Speech Technology Magazine

 

Modernizing Communication among Field Service Workers

Travis White, vice president of marketing and product management at Datria, explains that predictable service should be a company’s number one priority above all else.
By Travis White - Posted Sep 11, 2004
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On one side of the fence lies the company, armed with a complex set of expectations, promises, commitments, prior experiences, schedules, attitudes and opinions. Above all, the company wants predictable service.

 

On the other side of the fence lies the company, who has an equally complex set of business objectives, cost containment requirements, efficiency goals, safety rules, IT infrastructures and customer service commitments. Above all, the company wants cost effective service.

Field service organizations typically “lean” toward one side of the fence or the other. In competitive industries with significant customer turnover, field service organizations lean toward the customer. The objective is to improve customer service and, therefore, customer loyalty. Cost is a secondary consideration. In less competitive industries, field service organizations often tilt toward internal business objectives, like cost containment and efficiency.

 

Technologies designed to support field service processes also lean one way or the other. Basically, companies have two technology choices: slow or expensive.

 

Slow technologies often involve paper “trouble tickets.” Technicians typically drive to a central facility at the beginning of a shift to pick up a stack of tickets (also known as work orders or service orders). They then disperse and begin working the tickets in sequential order. At the end of the shift, they return to the central facility to turn in their tickets with handwritten notes on what they’ve accomplished, what parts they used and so on. Clerks type the notes into a scheduling system. Slow technologies have numerous advantages: they require very little training, are easy to deploy, easy to modify and do not require expensive systems that must constantly be refreshed.

 

Expensive technologies generally include laptop or handheld computers. Field technicians log in to corporate systems to retrieve or update information about tickets, customers, billing, warranties, parts, etc. Expensive technologies have one major advantage: they exchange information in close to real-time. Other things being equal, faster information is better information. With better information, corporate systems can make better decisions, which often results in increased productivity and efficiency.

 

The problem with slow technologies is that they’re often expensive, too. They have myriad hidden costs. Technicians may spend as much as 90 minutes a day just collecting and dropping off trouble tickets. Yankee Group estimates that the average burdened cost of a field technician in North America is $39 per hour. In other words, companies are spending as much as $58.50 per technician per shift just to distribute and collect paper tickets.

It’s also very difficult to tell what’s going on until technicians return their tickets. During the shift, it’s hard to determine who’s behind schedule and who’s available to help. It’s hard to predict which technician will show up late. It’s not easy to advise customers of schedule changes. Thus, field service organizations based on slow technologies often have poor customer satisfaction levels and relatively high overtime charges.

 

Likewise, expensive technologies are often slow. It takes a long time to train a field organization on the entire business process and then effectively deploy the technology across the enterprise. This is especially problematic in organizations with high employee turnover. These technologies are also slow to upgrade because they use a “fat client” architecture that embeds some of the business logic on the portable device. To change the business logic, the company has to touch every device, an exceedingly lengthy process.

 

Day-to-day use of expensive technologies is often slow as well. One of Datria’s customers estimated that their technicians spent an average of 45 minutes a day powering up their laptops, waiting for a signal, and logging in. Over 22 workdays per month that translates to 16.5 hours per technician – the equivalent of two shifts missed. Another company reported that they had “solved” the problem by asking their technicians to log in just once at the end of the shift to update all their tickets simultaneously. The problem, of course, is a lack of visibility – and predictability – during the shift. The company was paying for expensive technologies but getting the visibility of a traditional paper ticket system.

 

Dispatchers are often used as shock absorbers for both expensive and slow technologies. Calling a dispatcher is a convenient shortcut through the system for technicians who treat dispatchers like sophisticated voice/data converters. They listen to what the technician says, convert it to data and type it into the system. Then they read what’s on their screen, convert it to voice and speak it to the technician. It’s a simple, effective voice recognition system.

 

There are only two problems with using dispatchers in this manner: dispatchers are expensive and delays are rampant. Dispatchers can only speak to one person at a time, and they typically give priority to customers. Technicians are often on hold for extended periods of time. One company told Datria that its technicians are supposed to call in to close their tickets as soon as they’re completed. But the hold times are so long that they give up. They put off calling until Friday when they have to close out everything. The switchboard is clogged on Friday and customers can’t get through. Worse, the company has no visibility for most of the week. They’re paying for an expensive solution and getting worse visibility than if they had opted for a slow solution.

 

THE VOICE SOLUTION

Increasingly, field service organizations seek to fulfill the requirements on both sides of the company/company fence. They want to provide services that are predictable and cost effective. To do so, they need real-time information flowing to and from the field. Real-time information can improve every aspect of a company’s performance.

