By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
DISH Network has improved technician productivity by 10% with cloud-based software and rugged tablet computers.
The pay TV industry is highly competitive, and cable and satellite service providers have to work harder each year to attract new customers and keep existing ones. An area of great opportunity where providers can differentiate themselves is in field service. For most customers, the only company representatives they ever see face-to-face are the technicians who come to their home to install their equipment and remedy any problems they may have with their service. Because they are the “face” of the company, it is crucial for those technicians be professional, competent, and perhaps most important, on time and equipped with the right tools for the job.
DISH Network is one of the country’s leading satellite TV providers, with nearly 14 million customers. As the company rapidly expanded its business, its largely manual technician management solutions began to strain under the increased capacity. Prior to 2010, DISH’s technicians communicated with dispatchers via their mobile phones, and work orders were managed via manual, paper-based processes. With more than 16,000 technicians, dispatchers, and managers spread out over all 50 states, it was increasingly difficult to effectively manage the mobile workforce.
Identifying The Need For Modern Mobile Technology
“We lacked critical technology in the field, and what we did have was either aging or reaching capacity in terms of supporting the size and scope of our future initiatives,” says Erik Carlson, executive vice president at DISH.
“Our technicians didn’t have the tools they needed to be successful and confident in the field, and the back office was burdened with manual tasks. It was time to make a change.” For example, dispatchers spent an inordinate amount of time routing and rerouting technicians manually, and the company had very little visibility into where the technicians were in the field or how long they were taking at each job site. “We were scheduling with manual spreadsheets, and although we used some online mapping tools, the routing was largely manual as well,” Carlson says. “Work orders were faxed or handed directly to the technicians. There was very little automation.”
Modernization was in order. Carlson and the company CIO, Mike McClaskey, drafted a road map for transforming DISH’s field operations that included automating tasks in the field and in the dispatch office. “We believed that the process needed to start by putting mobile technology in the hands of the technicians,” Carlson says. “Then we would evaluate solutions to provide better visibility to the back office.”
That meant developing a homegrown mobile application that would help manage the field force while DISH searched for a more comprehensive solution. “We started in 2009 with a mobility project that put handheld devices in the hands of the technicians,” Carlson says. “That showed us that there were clearly benefits to using that technology, but it also revealed gaps in the mobile solution we deployed, and we learned the key requirements we would need to satisfy moving forward.”
Primarily, the new mobile solution would have to be fully integrated with a workforce management system that fed data into DISH’s existing billing, CRM (customer relationship management), and other back end systems — which its homegrown system couldn’t do. “The solution had to be cutting edge, scalable, and have a smart road map to satisfy our current requirements and accommodate future demands. We didn’t have time or funds to spend on a lengthy deployment, so the solution needed to have a proven performance record to help reduce our risk. We also wanted to work with a partner that shared our vision and passion for the customer experience,” Carlson says.
Carlson and his team researched the available solutions and directly evaluated a handful of workforce management vendors, looking at their technical abilities as well as their financial stability and their ability to work closely with DISH’s own IT staff. The company ultimately chose TOA Technologies ETAdirect Solution Suite. TOA provides a full suite of workforce management solutions, including planning and scheduling, field technician management, appointment management, routing, and customer communication modules.
The Value Of Cloud-Based Software
TOA’s solution is a cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution, which would allow DISH to deploy the system faster and at a lower up-front cost. “Other vendors had SaaS options, but they seemed like an offering they added on as an afterthought rather than their core solution,” Carlson says. “TOA’s system was really built as a cloud-based solution from the ground up, plus they had a solid track record within the pay TV industry.”
Carlson says TOA also had a more intuitive user interface, a mobile solution that was device-agnostic, and a flexible routing engine. “The key was also their live demonstration, which showed us how the system would work with DISH,” Carlson says. “They also presented a business case analysis that articulated how the combination of their solution and our own DISH process improvements would deliver the value we were looking for.”
The company spent seven months developing system requirements and validating the solution design. DISH’s internal IT staff integrated the TOA system with its own proprietary middleware solution so that data could be fed into DISH’s billing and CRM systems. As the project moved forward, DISH’s system requirements remained relatively unchanged, although TOA was able to deliver additional functionality that DISH hadn’t originally anticipated.
“We had fairly concrete expectations and requirements when we started, and those did not change as we validated and tested the system,” Carlson says. “If anything, as we got deeper into the solution set, some of the things we thought we would have to wait to deploy wound up becoming part of the initial solution.” For instance, TOA was able to immediately provide the ability to identify work orders that were running behind schedule and dynamically shift subsequent appointments to other technicians.
TOA had to provide some customization of the ETAdirect solution during the development phase, centered on integrating TOA with the existing middleware solution using TOA’s APIs. “We also asked TOA to enhance the offline capability in their mobile application,” Carlson says. “We had an offline capability in our homegrown application, and we wanted the TOA solution to work similarly to that so that technicians out of range of the wireless network could still access their work orders and routes.”
Device-Agnostic Solution Enables Hardware Flexibility
DISH also found value in the fact that the mobile component of TOA’s solution is device-agnostic. “So, while we’re using Windows-based rugged tablets, some of our partners [including third-party contractors] can use other devices,” Carlson says. “They may use tablets based on the Android OS or iOS. That gave us the opportunity to not be tied to one particular hardware provider.”
