Fortune Favors the Fleet

By Steven Spaulding Of CONTRACTORs staff First there was a guy, his truck, his phone and his customers. And for a while that worked just fine. Then there was having a person to answer the phone, and the guys in the trucks stopping to call in from the field. Which eventually led to radio dispatch, which led to the pager and the cell phone. And for the majority of contractors working today, thats about

By Steven Spaulding Of CONTRACTOR’s staff

First there was a guy, his truck, his phone and his customers. And for a while that worked just fine.

Then there was having a person to answer the phone, and the guys in the trucks stopping to call in from the field. Which eventually led to radio dispatch, which led to the pager and the cell phone. And for the majority of contractors working today, that’s about as far as it’s gone.

But each advance in managing a fleet has really been an advance in managing the flow of information — from the customer to the front office to the technician in the field and back to the customer again. And some advanced information technology is finally affordable enough and useful enough that it’s ready to make an impact on how those guys in their trucks make a living.

Two examples of that technology are global satellite positioning, or GPS, and Java, a highly efficient form of computer code designed for use with hand-held devices. Advances such as these, together with improvements in wireless communications, are blurring the lines between fleet management, personnel management, customer relations, payroll and almost every other facet of a modern-day contracting business.

TCS Plumbing

TCS Plumbing of Richardson, Texas, has been in business 20 years serving the Fort Worth/Dallas metroplex, mainly in new construction and service. (TCS stands for Total Cleaning Systems.)

The company has about 45 employees and a fleet of 15 vans, seven trucks and two jet trucks. Up until about five years ago, the company managed its fleet with pagers and the honor system. The problem, according to Jimmy Vega, service manager at TCS, was that “it wasn’t very honorable.”

TCS decided to equip its vehicles with a wireless location system from Teletrac — a company that got its start designing technology to help locate missing children. The main reason for adopting the system was, actually, to help with legal problems.

“We got people complaining about their bills,” Vega explains, “saying our trucks weren’t in such-and-such a place for as long as they were supposed to be.”

Now, TCS can print a report from the system detailing where its vehicles were, and how long they stayed, and can take that report with it to court.

But the system had an immediate effect on payroll as well. Technicians at the end of a week have to punch in, but if they’re dispatched they don’t need to come back to the shop to punch themselves out. Instead, they can write themselves out on the honor system.

“If you don’t abide by the honor system, you get caught by the Teletrac,” Vega says.

In fact, when the system was first put in place, five employees quit.

“But the ones that quit were the ones that were guilty. That’s how I see it,” Vega says. “If you don’t have anything to hide, then you don’t have to run. If you’re pencil-whipping me, then you need to go, because you’re going to get caught.”

The system costs $1,500 per truck for the wireless locator itself, the vehicle locator device. That does not include the cost of the network computer, the FleetDirector software that manages the system or the monthly subscription fee.

Vega estimates the system is saving the company at least $50,000 per year.

“That’s job-wise, not payroll-wise,” he notes. “We’re probably saving another $20,000 in payroll.”

And even that doesn’t factor in the time the system saves in helping direct technicians to the jobsite. A dispatcher using the FleetDirector software sees an icon of each truck superimposed on a map of their location.

“If they can’t find the street,” Vega says, “I can zero in on them and tell them to go left or right — I can track them from point A to point B any time of the day.”

The system has even on one occasion saved the company the cost of an entire truck.

“We had a truck stolen,” Vega says. “It was assigned to a plumber and he took off with it. I mean he just went on a binge. He took the truck to California.”

One call to the Teletrac office in California and police were able to track the truck down in 20 minutes. While admitting that the system has a high initial cost outlay, Vega adds, “It’s well worth the money you spend in the long run.”

Roto-Rooter

Steve Poppe is chief information officer for Roto-Rooter, a nationwide service and repair company employing 1,800 techs spread across 60 metropolitan areas. He sees the role of technology in his company in very simple terms: “Getting the qualified tech to the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible to keep the level of destruction down.”

Roto-Rooter’s customers — like many plumbing customers — are typically in crisis mode. A toilet is backed up, a main is broken or water is filling a basement,

“They always want us to be just sitting on the corner, waiting for them to call,” Poppe says.