 

Workforce systems can schedule workers, trucks and parts more precisely. More precise scheduling improves predictability, which improves customer satisfaction. Companies have better visibility into field operations. They can respond to emergencies more rapidly. They can let customers know what’s going on more quickly and with a higher degree of confidence.

 

To date, however, traditional technologies have not delivered real-time information. Expensive technologies have come close, but the practical realities of training, deploying, upgrading and logging in have dramatically slowed the flow of information. Similarly, dispatcher-based systems are almost real-time but they’re expensive, have nagging problems with extended hold times and are only available during normal working hours.

 

The emerging solution is a virtual dispatch system that delivers the benefits of a live dispatch system while reducing its limitations. As noted earlier, live dispatchers provide a simple, effective voice recognition system. A virtual dispatch system uses speech recognition technologies to deliver the same result for routine operations. This frees up live dispatchers to handle more complex operations and/or to spend more time with customers.

 

Virtual dispatch systems use call flows to gather and distribute information. The system is bi-directional – it can receive calls from technicians and can call technicians to alert them to new information. Technicians can call from any phone at any time of day or night.

 

When technicians call a virtual dispatcher, the system identifies who they are (often through a biometric voice print) and begins asking questions. Questions may include, What ticket are you working on? What’s your status? What parts did you install? What serial numbers were used? Would you like to close this ticket? Technicians simply respond in natural language. The system converts the voice information to data and updates the appropriate corporate application. The system then “reads” the data in the corporate application, converts it to voice, and speaks it to the technicians. The overall experience is exactly analogous to speaking to a human dispatcher (except that you can’t flirt with it).

 

A virtual dispatch system is essentially a sophisticated form-fill-in application. Call flows mimic the forms found in every business. The purpose of the call flow is to gather the information to fill out the form. Like any computer application, the call flow uses branching logic to gather the appropriate information for each ticket. For instance, if the ticket requires parts with serial numbers, the call flow will ask the question. If not, the call flow skips to the next question.

 

Because the system is filling in a form, it “knows” what to listen for. For instance, the question, What’s your status? may have four responses: En route, On site, At risk, or Complete. This ability to anticipate the response dramatically improves voice recognition accuracy.

 

A virtual dispatch system can also converse with customers. For instance, many companies ask their technicians to upsell customers for new services. Technicians, however, are often better at fixing things than selling things. With a virtual dispatch system, the technician can update the ticket information and then hand the phone to the customer for acceptance and closeout. Among other things, the virtual dispatch system reads the upsell “pitch” to the customer, asks if they would like to accept the offer, and records the response. Some companies use professional voices to record the upsell offer. The professional voice is often a more convincing sales agent than the technician. In fact, the pitch can be pre-recorded in virtually any language, so the system can read the offer in the customer’s native tongue.

 

While virtual dispatch systems are based on speech recognition and voice technologies, a well-rounded system can deliver information in multiple ways. An “augmented voice” system can typically send an e-mail, an SMS message or a page. This is useful for information such as customer address that the technician will want to refer to several times. The technician simply says “Send to my phone” (or to “my Blackberry” or to “my pager”) to receive the information.

 

A virtual dispatch system is the simplest, least expensive way to exchange real-time information with field technicians. People already know how to use a phone, so training times are radically reduced. Since phones are universally available, it’s easy to deploy the solution to both employees and contractors. Since the dispatcher is virtual, technicians can call at any time of day or night. Better yet, they’re never placed on hold. Since it’s simple, technicians are more likely to call in as they complete their work, rather than hours (or days) later. This improves information accuracy and real-time visibility. Since it’s a “thin client”, it’s easy to update business logic without having to touch every device. Companies can allocate resources more efficiently, respond more quickly, and save money at the same time.

 

The greatest benefit of a virtual dispatch system, however, is improved customer service. An example is Mobile Gas, a full-service energy utility based in Mobile, Alabama. Until recently, Mobile Gas used a paperbased ticketing system and scheduled customer visits in four-hour blocks. Customers were told to expect a technician to visit either between 8 a.m. and noon or between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Technicians arrived within the “schedule window” about 75 percent of the time. After installing a virtual dispatch system, Mobile Gas was able to schedule its technicians more dynamically and more precisely. As a result, they were able to schedule visits in two-hour blocks and arrive within the window about 90 percent of the time. Customer satisfaction improved dramatically.

 

A virtual dispatch system delivers realtime information naturally and efficiently. In turn, real-time information helps companies operate more efficiently and reduce costs. It also helps them improve productivity and schedule services more predictably, which can significantly improve customer satisfaction.

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