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Credit: Photo: TeleNav Inc.

Buy a mobile resource management package from your wireless service provider to establish two-way information-sharing between the field and office. Technicians can use their mobile device to clock in and out, update job status, and fill out preformatted forms.
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Mobile devices have built-in GPS receivers, enabling dispatchers see where all technicians are at any point in time based on location information.

By 2013, 11 million U.S. workers will be using cell phones, "smartphones" such as BlackBerrys or the iPhone, and tablets such as the iPad to maintain and manage their organization's remote assets. Mobile resource management (MRM) applications maximize an organization's investment in such equipment.

Wireless devices come with GPS technology that, when combined with one or more applications, enables employees to complete location-stamped activities from the field. As a manager, you'll get a more detailed, real-time understanding of where they are at any given time and can use this information to improve dispatching, efficiency, and productivity.

Begin by talking to your wireless carrier's sales representative. Ask what applications they offer and how each will or won't meet specific operational and budgetary needs. Options range from basic location monitoring to fully integrated applications that sync with back-office systems such as payroll or inventory. In most instances, capabilities can be expanded as needs change regardless of the device brand. The process can be completed within weeks.

Here are responses to potential objections about the additional investment required to take advantage of these tools.

Myth #1: It's complicated and expensive.

Maybe in the old days, when proprietary systems required customized design, installing dedicated servers, and software packages that could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But by 2008, according to Frost & Sullivan, "the ability to monitor and track from any Internet-capable PC and the explosion of low-cost GPS-enabled mobile devices has injected affordability and flexibility into today's purchase decision."

As a result, functionality that used to require a complete back-office overhaul is available for a fraction of the cost. Applications are installed on the device and, because they allow managers to view employee location and job information from any computer via a secure Web site, eliminate the need to install software on computers.

Service is billed monthly by the wireless carrier, with basic applications available for a few dollars per employee to more feature-rich products ranging from $20 to $45/employee. Be sure to ask about volume discounts.

Myth #2: Paper is a necessary evil.

Industry data suggests that at the low end, paperwork-related activities cost $10/form.

If you have 20 field employees making five calls a day that each require two forms, that's 52,000 forms a year. At $10/form, there's potential to save nearly $500,000 by eliminating paperwork. Morale improves when technicians learn they can invest that time on more meaningful activities.

Some operations have implemented a fully wireless workflow. When field technicians clock in and out, track mileage, update job status, capture signatures, and update inventory systems based on parts used on a job, the information is automatically sent to payroll, inventory management, and job dispatch systems. They don't fill out and return forms to the office, and office employees no longer manually enter the data into the appropriate system.

Myth #3: Our paper forms provide all the data we need.

Mobile employees have access to rich, actionable data. Organizations that rely solely on paper leave significant operational intelligence in the field.

A technician can send real-time customer feedback, collect signatures, and take photos that are instantly transmitted to an organization's customer relationship management or enterprise resource planning system. Just as important, the technician pulls accurate, up-to-date customer, job, and inventory data from the system or accesses product manual and training guides, increasing on-the-job effectiveness.

Myth #4: Fuel costs will go up.

You can't control gasoline and diesel prices, but you can efficiently dispatch technicians, eliminate unnecessary trips to the office, reduce speeding, monitor idling times, and reduce mileage with voice-guided, turn-by-turn GPS navigation to jobsites.

MRM products provide location information you can use to optimize an employee's daily routes to avoid overlap.

An Aberdeen Group survey found that MRM reduces fuel costs by 13.2% and miles traveled by 19.2%.

Myth #5: There's no foolproof way to ensure accountability.

Employees who claim their mobile device will be used against them are usually pleasantly surprised at how much more meaningful work it allows them to accomplish in a day.

MRM products record the location of employees throughout the day, making it easy to tell when a particular technician was at a location and for how long. But most managers use this information to help employees work smarter and more efficiently. Because they can see where every crew is at any given time, managers can quickly reassign jobs or interrupt work at one site to respond to an emergency at another. And they often send details, such as the nature of a complaint, so crew members know what to expect when they arrive.

Well-documented records also substantiate when and how services were provided. GPS location tagging and detailed forms provide a bulletproof data trail when service disputes arise or litigation is threatened.

Myth #6: Establishing accountability is nearly impossible.

How do you ensure field workers are reporting their hours accurately? Paper time sheets can be altered or lost. Time clocks waste time and fuel. Overtime mismanagement and time sheet data entry compound labor expense issues.

Wireless time card capabilities use GPS to associate the time stamp with location when an employee logs in and out. You can also ask your provider to configure the product to provide labor codes and overtime alerts.

In a 2007 Aberdeen Group study, firms that had implemented mobile resource management reduced overtime an average of 13.4%, which translated to $496,493 in savings.

Myth #7: Dispatchers and technicians can only communicate via phone.

Any conversation can be misunderstood, and to record information a field technician must stop what he's doing or pull over.

Usually, when an emergency call comes in, the dispatcher must call every technician to determine who's both closest to the job and most easily available. The alternative, sending an available technician who's far away, wastes fuel.

MRM products eliminate the potential for error and improve response time.

When a call comes in, the dispatcher sees the exact location and activity of every technician simultaneously, simplifying the task of evaluating who's closest and most available. The mobile device audibly alerts the technician to the emergency and provides the job type, priority, and customer history. If he doesn't respond within a predetermined length of time, the dispatcher can call to find out why.

When the technician updates status, the manager receives a message that the job's been successfully completed and the employee is available to be dispatched to the next location.

Myth #8: It's difficult to monitor safety in the field.

Using GPS information provided by a mobile device, MRM applications can determine the speed at which an employee is driving and automatically alert management via text or the Web-based portal when a predetermined speed is exceeded. If a technician has an accident or a vehicle is disabled, the manager can quickly identify the location and send help.

Some products also incorporate "hot key" functionality, which is a preset panic button. For example, when a technician sent to repair a portion of a bridge in an unsafe area presses the key, the manager will be able to see where to send help. Managers also can verify a technician's location and route him away from unsafe weather conditions or routes.

Myth #9: None of this matters to customers.

On the contrary, Aberdeen Group's research shows that MRM improves response time almost 24%.

The products can use GPS data to determine how far a technician is from a site, enabling the manager to give a customer an accurate arrival time estimate. This helps the customer prepare for the employee's arrival so the technician doesn't waste time waiting onsite.

GPS data can also be used to resolve any disputes regarding if and when a technician reached the site. PW

- Ravi Acharya (ravia@telenav.com) is director of Enterprise Solutions for TeleNav Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., a mobile resource management provider.