From The Editor | February 21, 2007

Don't Wait To Automate

Advancements in wireless data networks are removing the connectivity boundaries to automating field service forces.

Integrated Solutions, March 2007

It's no doubt that field service automation is becoming a standard part of doing business for manufacturers, utilities, and other service companies. In a recent study by AberdeenGroup, 72% of C-level executives stated that postsales service was either very or extremely important to their companies' overall financial and operational performance, and 83% of those organizations surveyed responded that their customers require response times of less than 24 hours. With a focus on service and a goal of satisfying customers through timely and accurate service, you must turn to field service automation.

The field service scheduling and routing software you implement is a key component — getting the right tech to the right place at the right time, while minimizing downtime and travel time, is essential. Also important is the hardware equipment the tech uses, whether a rugged handheld, a laptop or tablet, or a PDA. You should spend time investigating the features of each device to ensure it can withstand the field environments and be easily used by your field service workers.

But software and hardware alone do not form a field service automation solution. No, you must consider the wireless backbone — the conduit through which the scheduling and job information is sent and received. Often, this component is overlooked, and companies piggyback on the wireless plans they have in place for cell phones or mobile e-mail. Or, companies avoid the WWAN (wireless WAN) challenge, thinking it will cost too much, and have their workers communicate only through Wi-Fi networks at customer sites or dispatch garages. But the latter method does not enable real-time communication, which is becoming more necessary to improve service (knowing about problems or delays immediately), increase profits (by finishing more jobs in a day), and accurately measure performance (to maintain the improvements you've realized).

Wireless data networks have come a long way and are now considered to be wireless broadband networks. The three main carriers — AT&T (formerly Cingular), Verizon, and Sprint Nextel — have all been scrambling to improve their GPRS/EDGE (AT&T) and CDMA/EVDO (Verizon and Sprint) networks. Now, the pending "3.5 generation" networks of last year are becoming realities: AT&T' UMTS/HSDPA network is now in more than 165 metropolitan areas and can support data transfer speeds of 400 to 700 kbps (kilobits per second). Sprint's Rev A network is in 21 metro areas and supports downlink speeds of 600 kbps to 1.4 mbps (megabits per second) and uplink speeds of 350 to 500 kbps. These networks not only exist, but are accessible via PC cards or integrated wireless radios in some laptops and PDAs. And data plan costs are falling; you can get unlimited access for around $60 a month per tech.

With increased wireless speeds, you can transfer more information more quickly, enabling your techs to do more in the field. Your cable installer? Provide him access to CRM (customer relationship management) and sales data, and he can upsell customers with additional service or digital phone lines. Don't be afraid to sell and install more advanced products because you'll have to invest in more training for techs — they can access industrial drawings and even talk to engineers via Web phones and cameras. These are just a few examples of the additional field force functionality WWANs can enable.

The case is there for deploying a mobile field service solution, and more organizations are adopting them every day. To remain competitive, automated scheduling and mobilized field service workers have become standard operating procedure. Make sure you don't get left behind.