Tracy Singh, president of Mesa Energy Systems in Irvine, Calif., couldn't find a good field force solution for his heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) service company. In 1994, he cofounded a software startup to build his own.
He was frustrated with the inability of different technologies to interact and provide consistent results. "We were spending a couple hundred thousand dollars a year on 'technology,' but none of it talked to one another."
Luckily, Singh had a friend in David Key, part of the founding team at FileNet and coinventor of Workflow technology. "I called him up and said, 'You've always told me you were looking for the next frontier, and there's more slop in field service than you can ever imagine.'"
Key found that field service was indeed an under-served marketplace. He also found emerging technology that could potentially solve some of the problems inherent in automating a dispersed workforce.
Wireless data communications was becoming more pervasive, and costs were dropping dramatically. Handheld PCs were rapidly emerging, proving to be more suitable for field operations than PCs or laptops. The third enabler was the Internet. "The Internet provides a communications media to field staff, and a Web-based client that doesn't require software installation or a sophisticated IT staff meant we had all the components in place," says Key.
Building a System
Singh put his business on the line, and together he and Key founded FieldCentrix, also in Irvine. With Mesa as a built-in test case, they began developing a field service solution by essentially "automating the workflow of the field service technician," says Key, FieldCentrix's president and CEO.
Its system would encompass the common tasks, diagnostics and maintenance procedures associated with hundreds of different pieces of equipment. "With all that information stored in a handheld PC, we can see technicians through the task of finding out where to go, diagnosing the problem, stepping them through the tasks to solve the problem, recording the parts used and recording all the additional work that needs to be done," says Key.
Key took to the field to get a better grasp of the technicians' needs. He found that they were frustrated by the lack of historical service records, the inability to communicate easily with headquarters and other technicians, and the amount of paperwork required. Key also knew the system needed an easy-to-use interface if it was going to be accepted. During the development process, the design team continually sought feedback from Mesa technicians.
The resulting FieldCentrix Enterprise suite consists of two primary application suites. The client application, FX Mobile, links roaming field service technicians with both the home office and the customer via wireless communications.
Mesa has deployed FX Mobile in approximately 100 Itronix T5200 ruggedized handheld PCs equipped with keyboards, wireless modems and backlit touch screens. Base functions include time sheets, electronic work orders, equipment inventory by job site, signature capture and a third-party street map application for quickly finding addresses. Mesa technicians have seamless data connection with managers, dispatchers, sales personnel and other technicians in the field, plus instant access to the complete history of a job site and individual equipment.
"When you send a technician to a building for the first time, there might be lock combinations he needs to know, a specific place to park at that site or a routine where you have to check in with security," says Matt Sexton, general manager at Mesa's San Diego office, which piloted the system. "Now we have that information under permanent job site notes, so when we show up, we look like we're there to do business."
Data such as new job orders and updates on existing jobs is transferred throughout the day with the help of wireless middleware from Nettech Systems, which links the mobile unit with one of a number of telecommunications providers, depending on the geographical area. Every work segment job is time-stamped to track the job's progress. Before closing a work order, the Mesa technician has a customer sign for the job using a stylus on the handheld's touch screen, which captures the signature in an electronic file.
The FX Service Center runs on Windows-based desktops at the home office and is Web-enabled, running off of Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0. As the base station application, it allows dispatchers, operations personnel and management to view lists of technicians and all jobs assigned to them, work order lists and job site information.
The main server sits at the company's corporate headquarters in Irvine. Other offices serving the Los Angeles/Orange County, San Diego and San Francisco markets are connected via DSL. Each office dispatches locally "because of local knowledge and technician knowledge," says Singh. "We have dispatch operations groups for each market, but everybody's connected on the same backbone to the main server."
The FX Service Center's functions and information are linked with a Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 database. Information retrieved from the mobile technicians is stored on the server for record keeping, accounting and follow-up sales efforts. At a customer's request, completed service reports can be faxed to the customer within minutes after the job is closed from within the FX Service application.
