Magazine Article | March 1, 2002

Service On The Move

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Call center dispatching to wireless mobile computers enables a major AAA auto club to beat the emergency road services clock. More than 8,000 times a day, the system helps get members' vehicles rolling again.

Integrated Solutions, March 2002

A stranded motorist tries one last time to turn over the ignition on his stalled vehicle. The final attempt begins with a brief sputter, quickly ending in silence. Or, near silence, anyway. As usual, the crickets seem to be up late.

Only 20 minutes earlier, the former marvel of the industrial revolution had been poised to complete its 100,000th mile. However, at least for now, the odometer is tauntingly halted at 99,996. All the concrete and asphalt in their road warrior pasts have carried vehicle and driver only as far as this particular point in time and space - three a.m. in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, this motorist has all the tools he needs to get his vehicle back in motion. Not particularly handy with a wrench or a jack, he has wisely brought along his cell phone and, more importantly, his AAA auto club membership card.

Reaching stranded customers is a challenge faced more than 8,000 times per day by the California State Automobile Association (CSAA) (San Francisco). With more than four million members, CSAA is the nation's second largest AAA (American Automobile Association) affiliate. In order to retain its affiliate-in-good-standing status, as well as maintain and grow its membership base, CSAA strives to demonstrate unwavering compliance with AAA performance standards. A key metric is the ability to provide emergency road service within 30 minutes of a member's request, 80% of the time. Says Joe Roberts, CSAA's manager of product implementation for automotive services, "Response time in the field is a hot button for clubs. We do whatever we can to get service out to our members."

To keep pace with the demand, CSAA's Automotive Services division relies on multiple call centers, which dispatch emergency road services via a network of more than 350 independently owned towing companies and CSAA's subsidiary company, AutoGuardian. Crucial to providing fast 24/7 service is a digital dispatch system that connects the call centers to mobile computers installed in service vehicles.

Willingness To Travel - A CRM Requirement
CSAA's digital dispatch system is the result of CRM (customer relationship management) initiatives at both national and local levels. AAA National (Heathrow, FL) wanted to support its 1-800 super number for emergency road service. Rather than purchase a boxed call center solution, it developed D2000, a proprietary call receiving and dispatching system. CSAA adopted D2000 in 1997. Using D2000's central database, affiliates can now share pertinent membership information, as well as exchange billing for services provided to each other's members. "Although each affiliate club operates independently, AAA is capable of making emergency road services seamless across the United States and Canada," Roberts says.

As it worked to accommodate the national call routing system, CSAA consolidated its dispatching centers. While CSAA still serves a geographic area encompassing northern California and the state of Nevada, it does so from 4 call centers, down from the 17 it operated prior to D2000. (CSAA also serves Utah but has not yet implemented D2000 there.)

Heading into the D2000 era, CSAA relied heavily on two-way radio dispatching. Nevertheless, RF operations weren't hassle-free. Drivers further away from the radio base station became frustrated when other drivers benefitted from stronger RF signals. "The dispatchers and the drivers are always racing against the clock," Roberts explains. "With small clubs, radios are fine because there isn't a high demand for talk time. But, we might have 50 trucks on the same radio frequency, all attempting to communicate at the same time. During peak periods, drivers could be delayed in receiving information that would direct them to the location of the disabled vehicle."

Digital dispatch addressed the problems. AAA National brought in Mentor Engineering (Calgary, Alberta) to design the middleware needed to connect D2000-based dispatch centers with in-truck mobile data computers, which Mentor also provided. Already, 2/3 of CSAA's contract stations have accommodated the Mentor-enabled digital dispatch system, with more than 1,100 trucks equipped with mobile data computers. Additionally, the 80 or so trucks in the AutoGuardian fleet are all connected to the digital system.

Call Centers - Wire In, Wireless Out
Now, when a AAA member calls the 800 number, D2000 routes the call across AT&T's network to a particular club, based on area code and prefix. When the call arrives at a CSAA call center, for instance, a customer service rep (CSR) takes the call and enters pertinent information, including the vehicle make, model, year, and current location. After the CSR records the information, the call is posted to a dispatcher, who determines which truck should be contacted.

While CSRs are taking calls, dispatchers are constantly monitoring truck location and status in order to set and update PTAs (promised time of arrivals) for service across CSAA's service coverage zones. Those efforts are facilitated by GPS (global positioning system) circuitry in the Mentor mobile computers. As calls come in, CSRs can access the PTAs and relay them to members in an effort to reassure them that help is on the way.

To communicate with the service trucks, dispatchers use either a variety of assigned auto club radio frequencies or a private Cingular Wireless network. In most cases, the request for service is digitally directed via the Cingular Wireless network to only one driver's mobile computer. A particular contract station may have more than one truck within range, however. In that case, the dispatcher may use the RF system (now less vulnerable to communications logjams) to announce the call to all of the contractor's nearby drivers before sending digital information to the one who will make the service call.

During digital communication, D2000 populates service request information to screens on the mobile computer, which beeps until the driver acknowledges the request. Function keys on the computer enable drivers to accept or decline requests, as well as indicate whether they are en route, have arrived, are providing particular services, are off duty, and so on. When a service call has been completed, the driver clears the terminal, at which time D2000 sends the transaction into an accounting module for payment.

Digital Dispatch Stamps Performance
Using the digital dispatch system, CSAA's call center agents have greatly reduced the time it takes to dispatch incoming calls. Using RF communication alone, dispatchers can get requests out to trucks in, on average, 45 to 60 seconds. With the digital system, it now takes only 7 to 10 seconds. That time reduction has enabled CSAA to consistently surpass the required service standard. The system has also enabled the club to more effectively monitor the performance of specific CSRs, dispatchers, and drivers. Because D2000 automatically puts time stamps on entries to the system, CSAA can generate reports on elapsed time between various stages in call center and service truck activities.

Advanced Tracking - GPS And AVL
CSAA plans to enhance its call center consolidation efforts by making use of AVL (automatic vehicle location) tools already available in D2000. Currently, the Mentor units' GPS circuitry provides latitude and longitude information that CSRs and dispatchers access from dropdown menus. "One of the struggles in consolidating the call centers is having dispatchers who aren't familiar with the geography of places far from where they live," Roberts explains. The AVL tools would supplement the dropdown menus with monitors displaying electronic maps indicating the exact position of every tow truck within a particular zone of operation. "The maps would likely decrease our response time even more," Roberts believes. They would also increase CSAA's chances of quickly locating that vehicle waiting to be jumpstarted or towed on its way to odometer milestone 100,000.