Service Management Tools For Field Work

By William and Patti Feldman Computer Authorities Here are two solutions for contractors active in service work. Both take advantage of evolving technologies. Electronic Service Control (www.desco-soft.com, 800/226-7529) is a Windows Vista compatible desktop service management solution suitable for small- and medium-sized contractors that helps in tracking customers, dispatches, service history and

By William and Patti Feldman
Computer Authorities

Here are two solutions for contractors active in service work. Both take advantage of evolving technologies.

Electronic Service Control (www.desco-soft.com, 800/226-7529) is a Windows Vista compatible desktop service management solution suitable for small- and medium-sized contractors that helps in tracking customers, dispatches, service history and agreements, inventory and invoices.

Service calls typically start with the qualification screen, from which users can access all pertinent information about customer equipment, such as manufacturer, serial numbers, installation and warranty dates; service and billing history; and archived documents, such as photos, schematics and other files attached to a customer's record. A Caller ID feature that works on any multi-line TAPI-compliant phone system or "Whozz Calling" line of hardware enables the calling customer's information to pop up in Electronic Service Control before the phone is answered.

The dispatch-entry screen, featuring user-defined service codes, supports setting up service calls based on priority, technician skill level, dates and times. Dispatchers can attach needed equipment to each entry, helping ensure the technician arrives prepared and eliminating the risk of missed billing of that equipment to the call. Users can attach notes that add to the tech or customer's understanding of the rendered service.

Dispatchers can work from daily, weekly or monthly views, with daily "status meters" enabling quick drill- down to openings in the schedule and can schedule date and time or by drag-and-drop to a specific technician. A handy shortcut feature allows grouping of technicians into crews and tracking of crew members' time together or separately for accurate labor costs.

If Electronic Service Control is integrated with Microsoft MapPoint, users can view all service calls in a geographical area at once and organize them in an order that saves time and mileage and takes advantage of on-screen plotting of best driving routes for all technicians.

Dispatchers can send service calls to technicians via alphanumeric paging, e-mail or communication to a PDA (to which the Electronic Service Control PDA Mobile Computing module is uploaded) or to a Web-enabled phone (a Nextel GPS phone uploaded with ESCVettro Mobile Computing or ESC-Xora Mobile Computing).

The FrontOffice Web application allows technicians to update or reassign calls and allows customers to log in to the Website to request a service call or update account information.

ESC-Vettro, ESC-Xora and ESC-PDA mobile computing systems give field technicians the ability to access and update data directly with the ESC software in the office, as well as GPS and driving directions. The ESC-PDA Mobile system allows techs to add customers in the field, capture customer signatures, create and print invoices in the field, and accept payments, including those made on the spot with real-time credit card processing.

With both modules, all data is transferred wirelessly to the office database and all files are updated automatically, eliminating duplicate entry of technician records.

ESC includes a built-in word processor and template system that help users easily create detailed form letters to which graphics, photos and other documents can be attached.

The program facilitates three levels of pricing, enabling users to set up multiple levels of default price codes for each customer.

The solution, which can link dispatches to purchase orders and automatically create accounts payable entries for completed purchase orders, integrates with both Peachtree Accounting and QuickBooks.

FreshBooks (www.freshbooks.com, 866/303-6061) is an online invoicing and time-tracking solution suitable for small contractors of up to about 20 employees who provide recurrent or occasional service in the field. The Web-based software eliminates the need for technicians to return to the office at day's end to file paperwork and enables reliable capturing of technicians' notes from which support staff might otherwise have trouble deciphering and pulling accurate billing. The online reporting can track time and inventory used on a work order, ensuring full accounting of each job and eliminating the possibility of losing unbilled labor and material.

Even though the application is hosted by FreshBooks, the person who sets up each account acts as administrator and retains full control.

The program, which can serve as a basic work order management system, provides the ability to view customer histories, including service and pricing and keeps track of remaining inventory on the service truck. Contractors can either e-mail logo-enriched invoices directly from the program or generate hard copies for presentation, snail mailing or faxing. For an optional additional fee, FreshBooks will e-mail the invoices (and return envelope) to customers directly on the contractor's behalf.

The solution, which works on desktop and laptop computers, although not on wireless handhelds, allows a generous trial — it is free indefinitely for use with up to three customers. Beyond that, pricing escalates in five tiers according to the number of active accounts and the number of employees who can access the accounts (e.g., up to 25 active customers, one staff and one administrator is $14 a month at the low end; up to 5,000 active customers, 20 staff and one administrator is $149 a month at the high end).

Bill and Patti Feldman are freelance writers for magazines, building product manufacturers and other companies on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at [email protected].