ACHRNEWS

Embrace Your GPS

October 12, 2009
Kip Bagley

I admit it. As a previous technician and now a pragmatic manager, I was skeptical about the use of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems. That may sound counter-intuitive from a guy in charge of service at a California subsidiary of a multinational mechanical service company. Texas may have more road pavement than California, but nobody has a more complicated system of motorways.

But, I wasn’t the only skeptic. Use of GPS systems has been controversial throughout the HVACR industry. Although the technology has been available since 1995, service managers were initially slow to embrace the technology. In our industry these devices have suffered from negative connotations, particularly among field personnel.

In the last 15 years, however, we’ve come around. We’ve accepted that an objective review of the significant benefits GPS systems offer makes them a clear choice for any company that wants to cut costs, enhance safety and, most importantly, improve customer service in fleet operations.

Early GPS devices had limited features and one purpose - to give owners the advantage of knowing where a vehicle was at all times. Creators of these first-generation systems touted better customer service and dispatching capabilities as the reason for purchase and installation. There was little direct economic benefit though, and field personnel were suspicious. Many believed management was only interested in using the technology to monitor their movements.

After years of technological advances though, GPS devices have come a long way. Now, these systems offer unique features that make it hard to argue against their use in the mechanical service contracting business or any other service vehicle support business. Customer service is enhanced because GPS devices allow dispatching from real-time positioning of technicians. In addition, GPS technology enables us to respond to client requests more effectively and efficiently, further enhancing customer service. Client calls can now be scheduled more precisely, with closer response time estimates, so we can offer more reliable service and faster response times.

New GPS technologies offer better safety and diagnostic capabilities as well. Some systems can monitor harsh braking and cornering and provide notification of an air bag deployment in real time, allowing dispatch to notify 911 should a technician be severely hurt or unconscious.



Connection to onboard vehicle diagnostics are invaluable because they ensure that prompt attention is paid to major problems, while minor issues do not cause unnecessary downtime. If the “check engine” light goes on, the system can identify the problem and determine its urgency. For example, a lean fuel mixture alarm can be rectified easily at the car dealership, at any time, and does not pose an imminent danger. Using GPS, we have even responded to stolen vehicles before the police were able to, thwarting eventual loss of the vehicle or tools.

After the cost of labor, a company’s service fleet often represents its largest expense. Purchase or lease, registration, decals, insurance, maintenance and gasoline - service vehicles chew up more valuable overhead dollars than any other single budget item. Owners and branch managers have spent countless hours trying to discover ways to cut overhead costs. Lowering the cost of owning and maintaining vehicles is always at the top of the list. The industry has endured countless gasoline price increases. We’ve reacted by installing cheaper propane alternatives; trying smaller, lighter minivans, upgrading dispatch routes, experimenting with having technicians pick up and drop off vehicles at a central location, and even limiting where technicians can work in relation to where they live.

Today’s GPS systems greatly contribute to better operating efficiency for vehicles. Cost savings are easy to track using a vast array of custom reports that are available. Tracking several vehicles with the same year and model has enabled us to identify wide variations (over 6 MPG) in overall gas mileage. We found that vehicles with ladder racks attained poorer mileage as did the vehicles over-weighted with tools and equipment over long periods of time. Many of these detailed reports are shared with our competitive technicians, and rewards are offered to those with the best MPG average in their vehicle class.



ACCEPTANCE COMES TO THOSE WHO WAIT

Despite some lingering initial doubts, the field staff has not revolted. To the contrary, they seem to have embraced the technology. This is partly due to our understanding of the privacy concerns of employees and the policies put in place to respect those concerns.

If anything, GPS has made life easier for field technicians. For years, our company has used How’s My Driving Stickers with 800 numbers on vehicles. We can now evaluate any complaints with accuracy by verifying speeds or locations of vehicles using history data from GPS.

The advancement of GPS features and our application of GPS technology have substantially affected the staff’s safety, reliability, and ability to provide customers with top notch service. Once a skeptic, I have been converted to a GPS devotee. Anyone in the service industry who does a careful cost-benefit analysis will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion.

Publication date: 10/12/2009