How giving technicians access to your dispatch schedule and service software improves communication, streamlines billing and increases productivity.

What if your technicians could take your service software on the road? What would this mean for your service organization? To your company's profitability?

Most likely, this would mean better communications between key personnel -- the dispatchers in the office and the technicians in the field. Your technicians would experience less downtime and more billable hours. Invoicing your customers for service work would happen immediately upon completion of the job. And your customer service would improve, leading to repeat business and referrals.

Wireless, mobile service software is not a futuristic capability. There is technology available today that gives technicians the ability to share information with your office in real time. This technology gives them access to their schedules from your dispatch board (including any changes that are made throughout the day). It also gives them access to other service software features, such as the ability to view, complete and update their work orders. But before taking a detailed look at this capability, let's look at the workings of a typical plumbing and mechanical service business.

A Familiar Scenario

XYZ Co. is a plumbing and mechanical contracting firm with a busy service division. Incoming service calls are routed to the dispatchers who schedule the work on the dispatch board.

Each morning, the technicians arrive at the office to pick up their service schedules for the day. Their printed schedules are accompanied by paper work orders for each job assigned. With schedules and work orders in hand, the technicians hop in their trucks and head off to the field. The downtime has already begun and the day has barely started.

Service dispatching is a dynamic process. The schedules that were printed for the technicians in the morning are likely to change as the day progresses. Emergency calls come in, scheduled service gets rescheduled, jobs take more or less time than allowed, and the list goes on.

Although these changes are expected, the challenge is communicating them between the office and the field. XYZ's technicians all are equipped with cellular phones and pagers. But these are not infallible modes of communication. Pages are sometimes ignored and cell phones go unanswered.

When technicians do return calls, the person who originally contacted them may be tied up with another call or away from their desk. The clock is ticking as more downtime accrues. But schedule changes and communication woes aren't the only challenges facing XYZ Co.

Seemingly unavoidable billing delays are another snag in the workflow. Completed work orders return to the office in batches. The accounting staff is then faced with the often-daunting task of deciphering the hand-written records so data can be entered and customers can be billed. This deciphering leads to questions and the accounting staff gets a taste of the communication difficulties experienced by the dispatchers when trying to reach the technicians for clarification.

Days, or even weeks, might go by between completion of a service call and the actual invoicing for the work performed. This billing delay naturally leads to a delay in payment by XYZ Co.'s customers.

Although they might not like it, XYZ Co. accepts these challenges as a standard part of their service business. It may not be a perfect system, but it's the status quo.

What happens to XYZ Co.'s service division when it discovers -- and implements -- mobile computing? Let's take a look as a new workflow process is established.

There Is A Better Way

XYZ Co. already uses state-of-the-art accounting and dispatching software. Now, they also use integrated mobile service software.

Incoming service calls still get routed to the dispatchers, who schedule the work on the dispatch board. But now, instead of coming into the office to pick up their schedules for the day, the technicians retrieve their schedules simply by turning on their wireless handheld devices.

In a moment, the technicians have access to their work orders. They can drill into the details of a work order, review a jobsite's work order history and read notes relating to the currently scheduled work.

Instantly, they know more about their jobs than they ever thought possible. What's more, they didn't incur downtime to get that knowledge and they didn't handle a single sheet of paper.

    Improved Communication -- XYZ's dispatch schedule still changes. But communication between the office and the field is no longer a challenge. Because of real-time synchronization, changes made to the dispatch board at the office are immediately available to the technicians in the field. Instant messaging between the two offers a clear course of communication, without phone tag or downtime.

    Streamlined Billing -- As technicians finish jobs, they complete the work orders using handheld devices. Hours, materials, notes and any additional work recommended all are recorded. Point-and-click look-ups, drop-down menus and predefined descriptions simplify data entry.

    After capturing customer signatures for work performed, the work orders are updated and transferred back to the office. This data transfer changes the status of the work orders on the dispatch board and lets the dispatchers know when the technicians are moving from one job to the next. It also allows them to intercept the technicians and change their destination if warranted.

    Meanwhile, back in accounting, the completed work orders have arrived electronically. Integration ensures all the details needed for billing are complete and accurate. No longer having to decipher handwriting or duplicate hand-written data entry, the accounting staff is able to immediately invoice the customers -- often on the same day the service was performed.

    The office maintains complete control over the billing process, but the workflow is significantly streamlined.

    Increased Productivity -- Integrated mobile service computing can increase staff productivity all around. For the dispatchers, this is accomplished via real-time communication with the field -- all day, every day. For the technicians, increased productivity is due to less downtime, better job information and the reduction of paperwork. And for the accounting staff, mobile service means the elimination of duplicate data entry and faster invoicing.

    Mobile service software also can contribute to increased customer satisfaction, which is essential for repeat business and referrals. By having direct access to the customer's work order history, the technicians are better prepared to troubleshoot issues and answer questions. And, since notes regarding additional work recommended are immediately sent to the office when the current job is done, scheduling and follow-up can happen right away.

What To Look For

Before implementing mobile computing, it's important to do some research. When evaluating packages, keep in mind that wireless integration is key. Mobile service software needs to be fully integrated with your dispatch and accounting systems -- in real-time -- in order for you to realize the communication, productivity and billing benefits. Features worth exploring include:
  • Ease of use. How easy is it to maneuver through the mobile software? Can a technician be up and running with minimum training? Jumping from the dispatch board to a specific work order or from site details to data entry should be quick and intuitive. Online help within the software provides a safety net for those in the field.

  • Viewing options and drill-downs. Access to history and current job details is important. Current work order specifics, site information, work order history, service contract information, equipment details and more should be readily available. Drill-down capability within these areas provides even more information.

  • Data entry. Look for features that speed data entry, such as drop-down menus, predefined tasks and preset user-defined notes. The ability to enter unlimited free-form notes and to make on-the-fly adjustments to items such as predefined tasks is also important.

  • Instant messaging. This is the feature that bypasses phone tag. Communication between the office and the field becomes seamless with instant messaging capability.

  • Signature capture. A service call isn't really complete until the customer signs off on it. For a truly paperless transaction, make sure technicians can capture the customer signatures directly onto their handheld devices.
For plumbing and mechanical contractors, taking service software on the road promises improved communication, streamlined billing and increased staff productivity. This translates to more billable technician hours, less wasted time at the office, faster customer invoicing and a more profitable service organization.