As technology advances, employees in remote locations are becoming less and less dependent on their colleagues in the home office. Before faxes, pagers, voicemail, cell phones and laptops, customer information could only be accessed until the headquarters-based keepers of customer and client files went home for the day. But with these new technologies, companies can increase profits and productivity as customer information flows to and from the field rapidly and accurately, regardless of time or place.
Power to the Field People
Every day, Northeast Utilities (NU), based in Berlin, Conn. provides approximately 1.8 million customers in Connecticut, New Hampshire and western Massachusetts with electricity. Storm damage, downed or cut wires and fluid spills all call for NU's prompt attention.
NU introduced its first mobile and wireless data application in 1993. Developed with IBM, the system computerized the delivery of trouble tickets dispatched from NU's customer service center to line trucks in the field.
"In 1996, we knew we needed something more flexible so we could customize applications for different user groups," says Andrew Kasznay, a software engineer for Northeast Utilities. "You can take some office solutions and put them in the field, but an application won't be well-accepted unless it's customized to what the field really needs."
For its new database, NU selected the SQL Anywhere studio from Sybase, and for its wireless transport system, it turned to ExpressQ from Nettech Systems. Some of the applications NU has introduced in the past four years include the following:
Mapping. In the past, linemen responding to call-before-you-dig requests used drawers of heavy, highly detailed maps that illustrated the locations of electrical wires. The heavy paper maps required specialized trucks to transport them.
Using Sybase as the search engine, NU developed an application that enables linemen to pinpoint the location of electrical lines and equipment using their laptop computers. The database alerts linemen to any out-of-date maps.
"Linemen can do their jobs faster now because they don't have to rummage through drawers of maps," notes Kasznay. "The system has freed them geographically, too, so they can respond to any request." Not having to use the trucks saves the company gas money, and all field employees can now access the maps.
Environmental spills. NU's environmental coordinators respond to reports of hydraulic spills, transformer oil spills and gasoline spills. A mobile application developed specifically for their needs saves time in cleaning up the spill and streamlines the submission of paperwork required by various state and federal agencies.
A spill is reported to a dispatcher who enters the initial information and sends it wirelessly to the environmental coordinator's vehicle. The coordinator then makes an on-site report and picks up samples to take back to the chemistry lab, where data and an analysis are entered into the same system. Any new information can be immediately synchronized with NU's central database, giving everyone access to the most recent data. "When everything is completed, the coordinator submits the paperwork via automated fax," Kasznay explains.
According to Kasznay, the entire process of handling environmental spills was re-engineered as a result of the new system. "Before, it was very paper-centric. Whoever had the latest report in their hands became the main contact. Now... everyone who needs information can access it."
Asset management. NU inspectors keep an eye on the condition of electrical lines and equipment, recording potential problems on their laptop computers. Upon returning to the office, they synchronize their laptops with the central database, giving the customer service center a head start on scheduling preventive maintenance.
GPS tracking. NU has added GPS receivers to its line trucks and auxiliary vehicles that currently have wireless computing capabilities. The vehicle's occupants can access a computerized map to ascertain their distance from a reported problem, and office-based dispatchers can easily identify which truck can respond the fastest.
"We're concerned about safety," notes Kasznay. "Knowing where to send help if a situation occurs is very important."
More applications are on the way, promises Kasznay, one of which he is testing for conducting substation inspections using a handheld device. He is also developing a mobile computing system to speed up the replacement of burned-out streetlights.
Infinium Software specializes in products that power front- and back-office operations in the areas of finance, human resources, supply management and process manufacturing.
The company's field force uses Business Browser, a Web-based product developed by OneSource Information Services. The product, which carries an annual subscription fee, gathers business and financial information from more than 25 providers and packages the data in a consistent user interface. Senior Vice President Maria Burud is convinced the browser-based system increases productivity because just a few clicks of a mouse can give field workers a detailed, up-to-date picture of a company 24 hours a day. As a result, they no longer have to spend precious hours hunting down and photocopying information from various sources.
Prior to implementing Business Browser, Infinium depended on its 75-member field force to gather current and prospective customers' external data, such as financial statements, recent news releases and the names and locations of business units and managers. But paper reports would quickly become obsolete and irrelevant to new developments in a company, says Burud. With Business Browser, Infinium is able to gather a company's external data before that company even becomes a customer.
"The field force uses it all the time, especially for qualification purposes," explains Burud. A prospect might leave a name and number at the Web site. Then, "Instead of just calling, we can do some research quickly on Business Browser and get a thumbnail sketch of that business so we're more knowledgeable when we make contact. We can talk to the prospect intelligently from the start."
Data Around the World
Another software company that is realizing the importance of gathering and organizing external data is OSI Software, which provides software for customers in heavy industries, such as power plants, refineries and manufacturing facilities. The company has experienced dramatic sales growth in recent years--from $10 million in 1994 to more than $52 million in 1999--as well as physical growth. Today, more than half of its employees work outside the headquarters office in San Leandro, Calif.
Not surprisingly, this tremendous growth taxed OSI's ability to track and share customer information. As Phil Ryder, vice president of sales and marketing, recalls, "We had our own internally developed system that ran on Lotus Notes. The problem was that everything was in document form as opposed to data that could be used in many different applications," thereby restricting the field's ability to compare and analyze information.
OSI chose a package developed by Epicor Software that uses one database for both tech support and sales information. "For a long time we've had the philosophy of sharing information among everyone, of not hoarding information, so there was no emotional problem with using the new system," says Ryder.
Typically, the data originates in the field when one of the 60 field workers OSI employs worldwide makes contact with a prospective customer. The employee uses the system to track ongoing contact and issue quotes, as well as to place orders. The Epicor database also tracks tech support calls, creates invoices and helps manage the manufacturing side by creating packing lists of software components.
"Anything entered in the field is automatically available to everybody else in the company, usually within a few minutes," says Ryder. "The information first shows up in the database in San Leandro and then replicates itself [generally over the Internet] to all the other laptops in the field," including servers in Germany and Australia.
Ryder feels that the old document-based system simply wasn't flexible enough. "If we hadn't done something, the company would have fallen apart. We couldn't have shipped the amount of product we do now without putting the proper tools in place."
As diverse as their activities are, these companies all share the need for accurate, detailed, up-to-the-minute information that can be easily accessed by employees, no matter where they're located. With field forces often scattered around the globe, getting the right information to the right people at all hours of the day or night is essential for the success of the business.