On the other side of the equation, the majority of his techs are on commission. The time they spend idle or behind the wheel of a truck is time they are not making money.

The solution Poppe is introducing to his company involves Java-enabled Nextel Motorola cell phones with GPS, equipped with the etrace software package from a company called Gearworks. Roto-Rooter is in the final phase of beta-testing the pilot program in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Roto-Rooter hopes to go company-wide with the technology by the second quarter of 2004.

Like Teletrac, etrace is a hosted solution, meaning the program is running on a dedicated server, while dispatchers at Roto-Rooter access the information over the Web. And like Teletrac it can monitor the locations of techs in real time, displayed on a local map.

The main difference, of course, is that it’s attached to the hip of the tech, and not to the truck — which actually adds to the system’s appeal.

“The only negative we encounter is the Big Brother syndrome,” Poppe says, adding that some techs have the feeling that the company they work for is monitoring their personal life.

With the Nextel-etrace system, the tech can press a button and have the phone stop transmitting GPS points. It becomes just another cell phone.

“Once they go on shift we expect them to have the phone turned on,” Poppe says. “It’s nothing more than if they were working in a factory, and they were supposed to be at a particular spot on the assembly line.”

That ability to turn the system off, along with the familiarity of the cell phone, has gone a long way dispel the Big Brother syndrome. Besides which, a number of Roto-Rooter employees own their own trucks and would doubly resent a truck-mounted system.

The etrace software is modular, able to integrate with a company’s CRM (customer relations management) software. The service tech can read a customer’s past service history: whether there’s a dog in the backyard, whether past techs have experienced problems in the neighborhood or whatever else a past tech might have included in the record.

Additionally, by using the zip-code-plus-four numbers, the system knows the exact latitude and longitude of the service location. At the push of a button, the system can generate driving directions to the location from whatever point the tech might be. If the tech has had to make a detour due to road construction, thinks he has missed a turn or is just having trouble with the last mile through a subdivision, all he has to do is press the button, without having to bother the dispatcher.

And the dispatcher also benefits from the system. Techs in the field can be sorted by skill-sets and by driving time to the job — because, after all, it doesn’t matter how quickly a tech gets to the problem if he has no idea what to do once he gets there.

Even payroll managers have their job simplified. Because the system time-stamps everything — from the moment the tech is assigned the job to the moment the customer bills out — it’s a snap to keep track of overtime, even for commissioned employees.

From a company-wide standpoint, the most important interaction the new software will perform is with credit-card authorization companies. While each tech gets an enabled phone, each truck will have a mobile printer equipped with a credit-card swipe. The phone enters all the data and receives confirmation once the authorization goes through. The savings are significant.

“We’re going to have somewhere between a half and three-quarters of a percent savings on the service charge,” says Poppe, who is reluctant to give exact numbers, “and we’re doing around $80 million a year in credit card processing.”

The cost outlay for the company is $150 for the Nextel mobile phone, a monthly fee from etrace that depends on the service package but ranges from $20 to $40 per user and about $1,000 for the mobile printer.

It’s the new generation of mobile phones that has made the whole system affordable. Gearworks has been around since 1999 developing mobile applications, but until a year-and-a-half ago its system was only able to run on ruggedized PDAs, which have a price point that was out of reach.

“We just couldn’t afford a $1,500 to $2,000 piece of equipment for each tech,” Poppe says, “so this has been just wonderful.”

Down the road

Gearworks is currently partnering with GM to offer etrace in its commercial trucks and vans in much the same way it now offers the On Star system with its consumer vehicles. Some contractor associations such as the Radiant Panel Association are partnering with fleet management companies to offer price-breaks to their members.

With that kind of growth on the horizon, the tendency to incorporate more and more functions into fleet management software will only continue. Bar code scanning is already in the works and should simplify inventory record keeping and the billing process. And the possibilities of interactive voice-response — talking directly to the program instead of punching an alphanumeric keypad — are huge.

But it will always come back to improving the flow of information between the customer, the head office and the technician in the field. The smoother, more responsive the flow, the more satisfied the customer, the more productive the technician and the more profitable the company.