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Going Wireless: Is It Worth the Investment?

Aug. 1, 2004
by Michael Weil, executive editor No matter what the size of the company, every HVAC contractor in business today has one problem in common efficiency.

by Michael Weil, executive editor

No matter what the size of the company, every HVAC contractor in business today has one problem in common — efficiency. How can you keep your field people busy bringing in business without sacrificing the record-keeping necessary for running the business? In today's environment, there are many pressures on contractors to keep accurate records not only for business purposes, but for tax and regulatory issues as well. Not to mention the need to gather information for marketing, for monitoring the business, for training, and for improving customer service.

The old world is a paper world and paper is slow. Between service technicians, dispatchers, and accounting departments, contractors have to deal with purchase orders, service tickets, tools lists, inventory, customer equipment history, accounts receivables and payables, invoices, individual profit and loss statements, and so on.

Some have created wonderful paper tracking and back tracking systems that work well for them. But most worry they're not getting information fast enough to stay competitive in today's Internet-based world.

Now here's the rub: technology exists and is readily available that can streamline all that paper into speed of light electrons that can be rifled almost instantaneously from your office to your field personnel with all the information to keep them bringing in revenue.

But many wonder if wireless field service management systems are worth the cost.

Not too long ago, implementing a strategy to take advantage of this technology, which uses Personal Digital Assistants-(PDAs), was pricey and, perhaps,-not consistent enough to manage your service business.

For Cortney Crawford of Knight Heating and Air Conditioning, Springfield, MO, it was the answer to a growing problem. The company employs 35 to 40 people and fields more than 30 vehicles. Knight serves both commercial and residential markets, and their dispatchers were constantly on the phone tracking down technicians, lining up inventory, providing directions to jobs and so on, leaving very little time for customer service.

"We have so many service technicians, we needed to find a way to dispatch them that didn't consume so much of our inside people's time," Crawford explains. She and her family operate the $4.2+ million, family-owned business as a service company first. Their idea was to clear the phone lines and keep them open for customers. "Plus, she adds, "when techs call in and we're on another call, they have to sit and wait, creating a lot of downtime.

"With a wireless field service system, the technicians don't have to call in — they immediately know what their next job is, where it is, who the key contact is, and so on."

Flynn Edmiston concurs. Edmiston is vice president of Shaw's Air Conditioning, Inc., St. Michaels, MD. He says that Shaw's was having a terrible time with accounts receivable because paperwork was constantly lost, illegible, and there was no decent methodology for processing it. And for a $2.6 million company that derives 70% of its sales in the residential sector, losing control of payables is, according to Edmiston, a nightmare.

“We were in a serious cash flow crunch. Our billing was taking more than two months to get mailed out. And our accounting was done using an outdated DOS-based accounting system. I began a modernization process and settled on using a software package called Quickbooks (an inexpensive, but fairly comprehensive financial and accounting management software package from Intuit, Inc., Mountainview, CA, website: www.intuit.com).

“That solved some of the internal problems, but we still were losing productivity because of how we managed our field people. That's where wireless really saved the day.”

Another contractor, John Weeber of Maintenance Resource, Inc., Granville, MI, also faced a “paper tiger.” Maintenance Resource is a 100% commercial service company that achieved $2.6 million in sales last year and is on track for $3.5 million this year. But that growth wouldn't have happened at that rate without streamlining operations by going wireless.

“The amount of paper work our people had to handle was daunting,” Weeber says. “It took too long to gather, was often difficult to read, and would often get mixed up or lost, making billing difficult.

Common Ground
All three contractors had the following in common: all needed to streamline their operations, were computerized for the most part, were using the Quickbooks accounting package, and all had broadband Internet access.

They settled on the same vendor when it came to wireless.

Although they looked for wireless solutions for some time before settling on one provider, these contractors chose Aereon Solutions (www.aereonsolutions.com) because Aereon offered complete Internet-based service management and two-way wireless in one package, plus it was fully integrated with QuickBooks.

Says Crawford, “There isn't a lot of hardware/software required for the office since the wireless system is Webbased. But, going wireless isn't cheap in the beginning. You have to buy all the hand-held devices, printers, and pay the monthly subscription fee.”

She adds that there is some time required to make your internal systems “talk nicely” with the online component (software named Fieldmaster Pro) of this wireless dispatch system.

“I wasn't looking at a lot of different vendors,” Edmiston says. “I wanted something that integrated with Quickbooks and this company seemed to have that. I looked at it online, then called, and Aereon conducted a demonstration for me over the Internet.

“Many things were appealing to me. The hand-held devices had scanners on them to scan barcode, it integrated with Quickbooks, and I wasn't tied in to a lengthy contract.”

Weeber adds that the way it works is that they have an account on FieldmasterPro. com, which is how they access their dispatching system. There was some training time to help set up his company's computers to transfer data smoothly between their onsite systems and the Web-based dispatching.

He says, “Once we decided to go with Aereon, it only took several days to get up and running.

Things to be Aware of
All three contractors had some advice for others thinking about wireless solutions to their dispatch and customer service issues. The following is a summary of what they had to say:

  • If you decide to go wireless, don't try one technician at a time — do it all or nothing.
  • Check your wireless phone provider carefully. This includes companies like Alltel, Nextel, and T-Mobile, among others. Make sure they provide full coverage in your service area.
  • Make sure you have a good Internet service provider. Wireless dispatching requires broadband Internet access. If your Internet provider's service goes down, so does your dispatch system.
  • Make sure the wireless dispatch provider has excellent customer service and is friendly.

According to Flynn Edmiston, part of having a successful wireless dispatching system is having a properly set up parts numbering system.

“It must make sense to the technicians because all the parts you use will be listed in a book. When they need something or use something, they'll scan it with their hand-held device. That book must be easy to read and easy to use. It must be easy to find the part you're looking for.”

Does it Work?
Crawford says they haven't worked out the exact return on investment in terms of actual dollars, but they have noticed some significant changes in how their company operates:

  • Technicians are immediately moving on their calls. They know in advance where the next call is.
  • Technicians get in more calls per day because there is much less downtime between calls. This equates to saving dollars in downtime.
  • Accounts receivable are greatly reduced because clients are invoiced as soon as the job is completed.
  • Fewer dispatchers are necessary. “

Going wireless sets you apart from the pack,” John Weeber concludes. “It helped to make our operations run more efficiently, enabling us to provide a higher level of customer service than ever before. It's even a sales tool. Customers love the information we can provide them.

“It shows we're leading edge in everything we do, including billing and history. It also increases retainage of existing business, which is a cost savings and a profit generator.”

Weeber goes on to say that based on his calculations, and some of them are “best guesses,” the ROI on a good wireless field service solution should be around 1.5 to 2 years.

So can a wireless field service solution work for you. I believe the answer is a resounding, Yes!