By Guerry Waters, Oracle Utilities
You promised the boss you’d attend that 11:00 meeting. But, the plumber who said he’d be at your home by 9:00 is more than an hour and a half late.
You’ve used up an entire vacation day waiting for the movers who never arrived.
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a discouraging story about waiting endlessly for a delivery or the cable guy. So it’s easy to empathize with your customers when they complain that your field crew or service technician hasn’t arrived on time–or at all.
Utilities receive far fewer complaints than they did 20 years ago about service personnel who are late or who fail to keep appointments. That’s largely because there are far fewer appointments that they need to keep. Most utilities have eliminated meters that can be read only from indoor locations. And today, many types of utility servicing can be done from outside a building.
Still, the timing of appointments remains a serious issue. A missed appointment can cause a working adult to lose a vacation day or wages. Equally important, when technicians fail to arrive to install, repair, or replace equipment, occupants may be forced to vacate a home; businesses may have to close. The results can be significant financial loss.
The issue of appointment keeping is far more complicated for utilities than for most other services businesses because crews and service technicians are not interchangeable. The skills required for utility fieldwork are far more complex and numerous than they are for most other types of services businesses. Even large field crews rarely contain individuals who can do every job. Thus, substitution may not be possible when the crew or individual originally scheduled cannot perform the task within the appointment window.
Additionally, utility mobile workforce scheduling involves careful balancing of priorities. Work involving customer appointments consumes a relatively small part of a field crew’s workday. So it would be prohibitively expensive for a utility to try to maintain separate crews for work requiring access to customer premises. Utility field workers must be able to perform many different types of work–emergency repair, replacement, and maintenance for equipment both on and off customer premises.
As a result, field workers are subject not only to all the normal delays of traffic, weather, and jobs that run overtime. They may also be diverted to emergencies. And it may be difficult to assess at the outset exactly how long emergency repairs will take. That makes it difficult to estimate the number of appointments that may be disrupted.
These differences between utility field work and other types of service work have made it all but impossible for utilities to use mobile workforce software designed for other types of field service like deliveries, appliance repair, or personal transport. Utilities need applications that do more than permit customers to choose a service window, determine efficient travel routes, and track job completion. A utility mobile workforce application must also track which workers assigned to which tasks have the skills and certifications required for which jobs. They must identify all the parts in each truck and note when parts need replacement. Utility mobile workforce applications must also pinpoint truck location at any given moment in order to identify which workers can be rerouted to which emergencies.
Also, utilities are increasingly investing in such programs. But, one final step remains before these applications begin to boost customer satisfaction: integrating real-time mobile workforce data points into the daily activity of the contact center. Without that integration, business processes will not adequately address customer needs, and customers will remain frustrated by the failure of field technicians to arrive when expected.
How should utilities address customer needs through contact center/mobile workforce application integration? Here are some keys to success:
Give the contact center direct access to a real-time schedule. Many older mobile workforce applications accept appointments generated by the contact center and work through them overnight to produce a schedule. It looks great at 8:00 a.m. But by 8:10 a.m., two crews are already tied up in a big traffic back up, one technician has gone home sick, and your fleet manager has just called to tell you about a truck that won’t start.
Typically, dispatchers in this situation scramble to rearrange the day’s work. As they have time, they send information to the contact center, where service reps call the first customers of the day to inform them about the delay.
But, what about customers with later appointments? That 8:00 a.m. schedule you sent to the contact center is useless. Even if a dispatcher got them the 8:10 a.m. changes, what about the ones made at 9:00 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.? What does your customer representative tell the client who calls at noon to check on the 4:00 p.m. appointment? She may know instinctively that, with so many changes earlier in the morning, there’s little chance the field technicians will be following the late afternoon schedule. After all, she’s been handling irate phone calls all day. But she can’t guide the customer because she has no real information.
A real-time scheduler accessible to both dispatcher and call center gives your staff the opportunity to minimize the problems arising from a series of unexpected field events. Just moments after you feed in the day’s first disaster, the real-time scheduler generates an entirely new schedule that optimizes the amount of work your field personnel can accomplish. The scheduler identifies immediately those customers who need to be rescheduled. And because the contact center has direct access to the changes as they occur, your staff doesn’t have to wait to start calling the affected customers.
Integrating a real-time scheduler into your contact center doesn’t eliminate the problem of unkept appointments. But it minimizes them while also giving customers maximum notice of the change.
Use the same system in reverse to exceed customer expectations. No company’s luck is all bad. There are inevitably days when appointments take less time than expected, traffic is light, and new appointment slots open up. Granted, any field crew will appreciate an extra 15 minutes at the Dunkin’ Donuts. But everyone will benefit from mobile workforce systems with schedulers that can look ahead, identify customers as yet unserved in the crew’s area, and connect with contact center reps who can call to see if customers are home and would like to receive service early.
Use schedule changes as a profit opportunity. Integration between the contact center and a real-time scheduler offers an outstanding opportunity you can offer to customers who are willing to pay for faster service. At the end of the workday, your contact center identifies customers who were willing to pay a higher price for next-day appointments but who couldn’t be accommodated on the original schedule. Feeding those customer names, their availability, and their location into your scheduling or mobile workforce management software allows your scheduler to match them up with unexpectedly available slots. Without forcing the dispatcher to get involved, the software can notify the contact center of the potential match, allow the service rep to check on customer availability, and then slot the appointment into the schedule or move on to try the next best match.