In 2010, DISH began rolling out the TOA solution to its mobile workforce and dispatch centers. The company wanted to deploy the solution as quickly as possible in order to accelerate the benefits. Carlson says they were confident enough in the solution design that, instead of a traditional pilot, DISH gradually rolled it out by geographic region from west to east. “We launched the first phase deployment by going live with around 500 users,” Carlson says. “After 45 days, we validated that it met our needs and continued deployment to the remainder of the user group over just three months. At our peak, we were training 1,000 users per week.” TOA trained the initial group of users, while DISH staff took on the remainder of the training as the deployment expanded.
Now, work orders are sent wirelessly to each technician’s Data Limited (DLI) 8300 rugged tablet, along with routing and other information. “The technicians can see every aspect of what they need to do to complete the work for each customer,” Carlson says. Jobs are routed and scheduled automatically using the ETAdirect solution, which has freed back office staff from hours of manual scheduling tasks. While Carlson declined to share DISH’s targets for appointment scheduling windows, TOA claims the ability to deliver 1-hour appointment windows with 96% accuracy.
Because dispatching is now less labor-intensive, DISH was able to reduce its back office staff while simultaneously increasing their responsibilities. Dispatchers are now so productive that the company has been able to increase its technician-to-dispatcher ratio by more than 200%.
Once a job is completed, technicians can close out the work order on the 8300 tablet and allow the customer to sign off directly on the device. This has eliminated paperwork in the field and provides DISH with immediate updates on the status and cost of each job. “I think the absolute biggest difference with the new solution is that our operation has much better visibility and insight into what’s going on in the field, and that helps us manage our workforce,” Carlson says. Within nine months of deploying ETAdirect, the combination of improved visibility and more efficient scheduling and routing has helped DISH reduce miles driven by 5% while increasing technician productivity by more than 10%. “Each field technician is on time more often and completes more appointments each day,” Carlson says.
Back office staff now have a single view of every technician working on every appointment. This makes it easier for dispatchers to see if an order is in jeopardy of a late arrival. TOA’s predictive scheduling functionality allows DISH to know how long each job should take. If a technician is taking longer than expected, the dispatcher can clearly see on the map view that the next job could be delayed and intervene by moving that job to another available technician in the immediate area. Customers are automatically alerted via email, text message, or automated phone call with appointment reminders. DISH is also testing the system so that those alerts can be used to update customers about technician arrival times and appointment status changes.
Visibility has also greatly improved. Instead of multiple spreadsheets, managers now have an easy-to-understand map view of the entire service force. “When I talk to managers, the one thing I consistently hear is that they can really ‘see the day’ better than they could in the past,” Carlson says. “They can see if the workforce is meeting customer expectations and manage where the workforce is. That improves the productivity of the larger group.”
Mobile Solution Increases Efficiency, Reduces OT
With that visibility, DISH has better insight into how long it takes technicians to perform certain tasks, so the company can make better scheduling decisions. “That’s allowed us to eliminate some of the unproductive time in a technician’s schedule,” Carlson says. “We can more precisely schedule those jobs, knowing how long they should take, and eliminate gaps in the schedule that may have occurred otherwise.” The result: The company has reduced overtime by more than 2 hours per week, per technician.
DISH has gone through several version upgrades of the TOA system seamlessly. Right now, the company is upgrading its other back office solutions, and TOA has continued to work closely with the internal IT staff to ensure the integration with those systems remains operable.
DISH’s story is an example of how you can use mobile technology not only to increase efficiency, but to stay competitive. And the company isn’t done yet — Carlson says DISH continues to leverage the visibility afforded by the workforce management solution in order to gauge technician performance and set new goals for its service organization. “We’re really of the mindset that we want to continue to do better,” Carlson says. “We’re constantly striving to improve our customer experience and making continuous improvements to our business model.”
Predictive Scheduling Ensures Improved Service
For DISH Network, on-time arrivals and technician productivity are key metrics for making sure its field service force is working effectively. When the company set out to find a new workforce management solution, automated scheduling to replace its manual processes was a critical component. DISH’s goal was to more effectively utilize its technicians and to make certain customers weren’t left waiting.
TOA Technologies ETAdirect Solution Suite was able to improve DISH’s arrival times and boost productivity with its predictive scheduling capabilities. ETAdirect is powered by a patented predictive analytics engine. This analytics engine helps DISH meet its service windows by taking required work skills, location, employee availability, inventory, cost of labor, and time commitments into account. It continuously measures how long it takes individual employees to do specific jobs and uses the data to automate appointment scheduling and routing. TOA cites that managing this process for 10,000 jobs takes less than 4 minutes in some instances and the efficiency results in workers taking on and completing more appointments each day. On average, ETAdirect users have yielded results such as daily job completion rates increasing by 40% and on-time performance improving by 30%.
The predictive analytics engine’s continuous learning and evaluation of information in real time also provides companies the ability to give the most accurate predictions of service windows. Typically, organizations using ETAdirect are able to reduce their predicted service windows down to within 1 hour. Further, the solution can serve as a proactive customer communications tool. Throughout the service experience, customers can be continuously kept in the loop via interactive communications. Also, customers can select what communication medium they want to receive updates through – voice, text, email, Web, and social media are available. This functionality can create a better experience for the customer and cut costs by reducing expensive inbound “where’s my tech?” calls by an average of 50%. For more information on TOA Technologies, visit www.toatech.com.