Cell phones. They're with us all the time. And we use them all the time to talk … to co-workers, to family, to friends, to the cable guy, to the doctor, to the kids' teachers, etc. We can text-message on them, or take photos, or play games. But did you ever think you could use cell phones to pinpoint where your techs are, or have them quickly and safely process credit cards onsite?

Mobile location-based services are the new “in” thing for cell phones these days. While there has been a lackluster response in the consumer market for this technology, the business world sees the potential for it. The total U.S. enterprise market for such services is expected to grow to about 1.6 million users in 2007, says industry research firm Frost & Sullivan.

“Tangible return on investments through improved asset utilization, enhanced customer service, higher job completion rates, and overall improved business productivity has made enterprises more receptive to location-based services,” Frost & Sullivan states in a recent report.

And hardware solutions for these services are moving from conventional vehicle-mounted devices to hand-held systems such as cell phones. “Many companies are demanding the option of locating field and remote staff at any point of time whether or not they are in their vehicles,” the report notes.

Where's Waldo?

Conventional global positioning systems used by plumbing and mechanical contractors are black boxes installed on a service truck or company vehicle. They track a vehicle's position and speed; some systems provide diagnostics on the trucks. But these systems can cost thousands of dollars, plus a fairly high monthly fee.

A cell-phone-based system uses a GPS chip in the phone, and tracks the technician's position, as well as keeps track of time when he is on the job. It is much more practical and cost-effective than conventional systems, especially for small- to medium-sized companies - no equipment costs (unless you need to upgrade your phones), and an inexpensive monthly fee.

“The truck-mounted systems are really designed to track the asset - the truck or fleet that you have out in the field,” explains Joyce Kim, vice president of marketing at Aligo, which makes the WorkTrack™ system. “The cell phone systems are designed to track workers. Most carry cell phones today, so it isn't a new piece of equipment; it leverages something they already use as a tool out in the field.”

There are two activities that customers do with the cell-phone-based technology, she adds: tracking the phones/workers, and tracking the hours and activity of each worker.

Managers, supervisors and dispatchers can find out where their technicians are through a Web interface, so no software needs to be downloaded or installed. They can view a map that plots the location of each tech, and also mark a “geofence” around certain areas - areas where techs shouldn't be, or job areas to see when each tech arrives and leaves the jobsite. If a technician “breaks” the fence, the supervisor gets an e-mail, which states which worker it was and how long he or she was in the fenced area.

With a GPS chip in the phone, combined with a tracking application, managers and dispatchers can not only find out if their service techs are actually on the jobsite, but also how much time they spent on each job.

“Time sheet collection is a big hassle,” says Ananth Rani, co-founder and vice president of products and services for Xora, which makes the GPS TimeTrack product. “Our customers tell us that no one remembers the hours that they worked. But if you collect that data on the phone, it's more accurate. Voice communications and data applications in the same device are what make this such a powerful technology.”

And the system is easy to use. Once a tech starts his shift, he presses one button on his phone to open the application - a “start shift” button. This is when the GPS tracking of the tech begins. If he's automating his time sheet, he pushes another button. And to keep track of time on each job, he presses a “job start” button when he gets to his first call. (Each tech's jobs for the day are sent to his phone.)

At the end of the job, he presses a “job end” button, then goes to the next jobsite. When taking his lunch break, he presses “start lunch,” then “end lunch” when he is finished. Since this is personal time, the tech is not tracked, and the time is not attached to any job that he may still be working on.

The tech continues entering his job starts and ends until the end of the day, where he presses “shift end.” Employees are only tracked during their appointed shifts or when on an emergency call, although some owners may use the GPS if an employee takes a company vehicle home, Rani notes.

“It's like a time clock right on your side,” says, Sid Helmus, owner of Helmus Plumbing Services, Kalamazoo, Mich. “It doesn't take any more time to operate the phone than it would be to write down on a piece of paper your start and end times, like a written time card.”

Helmus started his business in 1987 and focuses on mostly new construction, although he does have three full-time service technicians. About 20 of his 25 employees are in the field, and began using the Xora system on their Nextel phones in July 2004.

