, I'll review some of the newest applications of high-tech gear. What is particularly interesting is both the application of existing technology, and combinations of technology and low-cost solutions.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Before I review some new possibilities for your business, I want you to be aware that knowing what is available is only part of the process. Business owners should not purchase new communications or information technology equipment simply because it's there. Nor should they buy it without a plan to use it. For example, who will train your people in using it? How difficult will it be to use? And exactly what will we save in time and costs?

You will need to make your own determinations of cost and the benefits you'll receive. I suggest you compare the performance of your current system, including costs over the long run, to an updated system. Only then will you know you are receiving a good return on your investment.

What Do The "Big Guys" Use?

Since the biggest companies that use field service technicians typically can save the most by streamlining their call taking, dispatching and customer service processes, it's worth taking a look at which new technologies and new procedures they have selected. Naturally, they often have huge budgets, too, but let's see what solutions they picked.

One example of a huge network of field technicians is MCI. Not long ago the company discovered that significant increases in business meant a linear increase in personnel. For instance, if the company added several technicians in a regional office MCI found it would need to add more dispatchers, etc. The goal was to keep the number of support personnel to a minimum while adding technicians. MCI had so much new business it was doubling the size of its field force. Adding a corresponding number of dispatchers and other office people was going to be difficult - not to mention the expense of training them. Technology saved them.

Key Elements To The System

The technicians needed:

  • Dispatch information.

  • Data about the customer.

  • The ability to send data to the office.

To meet those needs, MCI implemented a system that combined two existing technology solutions. First, the company outfitted the technicians' trucks with laptop computers. The laptops had the capability of logging onto the Internet using a wireless communication system - the second bit of technology required. The third element of the system was the software that permitted dispatch data and information about the customer. Generally, this software was proprietary, developed as a custom installation for the individual company.

System Advantages

In using the system, technicians would connect to the Internet using a wireless connection on their laptop, open the software and receive (and send) all the data necessary for an efficient service call.

Other well-known, successful applications of this three-way technology include Sears' and IBM's systems. Their systems saved the dispatcher and the technician time, plus they improved customer service. Since much more data was available to the technician (past service calls, equipment specs, etc.), and because it was available instantly, they could better meet their customers' needs.

Sounds great, but how can these nationwide systems help us? Thanks to the pioneers of the larger, more costly systems, we can appreciate what such combinations of technology could mean to streamlining our dispatching process and improving our customer service with better dissemination of data - practically anything the technician needs. All we need is an economical system that performs the same functions, is easy to use and can be operational in a few days. Too good to be true? Not any longer.

Next Level Of Technology

The barrier keeping smaller companies from using the combination of laptop, wireless communication system and Internet to effectively dispatch calls (and improve office efficiency) has primarily been the cost of the laptops and expensive, custom-designed software. The big systems worked well but would be too costly for a smaller business. And a major effort was necessary to train all the people using the systems. We can't spare our technicians for more than a day or two or we begin to suffer. Simply waiting for prices to come down was not going to be the answer; there had to be at least one breakthrough.

The answer turned out to be a combination of equipment and software supplied by many companies. The breakthrough was in the form of new hardware, new operating system software and universally applicable operations software.

New Hardware

Maybe it was predictable that we would see smaller, powerful computers. They are called handhelds (HPCs). Surprisingly enough, they offer several advantages over both traditional PCs and laptops. Since they have no hard drive, they are more rugged and smaller. Best of all, they are cheaper. A few AA batteries and they operate all day, compared to a few hours for laptops. No mouse, roller ball or any similar pointing device is required because these machines have touch screens. You couldn't ask for anything simpler: a technician could tap it with a pencil to make selections. Get this: Customers can even sign their name on the screen for authorizations.

Don't confuse these machines with palm computers - made by only a few manufacturers - such as the PalmPilot or 3Com units. Several manufacturers, including Hewlett Packard, Casio and Sharp, offer them. They have been in the marketplace about a year, and prices are dropping.

Accessories, such as bar code or credit card scanners, make the new machine even more flexible. They will also connect to many common printers, if you want to print forms or data. Considering their cost, the benefits and flexibility they offer, HPCs are not only a bargain, but also a key component in the latest field automation systems.

Operating System Software

To maximize the power of the HPCs, operating software system was necessary. Ideally, it would be a widely available system that was standardized and well supported. Microsoft supplied the answer with a variant of the Windows operating system called Windows CE. They estimate that they will eventually have 120 million users.

The software was specifically developed for task applications - instead of general office use. The software is created like a series of building blocks, which can be assembled in combinations, as needed. Minimal training is required because its interface resembles the traditional Windows look and feel. It "turns on" instantly - no Windows delayed logon. It saves power in a "sleep" mode, but returns to life instantly when data is requested or input or when a message is received.

The availability of this operating system simplifies and standardizes the use of HPCs in the field. With the largest software producer in the world behind it, users' confidence is assured. Sold at a fraction of the cost of the proprietary systems used by large companies, Windows CE is affordable for even the smallest companies.

Combining the Windows CE with an HPC makes up two-thirds of a new, efficient and cost-effective field service automation system. All that is left is the mobile software solution, one program for the office and one for the technician on their HPC.

With a new field automation system, dispatchers can send maps, service records, technical information or just about anything else. Combining the HPC, Windows CE software and operational software produces a system that was unavailable and unaffordable little more than a year ago.

It's an easier decision to automate field service when you look at the benefits, especially improvements in customer service. You also get faster (instant) data transfer and messaging. Totaling up hardware, software and wireless charges, the costs run about $250 per technician per month. Given a productivity increase of about 20 percent, most companies find their investment is returned in six to nine months. Compare that to your cell phone, FM radio or other communication system. When you consider that many users of these systems report more business and a competitive edge, it looks even better.