Magazine Article | December 20, 2006

Hanging Up On Communications Inefficiencies

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A push-to-talk field reporting and documentation service keeps cable service technicians in close touch with headquarters.

Integrated Solutions, January 2007

Even companies whose business is rooted in communications face communications challenges. Such was the case of Metropolitan Cable Communications, a Woodside, NY-based contractor for the Time Warner Cable Division of Time Warner Inc. Metropolitan Cable handles digital television, cable modem, and telephone installation and repair services for residents and commercial establishments in the New York boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.

In early 2006, Metropolitan Cable's management identified a need to improve communications between its 110 field technicians and help desk personnel at corporate headquarters. "At the time, technicians calling the help desk could wait on hold for 20 minutes before reaching someone about a situation such as a customer with a scheduled appointment not answering the door or a need for updated dispatch instructions," says Tracy Foti, assistant general manager at Metropolitan Cable. While Foti and her colleagues knew technology could solve Metropolitan Cable's problems, the solution had to be relatively inexpensive. Decision makers also wanted to avoid any application that would require technicians to carry equipment other than their cellular telephones. The first and only solution they evaluated was NextMail, a "push-to-talk" mobile documentation service developed by Pacific DataVision (PDV) and available nationwide to Nextel wireless communications subscribers exclusively through Sprint. "We already had Nextel service, and there was no other hardware involved, so once we saw this system, we stopped looking," Foti asserts.

Implemented in April 2006, the application was purchased through Nextel. It permits technicians to send e-mail messages with their cellular phones using the walkie-talkie button and without typing. PDV hosts the application, which is accessed by technicians on their cellular telephones and by help desk employees through their own e-mail. Essentially, NextMail calls (i.e. walkie-talkie calls) are made using existing phones. For example, technicians can scroll to the contact "customer not home" on the phone when a customer does not answer the door. There are similar contacts to choose from when it is time to update dispatch data or execute a modem certification.

To contact the help desk, a technician first selects the appropriate contact on the cellular telephone and subsequently the push-to-talk button. The tech then speaks a message into the unit. Help desk personnel immediately receive an e-mail containing the appropriate message — a voice mail documented by the sender — along with a text reply box for sending an SMS (short message service) message back to the technician's cellular phone. Messages are time- and date-stamped, and help desk staff are alerted to their arrival via audible chimes on their personal computers.

Foti says the service has decreased call response and information verification times from the previous average of 20 minutes to about 5 minutes. "Since it's faster for the technicians and the help desk personnel to exchange information through NextMail messaging, no one has to put anyone on hold anymore to resolve an issue. And, the technicians aren't forced to wait around to find out whether they should go on to the next job or remain where they are," says Foti.

The fact that the technology allows help desk staff to prioritize call-handling also contributes to the time savings. E-mail subject lines, based on which key technicians push on their phones, are customized to reflect why each call is being made to the desk. Help desk personnel can then grapple with the most important problems, such as assisting a technician who is not getting a response when ringing a customer's doorbell, before handling less pressing matters, like the need to update a customer's cable modem certification.

Management and supervisory personnel can also send simultaneous, on-the-fly text messages to all personnel in the field advising them of situations that affect everyone (e.g. system-wide difficulties due to equipment problems), and to specific technicians about individual messages (e.g. information about changes in job sequences).

Foti says the e-mail trails generated by the service make technicians and help desk staff more accountable for their work than in the past, bolstering technician call-handling efficiencies and improving customer service. "Now I can see what calls have come in, whether a technician did or did not report a situation at a certain time, when a response was generated, what the response actually was, etc.," she explains.