A New Way of Doing Business
The FieldCentrix system presents a drastic change in business process. Previously, the company used a DOS-based dispatch system that was extremely difficult to manipulate, says Sexton. "You literally had to go through a number of screens to enter a service call. Then, all of that information sat in a computer and never got to the technician."
Because the technicians were limited to information that would fit on an alphanumeric pager, many times they would show up on the job site not knowing who to see.
Even though the benefits of the new system were evident, there was still a large cultural issue involved with implementation. "You put all this neat stuff in front of [technicians], but... if they don't accept it and use it, it's worthless," says Greg Lush, Mesa's vice president of corporate development.
To aid acceptance, Lush developed an extensive training program and a post-deployment schedule that focused on specific functionality week by week. "After about nine weeks, they accepted the technology and the stuff was easy to push out," he says.
To supplement educational efforts, the company devised a Quick Tip Web site accessible from the handhelds. It acts as a trouble-shooting guide, letting technicians drill down to the type of equipment and problem they're encountering. "We've tried to maximize the use of our handheld PCs, so it's not just getting work orders and completing work," says Lush.
New recruits are trained on the mobile system in about two hours. "They have exercises where they go back and forth to the server with the new mobile unit, and then they're out on the road working," says Lush. "Through the work flow process supported within FieldCentrix, we believe we've taken service from an art to a science."
That's exactly what Singh had in mind from the start. "In a scarce labor market, if we didn't commit to education and technology to upgrade our work force, the scarcity of labor would destroy us over time," he says.
Mesa isn't stopping there. By June 2000, customers will have the ability to enter service calls and check on status orders from the Web. Down the road, Singh also anticipates wirelessly connecting technicians with suppliers' inventory information. "It's already happening with a couple of our suppliers," says Singh. "Ultimately, even if a guy didn't know what he was looking for, he should be able to query the local supply houses and have the part waiting for him.
The Bottom Line
Since the full deployment of FieldCentrix at the end of August 1999, Mesa has estimated that it will get a full payback of the leased system in less than nine months. "For us it was staggering," says Lush, who sits on a FieldCentrix panel that analyzes key performance indicators (see Real Results sidebar). "We looked at the total cost of the package, then paired it to what additional revenue we've seen from some of these key performance indicators."
The panel found the system paid for itself in nine months on pull-through revenue alone, from technicians entering additional service opportunities, which they followed up on and scheduled.
Billing turnaround--and the resulting improved cash flow--was another area impacting payback. By the time paperwork was turned around by a tech and then reviewed by the service manager and operations personnel, billing would take two to three weeks. Now, when a tech closes out a work order, it is instantly sent to billing. "We're getting turnaround in--no lie--two to three days complete," says Lush. "Of course, if you calculated the cash flow, that's huge."
Lush also anticipates a reduction in communication costs but says it's too soon to tell by how much. Sexton has already seen a reduction in technicians' calls into the office. "At the end of every day, we want to know where our guys are going to start their next day. Now, our guys quick message that. Nobody's calling on the phone," he says.
The system has also paid off in recruitment efforts, according to Sexton. He says his last two recruits, who came from large competitors, were drawn to the company because of the technology. "They came over not for money, but just because they see what we're doing with this technology and how we're changing the face of the industry," he says.
Where They Are Today
Today, Singh sits on the FieldCentrix board, but concentrates his efforts on running Mesa Energy Systems, which was recently acquired by Norwalk, Conn.-based Emcore Group.
Key still works closely with a leadership group at Mesa, getting feedback on potential enhancements and future functionality. He has since developed FieldCentrix solutions for other verticals, including plumbing, electrical, refrigeration, utilities and heavy equipment.
Of course, FieldCentrix actively targets HVAC service companies. While you'd think there would be a conflict with the company taking on Mesa's competitors, Singh answers that question with a resounding NO. "The altruistic piece of what I wanted to do was raise the bar on the industry and create a more professional field service group," he says. "As long as my customers' expectations continue to be raised, ultimately the burden is still put on me as a company to deliver a premium service."