Magazine Article | April 27, 2012

Standardized Software, Device Flexibility Simplify Mobility

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

Questar Gas improves scheduling and mobile execution with an integrated field service software platform.

How do you optimize an already-optimized field service organization? Questar Gas found a way — through the deployment of iPhones and Toughbooks running ClickSoftware’s mobility solution.

Intelligent scheduling and mobility solutions play a key role in the utility industry — when a customer calls, they want to know when a tech will arrive to fix their issue. Questar Gas, which provides natural gas service to more than 920,000 customers across Utah and small sections of Idaho and Wyoming, has upgraded its scheduling, mobility, and workforce management solutions to a common platform in order to optimize technician scheduling, streamline execution, and improve back end support issues.

Questar Gas has had mobile technology in place for more than 20 years. During a scheduled upgrade in 2006, the company began evaluating new mobile scheduling and dispatch solutions for its 345 mobile employees and technicians. The company ultimately selected ClickSoftware’s ClickSchedule product because of its scheduling engine performance. “We needed the scheduling engine to efficiently route the work so that we could get more jobs done each day and reduce our driving time,” says Stanna Headden, IT project manager at Questar.

The key objectives for the mobile solution at Questar Gas were to give the technicians a tool for better executing their jobs and the ability to easily report their status and activities, while being able to access and modify important back end information regardless of whether they are online or offline. Optimization starts with planning the best routes for scheduling the right people to the right time at the right place, but Questar Gas concluded that optimization does not end there: Once the technician is at the work site, optimization is also about getting the job done better and faster, minimizing paperwork, and maximizing responsiveness to unexpected events.

Questar Gas initially implemented ClickSchedule for its routing and scheduling operations, along with a separate solution for its mobile workforce management. Although those solutions worked well, having multiple vendors involved in the field service operation created issues when it came to support. To simplify, last year Questar Gas moved forward with the rest of the ClickSoftware suite, implementing the full product line, including ClickLocate and ClickMobile. “By standardizing on one solution, there’s no question about who owns the problem if we have any issues,” Headden says. “If we have questions, we have one solutions provider to contact.”

Questar Gas took a phased approach to the recent upgrade, going live in 1 of its 15 branch offices at a time. “We would spend a week in every office,” Headden says. “We stayed there to support the staff if they had any questions, and we even had people riding along with the technicians to make sure they were satisfied with the system before we moved on.”

The ClickSoftware solution is integrated with the company’s customer information system (CIS). When a customer calls the call center, employees generate work orders via the CIS that are then sent into the ClickSoftware solution. Those work orders are fed into ClickSchedule overnight, and the system automatically generates optimized assignments and routes based on available staff, the priority of the work, and other factors. When the technicians log on to their Pansonic Toughbook rugged laptops the following day, all of the work is displayed in routed order via ClickMobile.

In addition to customer service calls, Questar Gas technicians handle regular meter quality maintenance tasks that are prescheduled within the ClickSoftware systems — the company was able to preschedule up to 15,000 of these tasks across a one-year horizon. The schedule is updated based on priorities, and same-site orders can be matched within the system to eliminate unnecessary repeat visits to the same location.

Mobile Solution Offers Real-Time Information Exchange
Once they start their workday, technicians note on the mobile computer that they are en route to their first job. Upon arrival, technicians click the on-site button, and the time is logged. Once they have completed their work, they return to their trucks and enter all of the job information. After they click the “complete” button, the order is wirelessly transmitted back to the main ClickSoftware system and updated in the CIS. Using ClickMobile, technicians can also create pickup orders in the field (for example, if they see that a meter needs to be replaced), autopopulate data in the new order from the original order, and then send the information to the CIS.

For emergency calls, ClickLocate leverages the GPS technology on the technicians’ trucks to determine which technician is closest to the call who has the right skills for that particular emergency and automatically dispatches the order to the technician. “Technicians keep their computers closed while they’re driving, but they will hear an audible alert if an emergency call comes through,” Headden says. “If they’re not in their vehicles because they are already working on another job, dispatch will use ClickLocate to find the next closest available technician.”

Working with ClickSoftware during the new upgrade, Questar Gas was able to improve the performance of the routing and scheduling solution. By doing so, it eliminated manual intervention in the scheduling process, which had been a problem when the company was using two different solutions for scheduling and work order management. “When we first deployed ClickSchedule, we did so with a third-party company helping us configure it,” Headden says. “But we really struggled with the routing. ClickSoftware worked directly with us this time to figure out how to optimize the scheduling engine.”

Questar Gas has reduced technician drive time and improved its ability to meet customers’ service expectations. The mobile functionality has made it easier for technicians to manage work order information more efficiently and improved visibility for the dispatch office. The improved routing performance has also increased employee acceptance of the solution, which helped make the recent upgrade even easier to deploy.

Enter The iPhone
The solution has been so successful with the technicians that Questar Gas has also deployed the ClickSoftware mobility solution for its collection representatives in the field. In this case, the solution has been implemented on iPhones, running ClickSoftware’s HTML5-based mobile offering called ClickMobile Professional.

Although the two workforces — technicians and collection reps — use different mobile devices, both of them use the same software platform to schedule, manage, track, and report their work. By standardizing on one software platform and providing clear benefits to the workforce, Questar Gas has not only improved the performance of its employees, but also increased the benefit to its customers. “One of the biggest advantages to this system is that our field staff really see it as a tool that can help them do their jobs better,” Headden says.