Once thought to be a form of corporate Big Brother, contractors and other companies with a fleet of vehicles are realizing that GPS’s purpose is to help with customer service, by guiding the technician to the jobsite so that they arrive on time, safely, while saving the company money on gas and vehicle wear and tear.

From giving turn-by-turn directions for a technician to drive from one jobsite to the next, to figuring out who is closest to a particular jobsite with the right equipment to make a service call, a GPS can provide contracting companies with more information that they can utilize to run their operation more efficiently.

GPS has come a long way from what it was, and how useful they were for contractors. Over 20 years ago, GPS systems came onto the market. At that time, GPS systems provided very basic information compared to what a system could provide today.

“It [GPS] has gone from a service that can tell you where your vehicle is in the event that it is stolen, to where it is today, revolutionizing the way fleet-based businesses run,” said Ryan Driscoll, marketing manager, GPS Insight (Scottsdale, Ariz.).

Todd Ewing, director of product marketing, SageQuest, a FleetMatics Co. (Solon, Ohio) described the early versions of GPS as having a lot of data, but not providing it in a helpful way for the customer. “GPS products initially focused on showing dots on the map and basic historical reporting. While valuable at a basic level, the sheer volume of data provided by the hardware required a user to sift through an overwhelming amount of information to glean even the most basic insight.

“Early GPS tracking provided a lot of data on what was going on, but insight into what that activity truly meant was buried in the numbers.”

Much More Information

GPS has changed from those early days. “As the market has evolved,” said Ewing, “there have been some minor innovations in tracking hardware, but the valuable evolution has occurred in the software itself. Providers like SageQuest have learned more about the actual users and their needs, and the result is software that can interpret the thousands of data points provided by the GPS tracking hardware into intuitive and actionable reports that business leaders can make use of to drive their business.”

Driscoll commented that now, more than ever, is the time to utilize GPS as a business tool. “In today’s challenging business environment, HVAC companies need to invest in those technologies that have a positive impact on their bottom line. Research from C.J. Driscoll & Associates, and others, indicate that many service companies, including HVAC contractors, recoup their investment in GPS fleet-tracking solutions within a few months, especially when the cost of in-vehicle hardware is limited or bundled with the monthly service fee.

“To gain the positive return on investment,” he continued, “everyone must be on board with the initiative, and the invaluable information provided from GPS tracking must effectively integrate into daily business operations.”

Dispatching and customer service are among the operations that can improve with GPS use.

“Initially, GPS products focused on vehicle tracking to locate vehicles,” stated Drew Hamilton, executive vice president, Teletrac Inc. (Garden Grove, Calif.). “Today, GPS products can go far beyond these basic capabilities, giving business owners features that allow them to tackle critical business issues such as improving driver-technician productivity in the field, providing customers accurate ETAs and more on-time arrivals, reducing fuel costs with more direct routes, and more.”

Making dispatching easier results in saving a company some money and makes the process more efficient.

“HVACR contractors are looking to save as much money as possible on gasoline by maximizing efficiency through strategic routing. GPS systems provide some of this functionality but tying it into a dispatch schedule is optimal,” said David Haycraft, vp sales and marketing, Service Automation Inc. (Houston).

The ultimate goal of facilitating the dispatching comes down to customer service reducing operating costs, said Hamilton. “It’s about arriving at the customer site on time, delivering what you say you can deliver.”

Sometimes being able take care of the customer means knowing more than where each of the vehicles in a fleet is. “The point isn’t just to know where your guys are. The point is to be able to look at the map and know what to do, see the information that matters to you. What kind of truck is it? What equipment does it have? How fast is it going? Where was it last? Who’s closest to this emergency, with these kinds of tools? How long until he gets to the customer’s site? Those are mission-critical questions,” Ewing remarked.

However, Haycraft commented that he thinks it’s a misconception to think that GPS systems are good for dispatching. “While I believe that these systems can offer some limited dispatching features, it takes integration with enterprise business solutions to make them truly effective.”

Ewing agrees that it’s not only the GPS itself, but also tying the GPS in with other business processes and products that really makes the whole company more efficient.

“GPS can provide and integrate it [data] with other key back-office solutions that range from work order processing and dispatch, to payroll, to drive more efficiency and cost savings for an organization,” Ewing said.

The smart phone has made its way into the GPS industry just as it has throughout business in general today. Ewing commented that giving managers the ability to receive fleet information on their smart phones allows them to “have insight and access to fleet performance, even when they are out of the office. This has made a significant impact as managers are no longer tied to their desks, or in the dark when they are in the field.”

Changing Minds

Something else that has changed since GPS has come on the market is the way contractors think about the metrics in order to get optimal productivity. It is a “shifting from a Big Brother mentality to more focus on productivity metrics, like jobs completed per day, daily mileage, and related information like linking stops made to actual work orders, and understanding the relationship,” said Ewing.

Hamilton is aware that this mistaken idea still is out there among some HVAC companies, particularly those with only a few vehicles. However, he said he thinks that with technology advancements and costs down over the last few years, the benefits far outweigh Big Brother concerns — and customers confirm that once GPS is deployed, technicians embrace it. The purpose of GPS is to increase operational efficiencies and reduce costs, not act like Big Brother, and drivers benefit as well, he continued.

Because of liability issues, GPS can help owners get the answers to questions such as whether employees were on time to the right address, whether they were speeding, and whether vehicles were used for side jobs, said Hamilton.

“And, HVACR companies need time-stamped records that can be archived and easily accessed for quick dispute resolution,” he added.

This Is No TV Show

While companies can keep track of their vehicles well via GPS, it doesn’t give users information on where a particular vehicle is every single second. According to Driscoll, it’s not the way it’s shown on TV.

“Yes, the common misconception is that ‘real-time location’ means that you know exactly where your vehicle is down to the very second, like you would see it in [the TV show] CSI when they are tracking a stolen vehicle (basically watching the vehicle move on the map),” he said. “This type of update frequency is not available due to cost restrictions. Typical ‘real-time’ update frequencies are anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This means that your map will update current locations every X amount of minutes. For 99.9 percent of HVAC companies, this is not a problem, and HVACs rarely ever need more of an update frequency than 2 minutes.”

Still, GPS does provide contractors a great solution in running the company more efficiently.

Haycraft summed it up this way: “GPS is not the answer for all your fleet management problems, but it is a fantastic tool for monitoring the accountability of your service fleet.”

For more information, visit www.gpsinsight.com, www.sage-quest.com, www.sawinpro.com, and www.teletrac.net.

Publication date: 11/07/2011