Workplace Culture

Field (Service) of Dreams

By Michelle Rafter

Oct. 11, 2011

Village Realty manages 600 rental units throughout North Carolina’s Outer Banks, using a full-time staff of more than 10 field technicians to make service calls and perform minor repairs. During vacation season, the Nags Head-based rental company brings on extra maintenance workers and 300 house cleaners. The company gives field technicians BlackBerrys to connect with office administration staff, and relies on an amalgam of software to schedule, dispatch and track them and othviver workers.

When it comes to managing field-service crews, Village Realty is typical of many companies straddling old and new. They arm field crews with smartphones and the latest mobile devices, but use a mishmash of proprietary or Web-based software, GPS, email and manual systems for tasks such as scheduling, dispatch, tracking and workforce planning.

It’s safe to say that mobile devices and Web-based applications are transforming field-service management. How quickly that’s happening is up for debate. Scott Dutton, mobile field service product management director for Denver-based CSG International estimates that 80 percent of his customers’ 35,000 total field-service workers use CSG apps from a cell phone. “I would guess within the next year or two, 40 to 50 percent will use tablets” such as the iPad, he says.

Sumair Dutta, senior research analyst in Aberdeen Group’s service management practice, believes adoption will be much slower. “It’s still about 25 percent of companies saying they’re looking to increase [tablet use] in the next 12 months or beyond,” he says. For field-service work, the most widely-used device is still the standard cellphone, followed by a basic laptop computer, he says. But companies know they need to improve. In a January 2011 Aberdeen survey, 56 percent of organizations with leading-edge field-service management practices said investing in mobile technology was critical for improving performance.

Dutton, Dutta and other industry watchers agree that mobile devices’ popularity has helped the ranks of field-service management vendors swell. Many of the players are offering their tools in the “cloud,” as a service delivered over the Web, which promises lower upfront costs and easy access from mobile devices with Internet capabilities.

Some software-makers are branching out from specific industry niches, such as CSG International from telecommunications and cable TV and WennSoft from construction. Vendors such as Oracle, SAP and Tigerpaw Software Inc. sell field-service management systems as part of larger business software or customer relationship management, or CRM, application suites. Smaller specialty vendors such as ClickSoftware and BlueFolder Inc. sell cloud-based mobile apps primarily to small and midsize customers. Vehicle fleet management software developers such as USFleetTracking include scheduling modules within their GPS-based fleet monitoring systems.

Big Returns on Mobile Investments

Companies aren’t going mobile because it’s trendy. Both anecdotal evidence and industry research show that automating scheduling and management helps field-service workers be more efficient, resulting in better productivity and customer service. Companies also are using new technologies to cut fuel and manpower costs by routing service calls more effectively and minimizing unnecessary customer visits.

Some managers use GPS-based tracking programs to make sure trucks roll along the best routes and technicians are where they’re supposed to be. Village Realty has a system from GPS fleet-tracking technology provider NexTraq installed in all the company’s vehicles, primarily to optimize assigning work orders. But the company also uses it to verify “that technicians are where they’re writing in that they are,” and executives also review the information from time to time, says information technology coordinator Aubrey Sharp.

But the technology hasn’t been the Big Brother some worried it would become. “A couple years ago, there would have been more push back,” Dutta says. “But organizations are doing a better job of explaining why they’re using GPS, so it’s not just ‘We know where you are,’ but to improve technicians’ life, so they’re not stuck in traffic, and for safety.” It’s also being used for customer compliance, so if someone falsely accuses a technician of missing an appointment, a company can prove that they were there, he says.

Village Realty is upgrading to a custom vacation rental software program that integrates the company’s GPS system with software used to schedule seasonal house cleaners. “So if a guest calls and we don’t have clean towels and the light doesn’t work,” the staff can get all the information in one place, says Sharp, who hopes it’s just the beginning of coming changes.

If Village Realty represents the middle of the pack, Vivint Inc. exemplifies how early adopters have used mobile devices and Web-based apps to optimize their field-service workforce and save a bundle. The one-time home security systems seller recently expanded into energy management and home automation services. As it expanded, the Provo, Utah, business doubled its field-service workforce, to 695 technicians in the United States and Canada. To get ready to manage a crew that today performs 150,000 installations annually, Vivint two years ago worked with an outside consultant to upgrade manual systems. The partners chose a ClickSoftware suite that, among other things, automates appointment bookings and scheduling, pushes work orders to field-service workers in real time and notifies customers when a technician is on the way. As part of the upgrade, Vivint gave all its technicians BlackBerrys, which run on a dedicated computer server at the company’s headquarters.

The system cost just under $1 million for software, phones and information technology time, and took the better part of 10 months to get up and running, including six months of full-time work for Vivint field service director Scott Taylor. But in the first six months alone, the company saved four and a half times that amount on lower fuel costs, fewer calls to the company’s call center, and higher field-tech productivity. “My techs went from doing 22 work orders in a 10-day pay period to 33,” Taylor says. By November, Vivint expects to upgrade to an enterprise version of the same software with support for iPads and other mobile devices.

Despite innovations such as those Vivint has adopted, some companies’ field-service management remains decidedly low tech. At WeatherSure Systems Inc., a Colorado roof repair and waterproofing business, field crews could work on three to 10 jobs a day or be on one roof replacement for three months. “We just stay in touch via phones, though we have GPS in trucks,” says Dave Homerding, WeatherSure’s marketing manager.

Wisconsin Wireless Communications Corp.’s enterprise systems group sells, installs and maintains wireless data networks and other high-end enterprise technologies to businesses and public institutions in the Upper Midwest. The company tracks customer service tickets through CRM software from Tigerpaw Software and puts GPS in its service fleet. But 23 field technicians still are dispatched manually. “They schedule [themselves] when we dispatch,” says Brad Christenson, the company’s field service manager. “It’s on them … to take care of it.”

Analysts predict that companies such as WeatherSure and Wisconsin Wireless will upgrade as more tablets hit the market, prices drop and software makers migrate to HTML 5, an operating system upgrade that lets mobile apps work on any hand-held device. “The Web is headed in that direction, and when HTML 5.1 or 5.5 comes out we’ll develop for that as well,” says Sam Sims, USFleetTracking marketing and public relations director. “As the Web migrates so do we.”

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with


Join over 52,000 of your HR peers

Don't miss out on the latest tactics and insights at the forefront of HR.