Tools of the Trade

July 27, 2009
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Contractors utilizing Tablet PCs in the field are able to take advantage of handwriting-recognition functionality, which converts written notes directly to text. The devices also enable screen capture, allowing service techs to procure customer signatures to facilitate pre-approval for commencing on a project, as well as signing off upon the job’s completion and for billing.


There is an HVAC industry legend regarding penmanship (or lack thereof), if you will: “Traditionally, the better the technician, the worse they are at paperwork.” This was relayed by Sam Kelly, president of Houston-based New Balance AC Inc., which has been engaged in residential, retrofit/replacements, and some light commercial/industrial work for 22 years. “No one can read my handwriting!” said Kelly.

And while this quote is humorous, it also carries some potential ramifications: What if your staff can’t read your handwriting and misinterprets the invoice or service order?




GETTING IT ‘WRITE'

Located in Dripping Springs, Texas, Collier Consulting Group, founded in 1991 by Dr. Ron Collier, is a business management consulting firm for the contracting industries. The firm provides business evaluations, business consulting, training, seminars, software and other products and services to more than 4,000 contractors and manufacturers across North America. Efficiency and consistency are two key areas/elements that Collier, president of Collier Consulting Group, focuses on. To hear him tell it, Collier has devoted his career to helping business owners become more successful. Whether through training, consulting, or innovative products, such as Collier Mobile Tech, Collier has helped countless entrepreneurs improve their bottom line.

Introduced around three years ago, Collier Mobile Tech is “the original Tablet PC application designed for field service technicians,” Collier said. He recognized the need for such an instrument after realizing that information gathered in the field on service calls was actually just being repeated when back in the office.

“When we got back, someone in the office entered it again,” Collier said. “Thereby, there was an inefficiency and chance for data to be entered wrongly.”

Working under this assertion, Collier set out to develop a customer management dispatch system that synchronizes data between accounting programs (Peachtree, QuickBooks) and the field, and thus Collier Mobile tech was born.

Designed to work with most accounting packages, these instruments have the capacity to produce: work orders, invoices, sales quotes, service agreements, and inventory requisitions. Through software applications, the devices can process all invoices immediately, while allowing for printed invoices and credit card swiping in the field.

Users can download current flat-rate pricing and inventory pricing through the company’s integrated Website. “There is no need to re-enter invoices at the office,” Collier said.

The Tablet PC saves all this by way of handwriting-capture functionality.

“You write right on the screen and the device prints what you’re writing,” Kelly said. “It translates into typed materials.”

And as described on the company’s Website (www.collier mobiletech.com), using broadband Internet access through mobile devices, operators dispatch all calls directly to field personnel’s mobile devices; process work orders; price each job; show videos/product demonstrations to customers; create and print invoices and service agreements; swipe credit cards, and even get a signature right in the field.

“They’ve got to get information to their online system,” Collier said. “By utilizing the system, a dispatcher can access online all info from the system; service history, serial numbers - comprehensive information about the customer is there on the screen. With this wealth of past info available, the operator needs to be able to dispatch a call to the service tech, either through a cell phone, smart phone or Tablet PC.”

There are limitations with the cell phones: While highly portable, these devices have limited memory. You simply can’t send a lot of information and therefore you’ve now limited the info available to the technician in the field, Collier said.

Designed to work with most accounting packages, instruments like Collier Mobile Tech have the capacity to produce work orders, invoices, sales quotes, service agreements and inventory requisitions in the field.

“The cell phone provides for limited messages - name, address, etc.,” Collier said. “Not all the info, but enough to get the job done. The service tech can then go on the call, write up a paper invoice, and send some of that basic info back via cell phone to the online dispatcher.

“When [the] dis- patcher receives info, they can review and then synchronize with dispatch, customer service, and QuickBooks system. Info is not rekeyed since sent through electronically to the system.”

