By Nick Guite, director, Utilities, Construction and Professional Services at BT
For companies with a large number of mobile field workers, to say it is a challenge to keep in touch with their workforce whilst keeping them employed is probably an understatement. Yet, remarkably, many industries – not least those for whom the challenge is most acute, such as utilities, remain unaware of the rapid pace of technological change in this area, and the benefits it can bring.
Traditionally, or at least since the early ’90s, the communication and work scheduling challenge has been tackled by deploying a standard mobile phone coupled with a manual job allocation process back at headquarters. Perhaps not surprisingly, the results over the years have been mixed. Marked variations in customer service experiences and costly internal resource overheads make the traditional solution an inefficient and unsatisfactory one – and therefore no ‘solution’ at all.
Meanwhile, the evolution of technology designed specifically for mobile working – GPS (Global Positioning System) locators, mobile communications, automated work scheduling – has continued apace. Real solutions are out there. The problem has been that, even where they have deployed the technology, the pace of change may have outstripped businesses’ capacity to exploit it and reap the full benefits. Automating a force of field workers, essentially, is about improving service. That’s it. Or is it?
Certainly, getting the right engineer with the right skills to the right job at the right time is about making sure your army of people-on-the-ground are giving the best possible service to customers. As is improving productivity and responsiveness of service contact centres or keeping promises with customers by adhering to well-defined appointment slots.
But is it all about customer service? Is it just the customer that you should be thinking of? Or is the field force automation strategy, which companies like Northumbrian Water are embarking upon, where they are planning to roll-out field force automation (FFA) across the company’s fleet of approximately 900 vehicles and 1,100 field operatives over the next 12 months, slightly more complex?
As you’d expect in the 21st century, technology’s role in that strategy is increasingly critical, but is not in itself where the complexity lies. Behind the jargon and the esoteric acronyms, the technological process is actually rather straightforward. No matter the type of device being used, put plainly, it’s about connecting all the dots to reveal the – until now – hidden picture. The dots, of course, are a business’s field engineers, service representatives, or indeed any workforce that spends a large part of the working day out of the office and physically isolated from colleagues. And today, in 2007, that last aspect of the job is where the complexity of the issue lies. Giving HQ a full picture of where vehicles are, whether their engines are running, where workers are and what they are working on is vital not only for efficiency but also for duty-of-care to staff. The dangers of being ‘physically isolated’ whilst at work represent one of the most compelling drivers for adopting the type of field force technology which BT has developed for a number of utilities companies and fleet operators.
Working in remote or isolated locations or, particularly, working alone, carries inherent risks. Frequently, the areas in which service engineers, carrying money and valuable equipment, have to go to conduct critical repair or maintenance work are secluded and potentially threatening. Working in the dark, in bad weather, or in any unwelcoming environment can and does make field workers feel vulnerable. BT itself allocates 18 million jobs a year to 24,000 engineers and the reality is that as their employer it has a responsibility to ensure their safety.
The technology utilised to monitor field worker whereabouts and improve customer response times can equally be used to increase worker safety. One new solution is a round-the-neck ID card-sized device with an inbuilt GPRS SIM card – exactly like that which makes our mobile phones work. If entering a vulnerable area or situation, lone workers can put themselves on amber alert by sending an instant message that will flash up on HQ or customer screen – “I’m arriving at the back door” – or they can put themselves on red alert, whilst remaining discreet, and open a one-way voice channel that enables HQ to monitor them, and initiate support if necessary.
The value of such a straightforward piece of technology to a worker operating in a threatening environment is incalculable. The technology itself is, as it always should be, relatively simple – but sometimes the simple solutions are the best. And it is the responsibility of the companies developing the technology to explain it in simple terms.
Organisations are recognising the benefits of technology for their field workers. It’s worth remembering that those benefits do not only help customers, but extend to your own workers too.