Equipping Technicians With Mobility: It’s Just the Beginning
Every day it seems as if there is one less thing mobile devices can’t do. Personal applications now range from restaurant guides to movie players to virtual fortune cookies. But professional applications that enhance productivity and efficiency are quickly catching up as mobile devices continue to prove their worth to businesses across the board. When it comes to security installers or service technicians in the field, some companies have jumped on cutting-edge mobile technology while others are still keeping the gloves on as issues such as data security and cost make that edge just too sharp.
Ackerman Security Systems, Atlanta, and ADS Security, Nashville, have not only implemented but participated in developing mobile programs along with their respective software providers to enhance their technicians’ performance as well as the productivity of other departments.
For the past year, Ackerman’s 35-plus technicians have all carried smart phones, which they use for scheduling, job costing and inventory, billing, and service work. Al Oliver, director of IT and special projects at Ackerman, says the use of smart phones has helped the company take technicians from completing four to five calls per day to an average of eight calls per day.
ADS has so far equipped 50 of its technicians with netbooks and will roll out units to its remaining 30 technicians this year. The netbooks are integrated with the company’s monitoring and dispatching software. John Cerasuolo, president and chief executive officer of ADS Security, commented that the primary driver for developing and implementing this system was a “desire to reduce our fleet costs and improve productivity by not having techs come into the office every day to handle lots of paperwork.” The company has seen a meaningful improvement in productivity and efficiency, confirmed by fuel consumption reduction, Cerasuolo says.
One way technicians can complete tasks remotely to improve efficiency is through real-time schedule updates. They access daily schedules and service tickets on their smart phones, but they also have the capability to “maneuver” the schedule to reduce down time, explains Bill Rawlings, director of operations at Ackerman. If a tech has free time in between calls, he can look at the schedule two weeks ahead and identify whether there is a customer nearby he can call to offer the service in advance.
During the service call itself, the technician has the capability to put a system on and off test mode from his smart phone or netbook, instead of calling the central station. In Ackerman’s case, once the work has been completed, credit card numbers and signatures are processed through the smart phone on-site, minimizing paperwork for the technician to file and data entry for the billing department, as well as collection issues. “We obtain approximately 80 percent of our collections during our service calls by the techs,” Rawlings says.
“What used to be our contract processing department is now contract verification department,” Oliver adds. That department is now solely responsible for verifying the data that arrives remotely from the technician at the customer’s location. By making this department more efficient, Ackerman has been able to maintain its employee numbers intact though it reported 20 percent growth in the past year.
Cerasuolo says ADS is looking to add credit card scanners and signature-capture capabilities as well as barcode scanners to process materials as they come off the truck.
In addition, Ackerman technicians visit the office just once a month for meetings instead of making frequent trips to the office to drop off paperwork and pick up materials, Oliver relates. GPS devices are used to direct technicians to the closest distributor to pick up parts or to set up a meet-up with a nearby service vehicle that has the necessary items. Inventory is also shipped to technicians’ homes as needed. Though the GPS will remain a separate device — Oliver cites battery usage from handheld products as the primary reason for that — it also helps ensure productivity by providing accurate vehicle locations that enable scheduling in real time, a feature ADS also takes advantage of.
“We’ve been doing versions of this for 10 years and with smart phones we’re able to do much more,” Rawlings explains. “It’s far less work and far more productive than filling out a bunch of paper. We’ve freed up the accounting department, and eliminated collection issues.”
Rawlings reports that there have been no major challenges in implementing this remote reporting system. But he also acknowledges that the learning curve for Ackerman has been overcome through nearly a decade of exploring mobile technology options for service technicians. The current system being used required only one-and-a-half hours of training for each technician. But the key is to have an “easy, intuitive system,” he says, adding that, “Perhaps it’s a minor challenge to teach people or get them on board. But as soon as they use it a little bit, they realize it’s much easier.”
One thing to note about the different implementation of mobile technology in the industry is that a device that works for one won’t necessarily fill the needs of another. For ADS, the challenge was in finding a device that worked for the company. Cerasuolo comments that they tried a few different products including a handheld device — which turned out to be not practical because of its small screen. “Once we had the right kind of device on our hands, it was pretty smooth sailing,” he explained. Training varied from person to person, but Cerasuolo notes, “The interface we developed was simple enough where it didn’t take too long to learn and now you can’t pull these things away from these guys. That’s the best measurement in terms of, Is it working?”
Ackerman currently uses a Windows-based system but is working on developing a Web-based version to take advantage of the lower cost of devices running on Android or iOS. “A lot of service packages out there run on very expensive devices. This can run on any Windows phone currently. In the future it’ll be even less expensive with Android and Apple. Even though they’re a little less durable than expensive, ruggedized units, we would have to replace five or six in a year to make up that cost difference.” Even running with these more costly devices, the company saw an eight-month payback from increased productivity.
Cerasuolo estimates the total cost for rolling out this project may be around $100,000 for ADS, including development costs. He adds there are also monthly communication costs from the devices to consider.
Ackerman also incurred costs in helping develop these systems, but Rawlings explains that, “The time and cost that is put into it reaps huge rewards,” adding that every step provides improvement and more streamlined operations that drive profitability.
On the other side of the coin there are companies such as Fleenor Security Systems, Knoxville, Tenn. which are aware of the development of new professional applications for mobile devices and even actively participate in the discussion, but haven’t yet taken the mobility leap.
“We have plans to evaluate and decide how to move forward with that,” says Mike Fleenor, president of Fleenor Security Systems. “To be able to dispatch and receive work orders would be a help instead of picking up written copies and returning to the office to get different ones. To be able to do billing, and have customers sign work orders electronically, and to push those work orders through our billing system without paper copy [could be a help].”
The company’s 10 technicians currently use netbooks loaded with technical manuals and which are used for programming panels, but their databases aren’t “live” and the devices aren’t used for communicating or reporting. The company also provides GPS devices and Fleenor says it would be useful to have them integrated so a technician’s location would be available to the office at all times and the office could receive service call status updates to track their timing.
The potential of mobile technology is undeniable, but Fleenor remains cautious of both the novelty of the technology and the uncertain necessity of changing the current system.
“We’re not a company that tries to find the technology first and then find a use for it. We try to solve problems with technology. As we become more dependent on mobile technology, we realize streamlining would help. But I’d rather wait until it’s more field tested than going on the edge. I’d rather implement second generation instead of beta.”
Fleenor Security is one of many companies looking forward to seeing the development of these technologies. With that in mind, Fleenor adds that mobile technology can provide great enhancements “as long as we keep data security in mind. We don’t want to do anything that would compromise our customers. As new technology comes out we’ll be ready to look at it and evaluate.”
That mobility is here to stay should be no surprise to anyone in this industry, but there is still much work to be done by companies in every stage of embracing this technology.