Smart Phones (Motorola, for example) do have enhanced memory and are capable of running Windows mobile. “With advanced capabilities and the memory now enhanced, [dispatchers] can now send the techs more info; a complete service history is now able to be sent, and smart phones can also run credit card processing,” Collier said, which is accomplished by swiping in the field with card reader attachments. Again, all info is sent back to the online dispatcher and is synched with the system.

The next tier of options is where more contractors are now choosing Tablet PCs, Collier said, which possess handwriting- recognition functionality that can be converted directly to text. Also important to note, the Tablet PC has screen capture, where service techs can actually get customer signatures to facilitate pre-approval for commencing on a project as well as signing off upon the job’s completion.

“The Tablet PC has an actual credit card swipe built in - not on the side, it is integrated into the machine,” Collier said. “All info is then sent back to the dispatcher: customer signature, method of payment; if a service tech sold a service agreement in the field - all this is now available electronically, from the tech back to the customer.

Comprehensive customer information is available on-screen for immediate reference. (Photo courtesy of Collier Consulting Group Inc.)

The most important feature of the Tablet PC is the amount of information able to be sent to the technician, Collier said. With the technician having Internet access in the field, that employee can actually send an order for a part right from the field. Or, say they are having trouble with an installation - they can go to the manufacturer Website(s) and print off instructions. (Most users have a Blue-tooth printer in truck, which is wireless.)

And, with a sales rep, if they want to write up a proposal in the field, or calculate/demonstrate heat gain/heat loss through programs for a client, when they are finished with the appointment, the information is sent right back to the office and a complete record is created and available, Collier said.

As a consultant, “an appointment is an appointment.” The scheduling goes through the dispatcher and these devices actually track time. Essentially serving as an electronic time card, through the computer you can control the actions of people in the field, Collier said.

“One of the ‘big’ features is that you can control movements and procedures of techs in the field without you having to be there,” Collier said. “Consistency is the key; everybody doing exactly the same thing, every time. This is truly the future.”

“We don’t want technicians to [have to] write very much,” Collier said. “If they’re writing, they’re essentially wasting time.”

“For example, if you’re going to be writing 15 things on every invoice, why not already have everything typed? Put in pre-defined fields, i.e., diagnostic codes. Instead of writing out the codes each time, [the techs] can select ones already entered,” Collier said.

Technicians can still make specific notes, but try to minimize it and opt for pre-defined company verbiage versus scattered notes. “Every good company is consistent in what they do,” Collier said. “They do things the same way, all the time. If consistent, [it’s] easier as an owner to have control of employees in the company.”

The Collier Mobile Tech Tablet PC features a credit card swipe integrated into the machine. All information including customer signature and method of payment is then transmitted electronically back to the database.

EMPOWERING EMPLOYEES

“The technician is out there [in the field] - let’s give him as much power as we want to do everything,” Collier said. “When the call is finished, it’s finished. No one in the office has to put information into the system or send anything out, etc. We can automatically do things instead of getting more people involved.”

By doing things more efficiently we will save on costs, be more efficient, and cover more ground.”

Sam Kelly and the three service trucks at New Balance AC Inc. that utilize the tablets implemented the Collier Mobile Tech system about two and one-half years ago.

“We wanted more control,” said Kelly, “and, for techs out in the field to be able to type in/send all information electronically. Plus, the device has a credit card swipe right on top that goes directly to accounting, which eliminates transposing of information captured. All sensitive information is kept confidential - only the last four digits of the card are shown as reference.”

“This has really been working well for us,” Kelly said. “Customers sign the tablet right there [upon completion of job], which is key for collections. In effect, it makes it non-disputable; the billing is presented clearly without any questions or room for error.”

“The future is providing techs with continuing online training and education,” Collier said. “And since everything is trackable, we know everything that happens on that computer and can ensure that we are providing immediate access to the technician for everything they need in the field.”

“In terms of servicing the customer better, as well as serving the technician better, this is really the most logical choice out there.”

Publication date: 07/27/2009

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