Today, it is increasingly common for mobile employees to work in the field for days or even weeks without actually coming into the office. If your field techs can accomplish the desired goals without making frequent trips into an office, this can be a great system — as long as you have measures in place that ensure they are operating in an efficient manner. The effectiveness of mobile work depends greatly on the method you use to dispatch your workers and the visibility you have into the activity of your field techs while they're on location (and not). Are they performing field service tasks in an efficient manner, or are they lackadaisically working through their jobs? Are they doing everything they can to be sure your customers are satisfied, or are they just doing the bare minimum? Do your techs have an effective manner for retrieving inventory for a job, or do they commonly make expensive return trips? If yours is a company with a small field service force, you can probably monitor your field techs pretty easily. However, if your company's field service force is large, maintaining visibility becomes much more of a challenge.
IKON Office Solutions is a provider of document management solutions and services, including copiers, printers, MFPs (multifunction peripherals), and document management software. To install and service its equipment at customer sites across the United States, IKON deploys a field service force of more than 4,000 techs. Each tech is responsible for a certain geographical area for which they perform equipment installation and configuration, scheduled preventative maintenance, and repairs. IKON has more than 300 sales and services offices throughout the United States, but each tech only visits their local office as needed to interact with a manager or pick up a piece of inventory from that location. In 2007, IKON began deploying a field service solution to streamline its method for dispatching remote techs and to increase the visibility the company has into their activities.
Time-Consuming IVR Lacks Accuracy, Detail
IKON has a centralized dispatch center that determines tech activity based on scheduled appointments and customer calls for repair. Until the company deployed its field service solution, dispatch of techs was completed using cell phones and an IVR (interactive voice response) system. The dispatch center would send an alert for a job to a tech's cell phone via text message, and the tech would call in to the IVR system to listen to the details of the job and obtain the customer information before calling the customer with an ETA.
Once on-site, tasks completed were also recorded using the IVR system. The tech would initiate repair on the piece of equipment by calling in and entering the serial number of the product into the IVR system. Similarly, the tech was required to enter the serial number when work was completed to close the job. Inventory parts were ordered by punching inventory numbers into the IVR system. In addition, the techs completed job debriefings via the IVR system by listening to common job scenarios and pressing the number on the phone pad that best correlated with the task performed.
The IVR system presented various inefficiencies for IKON. Techs were often at customer sites where cellular coverage was compromised (such as hospitals). Therefore, techs had to ask customers to use their phones to call into the IVR system. Inaccurate entry of the 8- to 15-digit serial numbers was common, because they were manually keyed in. The IVR system would recognize discrepancies and pull them into a queue to be reviewed by field service management, which was a time-consuming process.
Errors could also occur in the manual entry of information from meter readings on equipment (information such as total pages printed, color pages printed, etc.) and inventory part numbers needed to order (each tech keeps common inventory items in stock in their own vehicle and orders additional inventory as needed from one of IKON's several warehouse locations). The techs had no inventory visibility into what the tech 15 miles down the road had or what inventory the closest sales and service office had, so they'd order it from the warehouse. Therefore, techs often waited for an order to ship from the warehouse when there may have been a faster way for them to obtain the necessary part and complete the job. Lastly, the IVR method for debriefing made it impossible for techs to provide any detail, meaning important information (e.g. the customer has had a recurring problem or needs to schedule another appointment) was sometimes lost. "Overall, the cellular phone and IVR system was time-consuming, presented a high probability of inaccurate data, and provided us with little insight into tech activity," says Tracey Rothenberger, senior VP and CIO at IKON.
Choose Customizable Field Service Solution To Fit Your Needs
To alleviate these inefficiencies, IKON researched four possible field service solutions in 2006 before landing on a customizable Agent Field Service software platform from Agentek (to read why IKON chose Agentek, see sidebar below). IKON was able to customize the Agentek mobile field service platform to fit its field service processes, so that techs can follow the same steps they always have, but with the benefit of real-time communication with dispatch, real-time visibility into IKON's Oracle database, and the automation of some of the manual functions required by the IVR system. IKON's Agentek solution was coined IKON Edge and is deployed on various Motorola handheld computers, including the MC75.
