Stopping to ask for directions can be one of the hardest challenges a male faces. Outdated technology can put you in a similar predicament. Do you keep puttering along with a legacy system, hoping familiar scenery will soon appear, or do you swallow your pride and get help?
Southern Union Gas (Austin, TX), a division of Southern Union Company, is one of the top 10 natural gas distributors in the United States. The utility company serves more than 500,000 residential, commercial, and industrial customers throughout Texas. In 1992, Southern Union Gas implemented a workforce management solution that equipped field technicians with hard-mounted laptop PCs in their service trucks. While the system did help the utility company cut down on paperwork, it couldn't help Southern Union Gas reduce its appointment scheduling window below four hours. Even though the utility company is the only gas provider in the cities it operates in in Texas, it realized that it wasn't helping anyone by giving vague appointment times to customers. "With so many two-income families, people cannot afford to wait half a day for a service representative to show up," says David Stevens, president of Southern Union Gas. "Even though we don't have any gas competitors to worry about, dissatisfied customers do have the option of converting their homes to propane-based or electric-based heating."
Streamline Field Support
In addition to wanting to improve customer service, Southern Union Gas wanted to streamline its field workers' routes to avoid unnecessary driving. "Our legacy system could not account for changes made to a technician's schedule within the work day," recalls Stevens. "If a technician had an emergency call to handle, such as a gas leak, he would have to leave his scheduled assignment, which would put all the other assignments further behind schedule." With the original workforce management solution, a dispatch person had to manually coordinate where the next closest technician was, contact the technician, determine whether the technician could pick up another job, and manually reroute the technician's schedule. Because the workforce management solution could not accommodate automatic rescheduling, customers had to wait half a day for a service technician.
When Southern Union Gas looked to do an upgrade in 1997, it found its laptops and servers were obsolete. After doing an exhaustive search, the company chose a workforce management solution from PointServe (Austin, TX) called ServiceLogic and replaced its laptops with ruggedized handheld PCs from Itronix (Spokane, WA). "Many of the workforce automation solutions we researched offered paperless processing and routing," says Stevens. "But, we found that the algorithms used in the PointServe solution provided more accurate route scheduling and enabled more flexible rescheduling than any of the other solutions we looked at." ServiceLogic works similar to online destination sites such as MapQuest.com and whereis.com. Once an initial starting address and a destination address are keyed into the system, the software computes how far it is to the destination as well as specific directions for getting there. Dispatch workers at Southern Union Gas can use the address finder technology as well as other scheduling features to determine who is the best representative to send on an emergency call and who is the best person to cover for that person. And because the service representatives have handheld PCs instead of hard-mounted laptops, they can send and receive information without having to be in their service trucks. "Using our new workforce automation solution, we will cut down our service appointment window by more than 50%," says Stevens. "Additionally, our service technicians will realize a 20% increase in efficiency due to reduced driving times and more flexible scheduling."
GPS - Cutting Edge Or Invasion Of Privacy?
The next step that Southern Union Gas is considering is adding GPS (global positioning system) functionality to its repertoire. This would enable the company to track where field workers are at all times and permit even faster rerouting. "For this kind of technology, it is important to make sure the workers see the value; otherwise it creates a 'big brother' mindset," says Stevens. If, after thorough testing, it proves to be in the best interest of the company and its employees, you can bet that Southern Union Gas will quickly start mapping out the best way to get there.