Magazine Article | January 26, 2012

Real-World Field Service Scheduling: Give Dispatchers Tools To Meet SLAs

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Rick Veague, chief technology officer, IFS North America,

For companies with a mobile workforce, dispatchers are crucial to the success of your organization — do yours have the tools they need?

For any business with a mobile field service workforce, the dispatcher has one of the most important roles in the company. This individual or group of individuals plays a pivotal role between customer requirements and the service level that is in fact delivered.

On its simplest level, field service planning and scheduling technology is designed to eliminate the drudge work normally associated with the dispatcher’s role. This creates a healthier work environment and improves field service workforce efficiency while dramatically improving customer service and satisfaction.

Don’t Settle For The Status Quo
Traditionally, once the basic schedule is set, the dispatcher’s role is largely a reactive one. Often this means much of the day is spent interacting with customers who are wondering where their service tech is and techs calling in from the field to report no-shows, travel delays, or late-running jobs. Having experienced the instant feedback and world-class service modern technology provides, customers in both the business-to-business and consumer markets are more demanding than before. Waiting and a lack of clear communication are anathema in today’s highly competitive world, particularly for a consumer whose furnace is out or the utilities plant manager who has hundreds of customers without power. The dispatcher is forced to deal with this disconnect between customer expectations and the technology they have. Even if an automated scheduling engine is used, it may take an excessive period of time to plan a route for a service tech to follow. In situations where service level agreements (SLAs) are in place, there is little hope of ensuring these commitments are met.

Today, the dispatcher is forced to spend much of the day putting out fires until, late in the afternoon, they manually create a schedule for the next day, taking into consideration the demand for work to be done, the techs that are available, where they are located, access hours to the site, and what their certifications and skills are. Using this method, service is suboptimal, and a dispatcher can support no more than 15 to 20 field technicians.

The Role Of Automation
Three technologies are required to provide first-class service and allow that single dispatcher to support up to 100 service techs. First, there must be an enterprise software system in place that contains critical data, including work order information, customer and contract details — including SLAs — and information about the technicians themselves. Second, service technicians whose routes may change during the day need a mobile device (smartphone, pad, or specialized device). Finally, there must be a scheduling optimization engine that is as responsive to schedule changes as your business needs it to be. If routes change dynamically or in instances where you have very demanding SLAs, then a scheduling optimization engine that cannot respond in near real time or plans the route in batch is simply inadequate.

As it plans your route, your scheduling optimization engine is working on a problem that can be likened to solving a Rubik’s cube — only a much more complex, multidimensional one! Any adolescent can solve the cube in 100 moves using some basic algorithms you can learn on YouTube. But with more advanced algorithms it has been proven that it is never necessary to make more than 20 moves to solve that cube. Similarly, in a time-critical environment, your scheduling optimization engine needs algorithms designed and optimized for field-based service to solve that puzzle of finding the best technician or ideal route in seconds instead of minutes or hours.

Once these three elements are in place and technicians are routed automatically in an optimal enough way to satisfy customers more reliably, the dispatcher can focus on the small number of difficult exceptions and add value to the business including improving customer service and providing better support to techs. All of these things are possible once the nonvalue-added work of the dispatcher is eliminated through automation.