Contractor says wireless is the answer

BY ROBERT P. MADER Of CONTRACTORs staff HOLLISTON, MASS. Andy Rodenhiser went wireless for his customers and employees. In order to maintain a high level of customer service, Rodenhiser figured he would need a lot of information about the customers of his company, Rodenhiser Plumbing & Heating. All that data, however, would create a paperwork burden for his technicians. With the shortage of technicians,

BY ROBERT P. MADER

Of CONTRACTOR’s staff

HOLLISTON, MASS. — Andy Rodenhiser went wireless for his customers and employees.

In order to maintain a high level of customer service, Rodenhiser figured he would need a lot of information about the customers of his company, Rodenhiser Plumbing & Heating. All that data, however, would create a paperwork burden for his technicians.

“With the shortage of technicians, why would somebody want to be here [working for Rodenhiser]?” he said. “I’ve got to make it as easy as possible for them.”

Automation was the only solution. It was, nevertheless, a solution long in coming. He’s been looking for seven years.

Five years ago one of his technicians, knowing Rodenhiser’s ultimate goal, found a Sears truck with a laptop inside it, took a Polaroid and gave it to him. Rodenhiser still has the Polaroid.

Rodenhiser and his people created a flow chart of a technician’s typical day and he carried the flow chart around the HVAC Comfortech show for three years looking for a solution. Many software companies wanted him to write a blank check, he said. He finally settled on Gearworks because the firm could design a system that works with his old back office software and it doesn’t require him to change a thing.

Rodenhiser has 30 employees including 17 technicians and four apprentices. All the technicians, except one, are licensed plumbers who are cross-trained on HVAC. One tech is an HVAC technician who will take the plumbers exam shortly.

Rodenhiser has been using KRS software for his dispatching and accounting operations. His dispatcher could hit the F12 key and it would transmit a customer’s name, address, phone number and the nature of the call to a service tech’s alphanumeric beeper. That just wasn’t enough for Rodenhiser, who wanted the customer’s equipment, service history and the last technician on a job, especially for callback information.

Rodenhiser calculated his callback expenses at $750,000 a year, with the help of a class from best practices group Excellence Alliance, which named him its Member of the Year last November.

“People forget that the cost of callbacks includes a lost opportunity because you’re not in front of somebody new because you’re fixing what you did yesterday,” he said, “If you can manage that down, it can make a real difference because your bottom line sales go up and expenses go down.”

Armed with the information he wants, Rodenhiser can train his people to avoid callbacks or spot faulty equipment trends and stop using the product until he investigates an abnormal failure rate.

The key to selecting his new software and hardware was its flexibility.

“Imagine having to retrain our accounting staff and CSRs,” he said. “It didn’t appeal to me. These guys have an adaptable, affordable alternative and it’s adapted to how my technicians use it, so their flexibility is a key to all this. Some other packages were very rigid. Why spend a lot of money on somebody else’s business workflow, then have to change your whole organization?”

Changing the way his company worked would be counterproductive, he said. What he wanted was a way to meet customer expectations.

Rodenhiser’s technicians are using a handheld device manufactured by Symbol. The device, which is comfortable to hold and use, looks like a Palm but runs on the Pocket PC operating system, he said.

The system makes his techs’ day go better because they’re armed with complete information about a customer’s equipment and know if they have everything they need on the truck. The techs are also more willing to gather equipment data, such as filter sizes, because now it will have practical benefits to them.

The rollout of the new software and handhelds was shepherded by a team of five techs.

“Involving them is important for technician buy-in,” Rodenhiser said. “We did the same thing for flat-rate pricing and got them to buy in. So having these five guys be the leaders is important, and they’ll be honest – if it doesn’t work, they’ll say what needs to be fixed.”

The system has a couple of nifty features. One is the global positioning system that lets him know which technician is closest to a call, or which tech with a vital part is closest to the tech who needs it.

The other is the total quality management function that allows him to track non-billable time, which Rodenhiser uses for training purposes. Also, technicians are required to enter vehicle mileage before they can start their next call so the company can plan vehicle maintenance.

The system has other features that Rodenhiser is working on. One is a credit card swipe and thermal printer that each technician can carry. Another function will be entering flat-rate prices right into the handheld. His flat-rate provider, National Standard Price Guide, is working with Gearworks to create a method whereby a technician can scan bar codes in the flat-rate book with the handheld and the result will go into Rodenhiser’s accounting system.