He admits that he did have a problem getting his field personnel to use the time-tracking application consistently. “Before we started using this system, we found that the guys weren't keep track of their time every day anyway. They'd wait until the end of the week, and then try to remember how much time they spent on each job. How do you go back as a manager and analyze time cost reports? It's impossible. So we've found that, from an analytical point of view, this was a good system.”

One glitch in the system, he notes, is going back to a job once you've “ended” it, such as going to an emergency call, then going to back to the interrupted job. The system won't let the tech go back into the job that was interrupted because it has interpreted the job as completed. Helmus has figured out how to work around that by slightly altering the job address or number, then entering it as a “new” job that his tech can log on to. He says Xora has told him they are working on a fix for the problem.

Helmus did not have a GPS system on his trucks, so his technicians had some initial resistance to the idea of their movements being tracked. That “Big Brother is watching” idea can be a little disconcerting to all of us, and privacy issues seem to be constantly in the news. But the No. 1 reason Helmus purchased the system was to gain accountability from his field techs, which is not unreasonable since techs are paid by the actual hours they are on the job.

Once he implemented the system, he found that even his best people were fudging their time sheets occasionally. And one tech left the company because he didn't want to be accountable for his time.

To counter resistance to the technology, Rani says that employees “are simply told that this is a business tool,” that management is only tracking employees' whereabouts during working hours to improve the company's efficiency from a dispatch or customer service perspective.

Currently, Nextel and Sprint are the only phone service companies that have enabled this technology on their phones. Kim says that Cingular and Verizon may launch GPS capability on their phones sometime this year.

Charge It!

Plumbing and heating equipment such as high-end shower systems and boilers can be big-ticket items, and providing your customers the option of paying with a credit card makes it much easier to close a sale. Now it's even easier with a card “swiper” that attaches right to your tech's cell phone.

Harley Perry, owner of Perry Plumbing Co., National City, Calif., has used the MobileSwipe system from Semtek for about two years. He has six service and repair techs who used to either take a credit card impression on a slip (to be sent to the bank) or they would call in to the office, where the dispatcher would do it for them.

When he purchased the MobileSwipe units, many of his technicians didn't use it. “Then I let them know that it saves me about 50 percent of what we pay for bank charges,” he says. “I made them learn, and they started getting into it.”

Similar to the device used in retail stores, the swiper device plugs into the same outlet that the cell phone's battery charger does. Once the card is swiped, the information goes to the company's server, which then transfers it to the company's bank's payment processor. The technician will receive an authorization number from the processor in about two seconds, letting him know whether that customer has enough credit to pay for the purchase.

Instant payment - no invoicing, no hassle.

The only problem Perry has seen is if you are in an area with bad cell reception; then the processing unit is not going to work. But with all things technological, it doesn't hurt to have a back-up plan.

But what about security? In these days of credit card fraud and identity theft, your customers may be a little concerned about having their credit card numbers thrown willy-nilly into the wireless void, only to be plucked out of the air by a hacker wanting to purchase a new car or finance a vacation on someone else's dime.

Your customers have nothing to worry about, says Steve Cochran, Semtek's vice president of business development. “When the credit card is swiped on our device, it's encrypted immediately using an industry-standard encryption called triple DES. The data is encrypted before it even gets in the phone, before it goes over the airway. If that data was stolen, it's useless because it's encrypted.”

Currently, MobileSwipe works on about 30 Nextel phones, but Cochran says the company is in the process of introducing the technology to other carriers.

Processing savings are big, he says. The credit card companies charge more if a credit card is not present, such as when your service tech is calling in a customer's credit card number over the phone.

“Because someone on the other end of the line has to key that number into a computer, the banks charge about 1 percent, or 100 basis points, more for that kind of transaction vs. a transaction that's swiped in front of a customer,” Cochran explains. “There's a lot less fraud, a lot less risk to the bank with card-present transaction. On an $8 pizza transaction, it's not that big a deal. But on an $8,000 transaction, that's a lot of money.”