Follow the Fleet

Nov. 1, 2002
BY ROBERT P. MADER Of CONTRACTORs staff GPS-type truck-tracking devices are proving to contractors that they can save time and money as they improve customer service. Three plumbing contractors, two in Florida and one in Texas, use three different global positioning systems in three different ways, but all are happy with the devices. Lets get to a major issue that technicians resent Big Brother looking



GPS-type truck-tracking devices are proving to contractors that they can save time and money as they improve customer service. Three plumbing contractors, two in Florida and one in Texas, use three different global positioning systems in three different ways, but all are happy with the devices.

Let’s get to a major issue — that technicians resent Big Brother looking over their shoulder. Yes, they do. Skilled and honest technicians, however, use the GPS systems to their advantage.

Morale booster

David Goodenough, president of Dixie Plumbing & Air in Naples, Fla., had a problem with two malingerers. They would turn their Nextels off at 2 p.m. and claim the battery had gone dead but they were really working. That was their story until Goodenough bought a Diplomat GPS system from Westbury, N.Y-based Darby Corporate Solutions. Goodenough discovered that one of the techs would go home for the day. The other one he tracked down at an auto shop talking with a buddy. When the bad guys got caught, they quit. The effect on the morale of the honest mechanics was instantaneous.

“The dishonest ones know who they are and it’s only a matter of time,” Goodenough says. “I pay my guys real good. My plumbing techs make between $30 and $40 an hour. Those who feel they have enough money and don’t want to work are gone. The people I have on staff now are great — except one guy who has trouble getting out of bed.”

The GPS unit has caught Sleepy trying to make up for his tardiness by driving 80 mph.

John Miller, president of Aqua Services, a plumbing, HVAC and appliance service firm in Sarasota, Fla., bought a GPS system from Fern Park, Fla.-based FleetBoss. He wanted to know where his trucks had been and keep tabs on a few parameters, such as speeding and idle time.

His technicians, on the other hand, found that the system eliminated one of their pet peeves, bad dispatching. They were annoyed if they were asked to drive across town to the next job, only to pass one of their co-workers driving in the other direction across town.

Larry Parker, service manager of TCS Plumbing, Dallas, says his technicians have come to rely on the system TCS bought, FleetDirector from Garden Grove, Calif.-based Teletrac. If they need a part, they call the dispatcher to find the closest technician with the part. If a mechanic is a fast worker and takes pride in that, the system verifies it.

All three contractors note that a GPS system handles one of the biggest customers complaints, which is that the service technician was only there for 15 minutes.

Customers have learned to appreciate that his system keeps accurate time data and accept that as irrefutable evidence, Parker said.

Miller adds, “I explained to my technicians that it takes away the controversy if the customer claims they weren’t there as long they said.”

Three means to an end

The three GPS systems are quite different and the contractors use them in different ways.

Miller has no desire to watch blips move across his computer screen. His system downloads to his computer whenever the technicians pull their trucks into the company lot. The GPS unit and the receiver on Miller’s computer have to be within a few hundred feet of each other for the download to occur. Every Monday morning, Miller has his assistant print out a weekly activity report and highlight the parameters that Miller wants to track.

A big one is stop idle. On the morning that CONTRACTOR talked to Miller, he had just found on his current report that a technician left the truck idling for 212 hours. Florida techs sometimes leave the air conditioning on in the truck if it’s a hot day. He planned to have a discussion with the tech that day. Miller also keeps tabs on speeding and forbids personal use of the vehicle on nights and weekends.

Miller has not tracked the system’s effect on his fuel costs or wear and tear. Aqua Services has more than 90 employees and 40-plus trucks on the street, so Miller employs a full-time truck mechanic anyway.

Goodenough came at GPS from the opposite direction, and unlike Miller he wants to be able to see where all his trucks are on a computer screen.

“When I looked at systems, I decided it either had to be real-time or nothing at all,” he said.

Goodenough runs 36 trucks but only has the GPS units in 12 of them. All the trucks, however, have an antenna, and the units can be moved from truck to truck. Some guys never get one, such as the supervisors or the trusted old timers. If a truck is going to sit at a high-rise site for two years, it doesn’t get a unit. His technicians, nevertheless, operate on the assumption that a GPS unit is on the truck.

He can put markers on his computer screen so he can see not just trucks, but also technicians by name. If somebody needs a part, he can see who the closest guy is immediately without looking up addresses or looking at a map. He can flag the gas station that he told all his techs to use and see if they’ve been there. If a technician can’t be reached because he’s deep in the bowels of a building, Goodenough knows he’s there and waits until he re-emerges someplace where there is cell phone service.

“There’s tangibles and intangibles,” Goodenough says. “My fuel bills are going down by $300 a month. That also means there’s less wear and tear on the vehicles.”

In addition, he knows that personal use of vehicles has stopped. He is convinced that the overall efficiency of his company is up.

“Them knowing that you know where they are improves the efficiency of the system,” he says.

The GPS system used by TCS Plumbing is actually part of the firm’s dispatching system. The dispatcher sees the location of each vehicle live on maps on his computer screen. Dispatchers can send text messages to the mechanics’ dashboard terminal, verifying a completed job or redirecting them to a new service call. Drivers have the ability to send canned messages back to dispatchers. TCS previously used two-way radio, which Parker said was “chaotic.”

TCS believes that the system has made its dispatching more efficient, thereby increasing the technicians’ billable hours.

Unlike radio communication, the system gives the technicians privacy and a more efficient means of communication. Now TCS uses the messaging feature to communicate job addresses to the tech. Previously they relied on shorthand that, Parker said, was often hard for technicians to decipher.

Just like Dixie Plumbing, TCS believes the GPS system has increased driver productivity because drivers are constantly aware that dispatchers literally are watching the path of their trucks on their computer screens. In the past, service technicians would often call out at a job location before they had reached it. Now, when mechanics message that they’re at the job, TCS gets immediate verification of vehicle location. The device also reports the time each vehicle spends at a jobsite by recording each time an ignition goes on and off, and sends alerts to the dispatcher with this information.

Stolen vehicle recovery

When most contractors make the decision to install a GPS system, they often focus on costs savings, such as fuel use, wear and tear on the vehicles or increased productivity. TCS, however, recovered two stolen vehicles with its GPS system.

One of the vehicles was recovered within 10 minutes of being stolen. When the mechanic came back to find an empty parking space, he called the office, which then checked the vehicle’s location and called this information in to the police. The thieves even cut off the driver’s dashboard terminal — but they didn’t see the vehicle location unit that was installed hidden inside the vehicle.

TCS’ second stolen vehicle was taken over a holiday weekend. It made it all the way from Texas to California until dispatchers realized it was stolen on Monday morning. Although it showed up on the tracking system as a dot way off the map, TCS called Teletrac, which pinpointed the vehicle on a beach in California and recovered it.

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