Field service organizations that still manage technicians the old-fashioned way are missing out on the competitive advantages of automated, optimized scheduling and dispatch solutions.
Any business with a substantial field service fleet knows the pain of getting the right technician to the right place at the right time. Whether it's an urgent client service request or preventive maintenance, something will go wrong: the problem will not be as described, the customer won't be home, the right part won't be in the truck and the day's carefully ordered schedule is ruined.
"My sense is that there are still a large number of service operations that are doing this scheduling task manually," said Paul Oliver, VP of U.S. operations for field service optimization provider ServicePower. In such situations, adjusting the schedule falls to a dispatcher who can't possibly consider as many options as an automated system, resulting in wasted time and lowered productivity, said Oliver.
According to a 2006 study by research firm Aberdeen Group, more than 90 percent of large field service operations have or plan to implement an automated scheduling and dispatch solution, while only 64 percent of smaller companies are similarly positioned. These solutions can deliver handsome payoffs: Aberdeen found that best-in-class service firms enjoyed an average 28 percent boost in daily work orders completed per technician and a 70 percent improvement in service contract compliance.
Action and Reaction
A strong automated scheduling system creates efficient schedules and adjusts them on the fly to deal with unforeseen events. "We build highly optimized routes and schedules," said Stuart Bagshaw, president and CEO of Sapias. "Many folks just build a schedule, but not necessarily an optimized route to get the vehicle from one job to the next," he said. Sapias (and some other GPS-enabled solutions providers) also provides turn-by-turn driving directions to keep the driver on the planned route.
While Sapias can schedule a technician's entire day in advance, Bagshaw said that customers with volatile schedules (such as Time Warner Cable) are particularly well served by the company's dynamic scheduling engine. "The key is how you can reoptimize as the day unfolds," he explained. "There's a growing trend in the cable industry to not give the driver his whole schedule, just the first two stops and then feed him more."
That kind of optimization is impossible to carry out by hand. Benco Dental, a company with a fleet of 250 vehicles that provide supplies and services to dentists, recently abandoned a largely manual dispatching system for ServicePower. "We're able to handle more calls per day with the same number of dispatchers and increase the number of billable calls per day," said Richard Cohen, executive VP of Benco Dental.
"As our customer base has grown to include larger reactive service organizations, our technologies have gotten very good at dealing with same-day and next-day change," said ServicePower's Oliver. Due to advanced map-data caching, ServicePower's solution can "cost hundreds of thousands of schedules very quickly when a single event like a job extending by 10 minutes means you've got another scheduling problem to solve," said Oliver.
"If you're going to use an automated system to route and schedule, you have to be absolutely certain that the data you're working with is correct," said Sapias' Bagshaw. Even relatively advanced workforce management systems that rely on technicians and managers for fresh data are prone to errors that snarl schedules and reduce efficiency. "It's the ability to see exactly what's happening and compare that reality with what's being reported that helps us correct data that would otherwise be incorrect in the system," said Bagshaw.
As an example, Bagshaw cited the common case where a cable technician reports a job as completed (perhaps by entering it in a wireless handheld that's part of a workforce management system) but is then unexpectedly detained at the job site by an additional customer request. Bagshaw said that Sapias' system registers the tech's report but also recognizes that the truck, monitored by GPS, hasn't moved. This location awareness enables the system to keep the schedule up-to-date; if the next scheduled call is jeopardized by the delay, the system automatically reassigns it while reoptimizing the tech's schedule. "We take human nature out of the process," said Bagshaw.
Oliver noted the importance of parts inventory information in fully automated scheduling. By monitoring where parts are (in which trucks and depots) the system ensures that a responding technician always has the right part. This awareness also enables more complex optimizations such as dispatching two techs to the same job (one who has the right parts on hand, the other the right skills). "The ability to solve that parts-pickup plus service optimization leads to a big win for service organizations," said Oliver.
The amount of information these automated systems collect creates a valuable opportunity to show management a big-picture view of operations. "We are not a tool for drivers. We are for management," said Bagshaw. "We give them access to data they otherwise wouldn't see." Strong solutions offer customizable reporting so that the right decision makers get the right information. "Sapias is moving more and more into the business intelligence business," said Bagshaw. "I can provide a dashboard to the CEO of the cable company that shows the metrics he cares about -- We don't swamp people with data. We just show them what's interesting."
That window on operational details can be a great troubleshooting tool for businesses. "A field manager might see that 10 percent of the workforce is the worst offender in terms of not working the plan and he can dig in and see why that's happening," said Oliver.
"Now, we have visibility into business functions that were hidden before," said Benco's Cohen of his company's automated deployment. "We can more intelligently and profitably plan our services."
A well-deployed automated scheduling and dispatch system has the potential to generate revenues and savings in several ways. In Aberdeen's research, companies taking into account all service orders, constraints and technician capacity in their optimized scheduling realized, on average, a 20 percent increase in daily work orders completed per technician. The study also found a 12 percent improvement in first-call resolution rates and a 14 percent reduction in work orders completed late, illustrating how scheduling efficiencies can translate into a customer service improvement that could help retain customers and reduce churn.
Even rough calculations show promising ROI from optimized scheduling. Using the cable industry as an example, Bagshaw said that companies could easily generate an extra $800 per month per vehicle if using Sapias' system adds just one more completed job a week to each truck. He said Sapias charges about $50 per month per vehicle for its service, and that the initial hardware and installation costs about $500 per truck (a vendor-hosted subscription solution like Sapias or ServicePower has low upfront costs).
Along with increased profit comes reduced waste in the form of fewer unneeded truck rolls, lower mileage, less cash tied up in excess spare parts and reduced overtime. Benco's Cohen noted that his system now "minimizes windshield time, which is the big thing that sucks down your profitability."
"More dispatch is automated, so you don't need as many dispatchers," said Mike Alterman, senior product manager for scheduling solutions provider Astea. Other workforce savings are possible; Alterman said that in one customer's case, running Astea's solution on historical service records (generated using manual scheduling) produced schedules that completed the same number of calls without even using 20 field force units. Alternatively, an efficient solution allows growth without incurring more employee costs, as has been Benco's experience.
Automated systems that allow customers to make orders directly through a Web portal also lead to increased efficiencies. Astea's Debora Geiger, VP of marketing, said that the company's Web portal lets customers troubleshoot problems, request a service call, or check on the status of jobs already requested. "It decreases your call center traffic and costs. Customers come in through the Web, and they're not tying up your agents," said Geiger.
Bagshaw noted the potential for ancillary savings from an automated system. NSTAR, an electrical utility, is rolling out Sapias' solution after a pilot study found significant savings on fuel tax (the system records when a truck motor is being used to run the onboard crane, and those fuel expenditures aren't taxed) and fleet maintenance (thanks to early notification of engine diagnostic codes), as well as benefits from efficient scheduling. "The real value for our customers is in the dispatch and routing, but that side-benefit ROI more than pays for the system in its own right," said Bagshaw.
"There are two key goals of optimized scheduling and dispatch: increased field productivity and improved quality of service to the customer," said Oliver. The benefits to large field service businesses are unequivocal, and even smaller operations--especially those that aim to get bigger--stand to gain from improved efficiency and greater insight into how the business is working.
Peter M. Ferenczi is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and Paris.