Agentek and IKON worked together to customize IKON Edge, and IKON's development team integrated the application with the company's Oracle system. Agentek loaded the proprietary IKON Edge software (to which the handheld software communicates) onto a server at IKON's data center. Once this was accomplished, rollout to the field techs began. IKON chose to deploy the solution to a group of 300 techs in the Atlanta area first. "We chose this group because Agentek is located in Atlanta and would be available to assist as needed with the rollout," says Rothenberger. "Also, that group of techs has historically been accepting of new technology." For the first deployment, Agentek assisted IKON in the activation of cellular coverage and loading of the mobile IKON Edge application onto the handhelds. "Provisioning and configuring hundreds of new devices at once can be quite a feat," says Rothenberger. "Agentek helped with this until we grew familiar with the technology and process and were able to use our internal resources instead."
After the initial implementation was completed successfully, the IKON Edge solution was rolled out to the remainder of the techs in phases of 500 to 1,000 techs at a time. IKON used a three-pronged training method to train techs on the IKON Edge solution. First, IKON's training department created documentation that outlined the old process as compared with the new process and provided information about the handheld device the tech would be using with the IKON Edge software. "The documentation, along with the handheld, was given to the tech about six weeks before they were expected to go live on the system so they could familiarize themselves with the technology," says Rothenberger. "At this time, a classroom session was held to walk the techs through the various functions of the solution, such as how to enter meter reads and order inventory." Then, just before go-live, there was refresher classroom training to review this information. Finally, after the techs had been using the solution for a couple of weeks, IKON gathered them for a roundtable discussion to discuss how the solution was working, answer any questions, and address any concerns.
Field Service Application Automates Processes, Increases Visibility
Today, all field tech activity is visible in real time, and field techs are connected in real time to IKON's Oracle database. As a dispatch worker enters a service call into Oracle, it is immediately sent to the appropriate tech's handheld, who can accept or decline it. Techs are also able to rearrange the order of the jobs they have within parameters set in the IKON Edge application. For instance, if they are at a job that is taking longer than expected, they alert the IKON Edge application so that dispatch can reassign jobs the tech won't make it to. Also, if a high-priority call comes in, jobs can be rearranged appropriately. Most importantly, this activity is visible by the dispatch workers, so jobs can be assigned as efficiently as possible and customers can be alerted of potential delays to avoid dissatisfaction.
When a tech arrives at a customer location, they scan the serial number of the equipment being serviced with a bar code scanner embedded in the handheld. Techs can record meter reads and enter job notes in the handheld while on-site, so important information that was lost before can easily be recorded at the time of service. For instance, if the tech notices something about the piece of equipment serviced that may need attention soon, that information can be entered into the Oracle database via the handheld. Techs have real-time visibility into customer information in Oracle, so they are aware of when the last service was performed at that site and if there are any special needs of the customer. With access to this information, techs are able to provide better, more proactive, customer service.
The solution has also provided the techs with real-time inventory visibility. Nationwide inventory is managed in IKON's Oracle system, so the integration of IKON Edge with Oracle means each tech can see what inventory is in their vehicle, what inventory the techs nearby have, what inventory the nearest sales and service office has, and what inventory is only available from the warehouse. "The IKON Edge solution facilitates tech-to-tech inventory transfers, which improves customer service through faster call resolution [by eliminating the time waiting for inventory to arrive from the warehouse before completing the job]," says Rothenberger. "In addition, parts consumption is tracked in real time, so we have better inventory visibility as a company overall." Lastly, techs are required to scan the equipment serial number at the end of each job, so IKON knows exactly how long techs are at each customer site and what was accomplished during that time, allowing the company to make sure its techs are operating efficiently. Since deployment of the solution, IKON has seen an 8% increase in the number of machines serviced per tech.
For more on field service efficiencies, visit ISMinfo.com/jp/5855.
Due to the increased visibility into tech activity, better overall inventory insight, and higher productivity (resulting from the elimination of IVR data entry), IKON has received 119% payback since implementation of the multimillion-dollar solution began in 2007. IKON plans to update the handheld computers as new models become available. In addition, the company is considering adding GPS-based routing information into IKON Edge.
It is beneficial for any size company to be knowledgeable about what its mobile workers are doing in the field and to provide those workers with tools to help them perform as efficiently as possible. For a company with thousands of field workers, these tools aren't beneficial — they're crucial. You can't afford to wonder if your workers are doing what they should be or if they have the tools they need to do their jobs most effectively.