The utility industry has two major focuses in the new millennium: to deliver power reliably and to keep customers happy. At MidAmerican Energy, these objectives mean providing outstanding energy solutions and becoming extremely responsive to customers’ needs.
MidAmerican Energy, which operates in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Illinois, found a way to meet those objectives by deploying wireless mobile communication technology and a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system.
MidAmerican Energy spent just over two years turning its cumbersome paper-based operation into an automated setup with a wireless dispatch system. By providing pen-based mobile computers to 350 field service technicians, customer service associates, field service workers and dispatchers, MidAmerican has made it possible for these important front-line employees to be linked via mobile computing and wireless communications technology.
Power in Numbers
Since the launch of its automated system, MidAmerican Energy is averaging more than 50,000 work orders per month, which includes as many as 2,000 customer service orders and 700 locate orders in an average workday. “It’s incredible how many orders can be handled in real time on our mobile computers,” said Denise Moody, a senior systems analyst with MidAmerican Energy.
Even more impressive is the response time associated with emergency gas leak situations. When a gas leak is suspected and lives or property may be at stake, immediate response is critical and customer service demands are never higher. In addition to its other workflow improvements, the new system has cut response time to a gas leak call by at least 10 percent.
That’s not all. Today, 96 percent of all scheduled appointments are on time, Moody said. When MidAmerican Energy was paper-based, it was easy for field service workers to miss the timing of their next appointment. Now they are able to notify a dispatcher if they are running late and the next scheduled appointment can be immediately reassigned to another service worker so that the customer’s job gets done on time. The results are increased job turnaround and enhanced customer service.
Different Jobs/Different Computers
MidAmerican Energy selected pen-based mobile computers from Intermec Technology Corp. Rather than try to make all applications fit with one computer, the utility is utilizing three different computer models-the Intermec 6600, 6620 and 6640. According to Moody, “Intermec’s pen-based mobile computers are well-suited for the utility company. Depending on the functionality required, the various models have offered us enhanced order management, improved gas leak response and electronic mapping capabilities. The front-end benefit is increased productivity, but the ultimate result is improved customer satisfaction.”
In addition, the computers have proven they can withstand harsh conditions, a critical attribute that is effectively put to the test in weather extremes experienced throughout MidAmerican’s territory. “It gets mighty cold in Iowa in January, yet the mobile computers are left in trucks overnight and power up with reliability every cold morning,” Moody said. She spoke of one computer left in a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, utility truck for two weeks during a deep freeze. “The screen was covered with frost, but we scraped it off and it powered up in moments,” she said.
MidAmerican also was impressed with Intermec’s responsiveness. The utility credits that responsiveness, along with superior technical support and follow-up for helping to ensure a smooth transition.
Combining Hardhat Know-How and Cyberspace Efficiency
Some of the field workers-who bravely faced dangerous gas leaks and electrical outage problems-were slightly apprehensive about learning the technology associated with the new system.
“But once they saw how user-friendly the equipment was and how easy it was to use a computer, their fears disappeared,” Moody said. “And, when they realized the benefits of not having to deal with paper orders and the flexibility of starting from home, they began to like them.”
Technicians use the mobile computers to access a list of service orders from home at the beginning of their shift. With the old system they had to commute, sometimes from rural areas, to the main office to pick up the day’s service schedule. The time they save can be better spent with customers.
The mobile computers, working with the 900 MHz wireless backbone, give field service technicians and dispatchers two-way communications. The system transmits information over a public wireless network called Racom EDACKS.
After each service call, the field technicians send updates to the server by uploading data from the mobile computer to the Tandem server via a docking station in the truck. If a dispatcher needs to reroute a call, the new information can be downloaded to the mobile computer at the same time.
After an intensive evaluation process, the MidAmerican team selected Mobile Data Solutions Inc.’s Advantex- RM wireless workforce management system to centralize dispatching systems into two major operations centers. The Advantex implementation, paired with Intermec’s mobile computing equipment, is helping MidAmerican achieve its operational goals.
“Knowing where a field service worker is at all times has given us the flexibility to be more responsive to customer needs,” Moody said. “If a high-priority call comes up, we can easily reroute a field technician. When we give customers technician arrival times, we know those times will be accurate. The ability to track technicians in real time has allowed us to be more customer-focused.”
Time is Money, But Customer Satisfaction is More Valuable
Like many other utility companies, MidAmerican Energy’s automated data collection system is a valuable asset to an operation whose ongoing challenge is to improve customer satisfaction.
Time, it seems, really is money. The automated system produces the increased numbers and workforce efficiency that directly affect the utility’s bottom line. Just as important in this era of competition and deregulation are good customer satisfaction levels, which are truly immeasurable.