Wireless technology can meet any company's size and needs to help revolutionize the way it does business.

Wireless advances have evolved at such a dizzying pace people have barely had time to check their pagers and cell phones for the satellite update. Now we're in an era where we can check e-mail from the grocery line and pull up maps and directions while stalled at a red light. While many wireless innovations are great in ways of frivolous convenience, the real gold mine lies in their potential benefit for your business.

The problem for many companies is how to tie together all these wireless features to make them most efficient. Countless plumbing professionals countrywide have hinged their operations on software that streamlines this frenzy of wireless technology, which, without direction, has just as much power to sink a business as it does to vault it. Many service companies spanning in size and needs already have chosen ideal systems from the array of options and revolutionized their business in the process.

Automatic Vehicle Location: Although many companies regard automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems as too elaborate or expensive for their operations, savings that come from eliminating employee and customer scams and trimming excess gas and insurance costs often give companies return on investment within a year.

Automatic vehicle location systems are based on a global positioning system (GPS), which uses a satellite to identify real-time updates of vehicle speed and location. Regardless of customized packages, the most basic system usually includes these features:

  • Real-time display of vehicle movements;
  • Latitudinal and longitudinal vehicle location with street address;
  • Vehicle speed;
  • Maps capable of identifying a city, address and landmark;
  • Ability to zoom in or out of a specific location.
These basic functions make business significantly easier for many customers, including Peter Fazio Jr., one of the owners of P.J. Fazio Plumbing and Heating Inc. in Roselle, Ill. Fazio installed Teletrac's WinFleet automatic vehicle location system in 1996 for 12 trucks and has found its ability to pull up landmarks invaluable.

"One real nice difference is years ago, someone would call and say, 'I need to find the closest supply house to where I'm at,'" Fazio recalled. "Well, where are you? First they'd have to describe where they were, then I'd have to go through a book of all our suppliers. It'd be guesswork on which one to go to, whereas now, this equipment lets you set up landmarks.

"What I've done is mapped out landmarks of all the supply houses we have accounts with. I go to the screen, do a 'locate' of the vehicle, and the system tells me the address and phone number of the supply house. Then I can give him specific directions so he can't get lost."

Many automatic vehicle location packages come with terminals to be installed in vehicles so technicians can view messages and then respond to dispatch. Pre-established messages, or "canned messages," let the driver acknowledge that information was received and send updates about work status.

Tamper-proof precautions, such as hidden antennas and shrink-wrapped, silicone-covered hardware and connections, deter destructive techs who think that some tinkering and yanking will destroy the Teletrac signal. Companies usually lease this equipment as part of a package that also includes air time, software and general maintenance. Per business day, Teletrac usually runs customers about $1.45 to $3 per truck, but the cost drops significantly after the 36-month equipment and initial software lease expires.

Nip Trouble In The Bud

Besides choosing better routes for your trucks and sending the closest vehicle on a call, basic and more advanced features of the system help curtail dishonest customers and employees alike.

One customer shared at Teletrac's Web site, www.teletrac.net, that installing the system at his plumbing company helped combat dishonest employees who were exploiting a time-card system based on the honor code. The money saved from inaccurate employee time-card reports paid for the Teletrac system in less than a year.

Integrated Systems Research Inc. offers another automated vehicle location system, the ISR FleetTrack AVL. Les Gilbert, owner and manager of Miami, Fla.-based Tri-County Plumbing Services, said FleetTrack has exceeded every one of his high expectations, not to mention given him peace of mind.

"Nowadays, you have to be scared to death if you've got trucks on the road," Gilbert said. "I've heard of people losing their businesses because one of their drivers decided to take their truck in the middle of the night and then kill somebody in an accident. This is not the exception - it happens."

Some of the more advanced features on an automated vehicle location system alert the company if a vehicle is taken outside a specified zone outside of a specified time. This feature helps prohibit moonlighting or personal errands.

Customers who angrily call demanding to know where the driver is and when he will arrive may be pleasantly surprised to get an immediate response from the dispatcher pinpointing the exact intersection the driver is at right then. Other customers might be just as surprised to have their complaints about labor charges stymied by a solid report showing when the driver arrived and departed.

"You'll get customers who call up and say, 'Hey, your guy didn't get here until noon, and he left at this time, and he billed me for this," said Lee DuSold, Midwest market manager for Teletrac. "With this, you can say, 'Well, our van was in your driveway at 11:02 a.m. and was there until 1:35 p.m.' Because you have the location, it knocks down the customer complaint calls."

