Magazine Article | December 1, 2005

Wireless Edge: Mobile Techs Keep You Competitive

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A wireless field force solution enabled this IT service company to reduce its dispatch center staff 20% and increase its customer base.

Integrated Solutions, December 2005

It's a phrase that's often tossed around your company: excellent customer service. The phrase isn't very definitive on its own and every company has its own measurement of what is excellent. However, all companies share the pain of determining how to solve customer service problems, often with technology. For Metafore IT Solutions, a Canadian IT service and solutions provider, "excellent" customer service comes down to minimal response time and providing customers with up-to-date information on the status of their service requests. To improve its performance and gain a competitive edge, Metafore implemented a wireless field technician dispatching tool - and realized some bottom-line benefits along the way.

Metafore designs, integrates, and maintains information systems for companies of all types and sizes. The company has 600 employees, 70 of whom are field technicians who carry out customer work orders and answer customer calls. These technicians respond to customer calls for break-fix work, contract support, and software-related issues; the techs are scheduled by employees in a dispatch center who process customer service requests.

Advancements in communications technology over the past several years have created the expectation of near-instantaneous responses when sending and receiving messages or inquiries. For Metafore's customers, a delay in response to their requests for service means a delay in achieving their business goals. For example, when a server crashes or a network goes down, the company's employees can't perform their jobs. Until Metafore gets a tech to the customer's site and the customer is updated on the progress of the service call, the customer will be in a state of frustration - not a desirable situation for the service company to be faced with.

In its home office, Metafore has the tools in place to communicate with its customers in a timely fashion. It maintains a Web site that is linked to its back office dispatch program (both provided by vendor FieldPro) and database (residing on a SQL server). Through this Web site, customers can input service requests via an electronic form and view the status of their requests (e.g. if a tech has been dispatched on the job or when a call was completed). However, Metafore did not receive timely information from its field techs to populate the Web site, and therefore could not deliver on its promise of making information available to its customers. "We had complaints from our customers that they couldn't see the progress made on their service calls," says Rob Hodson, project manager at Metafore. "We also learned of the importance of timely updates through a survey we did of our customers. Their feedback was that the most important issue regarding our service is not our technical ability so much as it is keeping them informed."

Metafore's old phone-based process of exchanging information between the dispatch center and its field techs was labor-intensive and invited inaccuracies. Metafore realized that fixing its customer service problem meant updating its field communication method and automating processes where it could. The IT company charged Hodson with finding and deploying an appropriate wireless communication solution. "Since we're in the technology business, we saw this project as an opportunity to utilize technology to our own advantage," says Hodson. "And, being in this business, it is better to be a technology leader than a follower."

Hodson, unsure of where to begin, sought assistance from Rogers Wireless, a Canadian wireless data carrier operating on a GPRS (general packet radio service) network. "I figured the carrier had seen more of what was out there and would also know the best solutions to fit on its network," says Hodson. In addition to working with Rogers, Hodson also did research within Metafore's operations, polling field techs and their managers to learn what they wanted out of a solution. He conducted process and workflow studies to see what solution structure and GUI (graphical user interface) would work best.

Armed with this information, Hodson narrowed the vendor choice down to two, then performed a detailed vendor analysis. "There were several points the vendors' solutions had to have," he explains. "We needed end-to-end data encryption, and the solution needed to integrate with our SQL database. The most important factor for us, though, was conflict resolution [see sidebar on page 12]." The conflict resolution factor pushed one vendor to the front, and that was iAnywhere. To replace its field techs' wireless phones and accommodate the new mobile solution, Metafore chose Palm Treo 600 smartphones.

Metafore implemented iAnywhere's OneBridge product. (OneBridge was recently acquired by Sybase through its purchase of Extended Systems in October 2005. The business is now part of Sybase's iAnywhere subsidiary.) OneBridge connects Metafore's mobile workers with data in the back office FieldPro solution and manages the transmission and synchronization of that data. OneBridge provides 128-bit AES (advanced encryption standard) protection of the wirelessly transmitted data. Metafore worked with iAnywhere's professional services team to develop Wireless Tech, a custom application that runs on the techs' smartphones. Wireless Tech manages the incoming work orders and presents them to the technician in a schedule format. Through the mobile application, technicians complete calls via automated forms and drop-down menus. An e-mail application called MailPlus is also part of the solution. MailPlus runs on the OneBridge platform and alerts technicians via e-mail when they have a call scheduled.

With the new solution, when Metafore's dispatch center receives a customer request for service, a dispatcher writes up a work order in FieldPro and selects the appropriate technician through that application. The OneBridge solution, sitting on the FieldPro database, sends the work order to the assigned technician. The technician can see the job in the Wireless Tech program; he also receives an e-mail alerting him of the pending job, in case he does not have the application open.

Once he receives notification of a new job, the technician will accept or reject the call (i.e. he would reject a new job if a current job is taking too long). If a job is rejected, the work order goes back to the FieldPro application and is flagged, so dispatchers know that scheduling the work order is a priority. By accessing work orders - which have details on the customer and the problem the customer is having - in the field and on the job, the technician can get to work on the problem right away. Before the mobile solution, technicians would jot down notes on the call while talking to the dispatcher and sometimes would need to find someone at customer sites to get more details on the work that needed to be performed.

Previously, Metafore's technicians were waiting until the end of the day to phone in the progress they made on their calls, relying on memory or paper notes to input what they did for customers throughout the day. The reports would come into Metafore's home office in batches, and dispatch center staff would transcribe the conversations into the FieldPro application. If the calls came after the staff had left for the day, the techs would leave voice mails and the dispatch center staff would transcribe the messages the next day.

Now, when Metafore's technicians finish each job, they input into the Wireless Tech application the time they finished, the work they did, and any follow-up details. When the device synchronizes (which is set to occur every 15 minutes), the information is sent back to Metafore's home office and automatically populates the FieldPro application and Metafore's Web site.

With the wireless solution, Metafore has been able to consolidate its dispatch staff and redeploy 20% of those employees. Metafore recently experienced a significant increase in volume of its business, which it handled without hiring any additional employees. Some of that new business validated Metafore's investment as well. "We recently signed a $15 million contract, and the person involved told us that a major deciding factor for his company giving us their business was our wireless field tech application and Web site," says Hodson.