Goodbye Paper. Hello App.

By  Ellen Muraskin — November 09, 2012

Suite Solutions, Toledo, OH, brings the “triple play” of broadband Internet, digital telephone, and cable or satellite TV service to residential apartment and condominium communities.  Field installation and service is the backbone of such a business, so any technology that helps smooth data flow to either side — to customers in one direction and to the central office in the other — takes stress off that spine.

Data flow to customers starts with a simple subscriber agreement. These used to be preprinted in duplicate by a local print shop and sent to technicians to be signed by the subscriber.  The orders occasionally got lost or technicians would fail to take them, present them, fill them out completely or have them signed.  

Today, subscriber contracts are presented and signed on Android tablets, through a software app called naturalFORMs .  Digital copies go immediately and wirelessly to the office  and are emailed to customers.  The customer who asks for a printed copy — now the exception — can still have one and it’s printed straight from the app.

Accidental Discovery
Steve Ransom, Suite Solutions’ operations manager, discovered the solution indirectly one day while getting a truck windshield repaired. The installer captured his signature on an agreement by proffering him a special pen; the dotted line was on his mobile phone screen.

This was an early version of handwriting recognition technology from ExpeData.  “I had been looking into digital signature capture for my field techs for several years and I thought that was pretty cool,” says Ransom. “I called the company and the timing was perfect.”

“Perfect,” he explains, because Suite Solutions had just decided to take their field service management mobile with Samsung Galaxies and by installing CSG Technet work order management software for their techs.

Plus, ExpeData was only a few months away from releasing an Android tablet version of  naturalFORMS, which not only digitized signature capture, but any handwritten text, plugging the recognized copy into the fields of an on screen version of the form.  

Instead of purchasing the pens, Ransom waited for the Android tablet release.  He sent his company’s existing paper forms to ExpeData, which digitized them and reformatted them for the Galaxy while preserving their basic look. They also built in the auto-validation, the dropdown menus and the qualifiers that imbed intelligence and discipline into the form, speeding up data entry while improving accuracy and completeness.

Making Important info Mandatory
“You can set it up to make some fields mandatory, otherwise technicians can’t close out the form,” says Ransom. “For example, we need equipment fields filled out — what modems, digital receivers, smart cards and terminal adapters did they install? On paper, these might be left out. But with dropdown menus, you can enter equipment identifiers really quickly." Customer signatures have also been made mandatory, so that no contract can be uploaded without one.  

Ransom estimates that it took his techs about a week of use to enter data with naturalFORMS more quickly than they did on paper. Some preferred a Bluetooth-connected keyboard to stylus and handwriting.

The time to database capture was radically shortened. “In the past, it could have been a month before we got the forms. Now we have them the same day and we know we have a signed agreement for every customer.”

Ransom estimates that the software has paid for itself within three months, eliminating the need to assign and pay someone to process, check and file forms.  

Annotatable graphics and photos can be attached to the forms, but Suite Solutions does not use these features yet. While field technicians may use the tablet’s cameras and email app to send Ransom photos, they do this with other apps.

Ransom believes that floor plans and wiring schematics might be useful to attach to contracts, but at this point, his crew is too small to need them. “We have the same technicians go to the same apartment buildings so they know their properties.  If you had a larger company with more technicians, it might be good for a first-time visit,” he explains.

He also notes that while some tablet apps require an expensive stylus this software reads handwriting well even with the least expensive pen. You can also write with your finger.

Data Sharing
Verizon’s recently launched data sharing plans have lowered Suite Solutions’ costs, which balanced out the expense of equipping all 12 tablets with 3G access. His per-tablet monthly data bill is only $10, down from $30 before the carrier’s pricing change. And cellular coverage gaps, such as they are, don’t matter that much. “We have some properties where connectivity can be poor, but once the tablet picks up the signal again, it automatically sends the information,” he notes.

While he can’t put an exact dollar figure on the deployment, Ransom thinks the “wow” factor should also be taken into account, just as he was wowed when he first discovered the product. “Our customers are really impressed with it. When they’re signing on that tablet, it seems to them like we’re keeping up with the times. They’re blown away that it gets emailed to them as well,” he says.

Ransom is now looking into integrating the solution with TechNet to import subscriber names and addresses from the work order database, saving the technician input steps. And he’s looking forward to seeing printing fade away, as digital copies win more and more fans on both sides of the transaction. “It’s nice not to have to deal with paper anymore,” he says.

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