A Wireless Cornerstone

Wireless opportunities also abound for owners who'd simply like to take the wireless gadgets they already have and unify them somehow.

Sean Hoyt owns Computer PROcessing, which manufactures pcS2000WIN software as a wireless nexus for service repair companies. The pcS2000WIN is based on a dispatch board that interacts with alpha-numeric pagers and Nextel phones, which are cellular phones, pagers and two-way radios in one package. Hoyt estimates the majority of technicians already are using one of these two wireless gizmos, eliminating the need to buy additional hardware.

The cost of the software is about $12,000, according to Hoyt, but costs might run slightly higher for installation, training and maintenance benefits.

"The typical cost of the software and installation is $15,000 to $20,000," Hoyt said. "You don't just buy the software. I can go buy a water heater down at Home Depot, but do you think I'll get it installed as well as a plumber?"

Companies can customize the type of information technicians receive on their wireless devices. Hoyt said typically, many companies send customer contact information, such as name, address and phone number, in addition to general comments about the job. Some businesses accompany comments with problem codes or customer payment methods.

"From the dispatch board, if I make just one click, I can send information to your alpha pager," Hoyt explained. "You didn't interrupt me in traffic, I can't write anything down wrong, and you didn't suck up time on the telephone. We cut down the dispatcher's time, we cut down the service tech's time, and nobody makes mistakes. Done, boom, within seconds."

Companies out of the wireless loop and starting from scratch especially can benefit from incorporating new technology into their businesses.

Ron Bond, a contractor in Sioux City, Iowa, said Wenn/Soft Inc.'s Service Management Series helped give his company a foundation to work from.

"We did not have an automated system," recalled Bond. "My service manager was responsible for dispatching out of a three-ring binder. He wrote down calls and tried to keep track of the file as best he could, but I don't need to say that I was missing a lot of business. We just missed opportunities."

The Service Management Series gives dispatchers immediate access to warranty and service history, equipment information and contract information usually stored inconveniently in a file cabinet. With this type of wireless solution, dispatchers can pull a customer's information and service history, and, depending on how the system is customized, send it instantly to technicians so they know what to expect at the job.

A bulk amount of information like this usually is stored best on wireless PCs that can be hand held or installed in the truck. Itronix is one company specializing in producing these ultra-rugged devices that can sustain unusual and harsh conditions. With rugged hardware, clumsy and unlucky technicians alike can watch their PCs crash to the floor, soak in a spilled can of pop or bake in the sunlight without worrying about an extra dispatch to the repair center.

Won't Beat 'Em, Better Join 'Em

As wireless technology permeates society, joining the trend will become less about looking cool in the grocery line and more about capturing a competitive edge in your business.

In the United States, 48 million users can benefit from wireless data, according to a study done by the Yankee Group, a computer and telecommunications analyst firm, and cited at the MobileInfo Web site. MobileInfo also included a statistic from the Strategis Group, estimating that by the year 2010, there will be 1 billion wireless subscribers worldwide.

With wireless improvements so widespread, customers will be less willing to deal with companies dragging behind competitors who opted for wireless improvements.

"When I'm making a service call, I don't want to hear 'Just a minute, my computer's slow," Hoyt said. "I want to hear you say, 'We were just out there three weeks ago, right?' You should be interacting with the computer fast enough and easy enough."

Every minute, wireless capabilities are making that kind of service the standard, not the exception.

For more information on how these wireless solutions can work for your company, call or browse these companies' Web sites:

Computer PROcessing: 800/643-1339 or www.s2000win.com
Integrated Systems Research (ISR): 800/477-5989 or www.isrfleettrack.com
Itronix: 800/441-1309 or www.itronix.com
Teletrac: 800/835-3872 or www.teletrac.net
Wenn/Soft Inc.: 262/821-4100 or www.wennsoft.com

Advanced AVL System Capabilities

Event-based tracking - Triggers an alarm when drivers enter or leave a pre-designated zone under established date and time parameters.

Stand-still alarm - Alerts dispatchers when problems arise from mechanical failures or congested traffic.

Speed alarm - Signals speed violations to help eliminate speeding-related accidents and tickets.

Reporting - Isolates data for a one or more vehicles, drivers and dates.

Customizable mapping - Designed to operate using symbols, zones and texts specific to individual companies.