When the State of California began promulgating new building codes that were to go into effect in October 2005, at the same time that federal building laws changed and the Energy Star program announced impending changes, it created a perfect storm of sorts for Home Energy Rating System (HERS) provider CHEERS. The California Home Energy Efficiency Rating Service, founded in 1990, is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting energy efficiency.
It was approved in 1999 by the California Energy Commission as the first home energy rating
provider under the HERS regulations. CHEERS trains and certifies home energy "raters" for the building industry. Working with builders as homes are being built, the raters conduct independent third-party tests, verifications and certifications for homebuilders. This process ensures that homes being built meet or exceed the energy efficiency standards established by the state.
Faced with doubling the number of home inspections per year from 30,000 to 60,000, CHEERS knew there was no way it could handle the increase in business without changing the way it operated. "Before we implemented [the mobile solution], 95 percent of our business was paper based," says Tom Hamilton, executive director of CHEERS. Under the old system, raters would log into a Web-based registry, download the information they needed to inspect a property, print the information, go to the site, perform the inspection, collect the data on paper forms, return to their office, re-enter the online registry and type in all the inspection information for the site they had just visited. Errors were commonplace, as was wasted time.
The system conflicted directly with CHEERS' mandate to promote efficiency. With the new regulations going into effect, CHEERS raters also found themselves recertifying distribution systems, doubling the number of features to be verified in each home and working on much lengthier reports. "Many homes take multiple inspections to verify, so imagine an eight-page document for every single home. Doing that manually required too much time and expense, so that's why we began the conversations to figure out how to create mobile applications that raters could use to mobilize data collection," says Hamilton.
CHEERS began talking with Countermind and Symbol Technologies about potential fixes for its problems in the spring of 2004, and after about nine months it saw the end solution being used by a majority of CHEERS raters across the state.
The basic idea behind the software was to match the application with how raters really work in the field. CHEERS knew the software had to be sophisticated enough to know what was good, what was bad and what needed to be redone. The software guides the raters through each inspection exactly how the rating is performed in the field.
"From a tech standpoint," notes Anita Taylor, marketing director with CHEERS, "the biggest challenge was the integration to the backend database and the CHEERS registry, which is the online Web application. The trickiest part was getting the mobile software to sync up with the registry. Dealing with government regulations is very complex and there are a lot of data points to collect. Raters go in the field with things they have to check, and it really is, 'If X then Y, if Y then Z.' There are many, many hoops that raters have to jump through to complete each inspection. Countermind did an exceptional job to build the software and application so it streamlines the work in the field. Some raters used to carry four-inch rating binders to follow the regulations. One of the things that we built into the application was a certain amount of logic that makes things easier in the field. We built the mobile device so the calculations are done automatically."
Once CHEERS realized the flexibility it would have in writing its own software, the problem became avoiding continually adding functionality and capabilities. On top of that, it had a lot of input from its own team. Some of the biggest hurdles were fine-tuning the processes CHEERS wanted included in the final solution, rather than any technical challenges.
And in addition to a first-rate application, CHEERS needed the right platform on which to run it. The Symbol MC50 is an industry standard, semi-rugged Pocket PC/Windows Mobile 2003 device, and the Countermind solution sits on top of that. "The Microsoft platform is highly usable. As new features and capabilities are added, everything can remain consistent and everything is seamless and easier for CHEERS," says Chuck Dourlet, VP of mobile computing with Symbol.
With the new solution, raters would sync their devices in the morning and automatically download all the information on the inspections they were to perform that day. They then went out into the field and conducted those inspections, following the software step by step. Every time they made a measurement and populated the correct field in the software, it automatically performed all the relevant calculations and filled in other portions of the form. At the end of the day, they would return to the office, sync the devices again, and the software would connect to the online CHEERS registry and update all the appropriate records with the information from the handhelds, eliminating double data-entry and the risk of introducing errors in the system.
Armed with a tough, field-ready device and a new application, dubbed HERS Mobile, CHEERS was ready for the next big push: convincing its independent contractors to buy the $2,300 solution themselves.
When CHEERS first began building the solution, it was unsure how many raters would adopt it. "The raters, you see, are independent contractors, not employees of CHEERS," says Hamilton. "For the sake of argument, we could have 500 different business models that we need to support because each rater runs their own business differently, and that separation is important.
