Virginia Natural Gas Automates its Field Force

At age 37, Brian Maclean is already a warhorse in the world of mobile workforce management. As automation supervisor at Virginia Natural Gas (VNG), Maclean has overseen the company's field force automation efforts since 1994, facing challenges in a rapidly changing industry that leaves dangerously little room for error.

VNG's customer base of 240,000 is growing at the rate of approximately 10,000 per year. Meanwhile, the company's fleet of 100 or so service techs has remained stable, forcing Maclean and his colleagues to squeeze maximum productivity levels out of mobile technology--and the people who use it. Last year Maclean supervised the replacement of VNG's character-based software with a solution based on MDSI's Advantex-Utility suite. FFA Contributing Editor Matt Purdue recently spoke with Maclean about the ever-changing nature of mobile automation.

FFA: What's the history of field force automation at VNG?
Brian Maclean: In 1994, we began looking at an automated dispatch system. In '95 we chose Utility Partners (UP) and implemented their FOS system. At that point we were one of the front-runners in implementing dispatching systems, mobile computing and wireless communications.

FFA: What has all this experience taught you about successful projects?
BM: We experienced every struggle you could experience, from the application, wireless communications and mobile installation to the modems, plus the fear of change and everything at once. By the time we ended up going with MDSI, we had used UP software for three years, and it was running perfectly. It wasn't Year 2000 compliant, however, and the quote to modify it was so high that it made it worth it to look at a whole new project.

FFA: So what was the timetable with the MDSI rollout?
BM: We began the project in January 1999 and went into production in September 1999. Total implementation time was about 10 months. We were two weeks ahead of schedule.

FFA: Was it easier this time around?
BM: Yes, the cultural changes--like training users on what a laptop was and how to turn one on--were behind us. Our vehicle installations were rock-solid. We could focus solely on MDSI's software, not the mobiles or the wireless network.

FFA: What are your service techs using Advantex-Utility for?
BM: All service order work, including gas turnons and turnoffs, customer changes, emergencies, new meter installations and trouble work. We're getting ready to roll out the credit and collections folks on it.

All our information exchange is real time, so if a customer calls in with a turnoff scheduled for this afternoon and says he won't be home until the evening, the call taker will send the change out to the field while still on the phone with the customer, and the information will arrive immediately.

FFA: What are the other pieces of your solution?
BM: We use Panasonic CF-25 (notebooks), and we love them. We're using Sierra Wireless MP200 CDPD modems running on GTE's network.

FFA: Internally, what business forces are driving VNG's automation?
BM: The push is to streamline to prepare for a competitive environment. We're continually increasing our customer base, and the goal is to maintain our number of employees. One of the justifications for the dispatching system was a reduction in employees. We eliminated approximately 6 percent of our technicians prior to rolling out our first system. We're able to do more work and serve an ever-increasing customer base without increasing our employee base.

FFA: What productivity gains have you experienced?
BM: The meter servicers averaged 1.6 calls per hour prior to automation. They're up to 2.2, based solely on reducing paperwork. We recently introduced our timesheet program, and we're estimating that will save another 30 to 45 minutes per day per tech. Our operations mechanics went from 0.8 orders per hour to 1.2 or 1.3. Also, overtime is down more than 70 percent. It's a nice time to measure because all these gains are attributed to automation, but the fact is we've been tightening up and drilling into everyone that they've got to work harder and be more efficient.

FFA: How will this solution improve your customer relationships?
BM: By providing real-time information to our call takers and giving us a higher percentage of appointments kept, faster response times and more information available in the field.

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