Link in maintenance management software to move customer satisfaction up another notch. Companies that combine customer appointments with maintenance fieldwork, like utilities, can use openings in schedules to accomplish maintenance tasks in the vicinity by bringing maintenance management automatically into the mix. That gives the real-time scheduler a choice of items with which to fill the opening.
Many maintenance tasks–inspections, changing out a streetlight–can be done without customer involvement. But some involve short disruptions in water or electricity flow. A contact center with real-time access to field schedules can call the effected customers to let them know the causes (and, incidentally, the long-term benefits) of the disruption. Contacting customers in advance has the additional benefit of dramatically reducing calls into the contact center from customers who might otherwise see the disruption as a problem.
Integrating the contact center with the mobile workforce is not merely a technology issue. Success frequently requires a change in workforce attitudes, behaviors and business processes.
In the past, field workers have generally operated fairly independently. Crew chiefs and dispatchers may be accustomed to determining the order of tasks and the driving routes to be followed. They may not appreciate the fact that the utility is tracking their location and that customer service representatives are reporting that location to customers in near real time. Field workers may resent the need to keep an appointment with a customer when, in their judgment, a different task should take precedence.
Similarly, contact center workers may not enjoy having to tell customers that an appointment will be delayed. And they may respond poorly to news that a crew couldn’t meet a customer need because it couldn’t finish a previous task in the allotted timeframe.
Talking with employees about the need for change can promote buy-in. So can bringing together field and contact-center employees to help them better understand the realities of others’ work. Integrated applications are only a first step toward improving customer satisfaction. Utilities realize the goal only when all employees are committed to making that technology work.
Ultimately, however, the considerable investment in new technology and in change management will pay off in improved customer satisfaction. It’s not just time-crunched families who appreciate advance notice about appointments that need rescheduling. Every customer’s time has value. Integrating customer-facing systems like mobile workforce and contact center applications lets you create multi-departmental business processes that respect the value of customer time and cement positive customer relationships.
Waters is vice president, industry strategy, for Oracle. He joined the Oracle Utilities Global Business Unit (previously SPL WorldGroup) in 2000. Previous positions include vice president of energy information strategy at META Group (now Gartner) and CTO and director of technology strategy and engineering at Southern Company. He focuses on IT strategies that help utilities meet their goals amidst changing customer demands, regulations, and market structures.
Dutch Utility Powers up Workers with Rugged PCs
To streamline processes and as a cost-savings measure, Dutch power company Essent decided to equip all its service engineers with rugged tablet PCs. Challenges included: the operation’s massive scope, distribution of the tablets, building the systems into Essent service vehicles, and training more than 500 engineers–many with little computer experience. However, the need to modernize was a prime concern, and Essent management decided to move the project forward.
According to Jaap Oord, project manager for Essent’s rollout of more than 500 tablet PCs, “Essent engineers require all kinds of information to resolve problems and spend a lot of time writing. For each assignment, an engineer can fill up to five or six forms,” said Oord. “So we, at Essent, continued to look for a system that met our requirements in terms of functionality with the ability to withstand extreme operating conditions.” Consequently, Essent management chose the Xplore Rugged Tablet PC and implemented a gradual training process.
Frans Nicolai, Essent’s ICT consultant for information management, technology and service management, oversaw the effort. “We began by issuing 35 tablet PCs, later expanding to an ambassador group of 60 people who first started using the system in early 2007.”
Essent management saw its training efforts bearing fruit and continued the strategy. “We divided the ambassador group into small groups of around 10 people for a two-day training course, which many of them found very intense. The average engineer has extensive expertise and is around 45 years of age,” said Oord. “Many of these engineers began working in the field to avoid work in an office.”
Essent kept the operation at peak efficiency by having vehicles fitted for PCs during the engineers’ training effort. “As soon as the engineers completed the training course, they were given the tablet PCs to start working with,” Oord said.
Not everything went smoothly at first, however. “We had some software problems at first. It took a long time to update the digital mains maps on the PCs at the office, especially if several engineers requested updates at the same time,” said Nicolai.
“One of the things we created was the option of having a home workstation, so that engineers can simply update their maps at home, for instance while eating dinner,” said Oord.
After the rollout was up and running, engineers began to experience the benefits of the rugged mobile computers. “The PC has a snap-on GPS module, which ensures that my position is projected on the map fairly accurately,” said Horstman. “This is very practical, for example when you need to find a gas leak in a large, undeveloped area, or if the building lines on the map are not much use to you following a fire. The boxes of maps I used to have in the van have been closed for months.”
For Essent, providing proper support to their engineers is critical. “We have set up six locations where engineers can obtain a new tablet, pen, GPS module, etc., in case of a problem,” said Nicolai. “User support is provided through an IBM helpdesk. This isn’t running as smoothly as it could yet because our users have to deal with a helpdesk that is not really geared towards the inexperienced user. However, we are already working on improving this system.”
While it took some getting used to, the new tablet PCs have made Horstman and Oord true enthusiasts. “We are now going to build on that enthusiasm, and have launched a project called “ËœGerard Bakker,'” said Oord. “”ËœGerard Bakker’ is the name we have given to our hypothetical average engineer. We are considering how to meet his information needs without creating extra work for him. We are not yet maximizing the possibilities of the tablet PC. But, by adding functionality at a slow pace, Essent engineers can keep up with the refinements in their work.”