"One way to think of it is that the raters are franchisees," continues Hamilton. "We are the corporate office, and each rater is the local shop. They don't have to follow orders. We created a marketing approach, though, using ROI calculations, education about the new regulations and how the HERS Mobile device will save time and create more business for the raters. We showed them how it will speed up their processes and free up time for more inspections. It was a continual dialog, and we demonstrated how we wanted to help them be more profitable. We educate the raters, not the companies. It's a matter of pushing the information, showing the new requirements, showing how to build it into the business and creating efficiencies as more and more projects come online."
CHEERS did everything it could to foster the adoption of HERS Mobile. "We knew it had to be easy to use, with a low amount of training and few challenges, otherwise it might not succeed," says CHEERS' Taylor.
The results speak for themselves. Adoption has been swift and CHEERS is on track to have over 1,000 users on the HERS Mobile system in the next month. "Once the quality of the data came back from the early adopters and the raters were seeing major improvements, more raters began to sign on," says Hamilton. "There are other companies out there that perform this service, but HERS Mobile has helped separate us from the other companies. We provide services based upon value. This has given us the ability to help CHEERS raters increase the revenue for their individual businesses. We freed the raters from having to worry about developing something on their own, and that really has been one of the pleasant benefits. It's been nice to hear from raters who call in and say, 'Wow, this is fantastic what you guys are doing.' It goes to reinforce how we are there to support the raters and the effectiveness of the raters in the field. The better they are, the more we can put back into the market." That's not to say that things were entirely smooth during the rollout.
Hamilton admits that CHEERS had significant hurdles to overcome. "This is complex software running on a substantial device. We had to figure out how best to integrate this into people's businesses. There were certainly pain points, and we were floundering because of the lack of initial support. We had to understand what we've been doing, and we had cultural issues to go through in regard to the technology usage by the raters. It was a big learning curve for everyone."
Countermind and Symbol, Hamilton adds, "bent over backward to help us launch this program and make it a success. We gave away a device for free at the launch promotion. I want to publicly give kudos to both organizations for helping CHEERS."
Another tool CHEERS used to help promote the program was a survey from the first round of beta testers. "Ten out of 10 said they would recommend it to other users," says Taylor. "Eight of 10 said it was intuitive and 40 percent said it would save them three to four hours a week and give them more time in the field to make more money and verify more homes."
Building Business Benefits
When asked how mobility will affect the future of his business, Hamilton responded, "It's critical. In terms of issues with energy efficiency programs, in most cases, you're collecting data. Right now, with the mobile device, you have an MC50 with multiple icons and each icon represents a program, so a rater can go to a job and see their processes. Beginning in 2007, new regulations go into effect, along with a massive program to promote solar energy, and homes will have to receive energy audits. For us, everything can be done with the device. There's no way we could grow without mobile technology."
Simplifying and streamlining data collection is what CHEERS needs to compete in the inspection market. "Saving money on data collection means we can put more money in the actual measures being installed. In the future, we can train raters on barcode technologies, RFID tags and more. It's a huge opportunity. It allows, I think, energy efficiency to be more front-of-mind and frees up money for incentives to create an awareness of programs that are available to consumers. Because of Symbol and the Countermind software, CHEERS now has something that's very valuable and that can be used for multiple programs."
In industries such as CHEERS', the cost to compete has a new entry point. CHEERS now provides a very practical approach to automating business processes. It planned on something that works effectively and has the flexibility and power to manage business and automate field workers. It's the magic recipe that can't help but be adopted as it goes forward.
"It's really a business imperative," agrees Symbol's Dourlet. "Deploying mobile technology to send information to the point of business activity, no matter where they are located, is becoming a requirement across all the key vertical industries. Those that are doing it are leading the way. Those that aren't will be hurting in the coming years."
Of course, Tom and the team at CHEERS are already thinking ahead. "I think the next step will be to continue with the multiple phases already planned. We have two different companies that want HERS Mobile to go national for energy programs. I think at some point, integrating voice capabilities and tying that in to create a HERS Mobile network will be a major step, as will including scheduling software." //