Wearable technology has arrived. Its popularity is evident in the growing demand for products, such as smart watches and FitBits. This technology is also impacting the HVAC industry as more and more contractors discover how smart glasses can aid their businesses, particularly in the commercial sector.
“If someone in our industry hasn’t started thinking about utilizing this technology, they’re already behind,” said Bradd Busick, chief information officer (CIO) of MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions in Seattle.
MacDonald-Miller outfitted 85 field technicians with smart glasses this summer and has big plans for how it will use this technology in the future.
On the other side of the country, Brady Services, a commercial contractor based in Greensboro, North Carolina, issued 150 pairs of smart glasses to technicians in 2016.
“We chose this technology since it fits into our vision of changing from a building services company using technology to a technology company in the building services space,” said Jim Brady, president and CEO, Brady Services.
Brady encourages his employees to be on the lookout for new and upcoming technologies, which is why Jeff Smith, vice president of service operations, attended a BrainXchange event in October 2015 to learn about wearable technology. Smith was impressed with the concepts promoted at the event, and by early 2016 he was spearheading a beta test of wearable technology at Brady Services.
According to Busick, his company also began investigating the benefits of wearable technologies last year.
“We started this dialogue in Q4 of 2015, first rolled out the technology in Q1 of 2016, and did our big-bang rollout in June and July,” Busick said.
Now, both companies require all field technicians use their smart glasses to record at least one video on every service call, which are provided to customers in real time.
“If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a video is worth 2,000,” said Gus Simonds, CEO of MacDonald-Miller.
Simonds pointed out that body cams are now being used by police departments, drones are being used in construction, and action cameras, like GoPros, are being used in sports and adventure fields.
“It’s already here, and it will be the new normal in a few more years,” he said.
According to Aaron Salow, CEO of XOEye Technologies, the use of wearable technology in HVAC is trending up as more contractors test it out and see the benefits it can provide to their businesses. XOEye develops the software that powers the Vuzix smart glasses being used by both MacDonald-Miller and Brady Services. XOEye’s software is also used by Lee Company, an HVAC contractor based in Tennessee that piloted smart glasses in 2015. (The NEWS highlighted Lee Company earlier this year; see the sidebar on Page XX for an update on the company’s experience with smart glasses.)
In addition to MacDonald-Miller and Brady Services, Salow said that his company has helped commercial contractors in Texas and Ohio deploy smart glasses this year. Plus, more contractors are currently testing the technology, he said. At press time, Salow said HVAC companies in Arizona, California, Florida, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania were running pilot programs.
While wearable technology definitely has the “cool” factor, that’s not what is convincing HVAC contractors to invest in it. One reason the technology appeals to HVAC companies is demographics.
“This technology helps us leverage our greatest asset — the knowledge our great technicians have,” Brady said. “We’re looking at the trends in the marketplace about the coming labor crunch in our industry. Whatever numbers you are looking at, there are going to be more technicians leaving the industry than coming into it. We need to harness the experience of our senior technicians and believe using smart glasses can help us do this.”
“Wearable technology is something sexy to go after, but oftentimes the application is elusive,” admitted Busick.
Before his company made the leap, Busick said the contractor did a full cost-benefit analysis to determine if the business case actually panned out. Management considered the hardware and storage costs as well as the time and training required to implement the technology. Ultimately, MacDonald-Miller decided to proceed with a pilot test.
“The results [of the pilot] were really, really positive,” Busick reported, which led to the large rollout in the summer.
In the future, Busick said he expects the technology to provide new streams of revenue for remote telepresence and connectivity.
According to Smith, wearable technology offers many exciting benefits, yet getting technicians to buy-in is critical.
“We learned that the technology is really the easy part,” he said. “In this case, the biggest challenge is probably the people side. Creating the processes and change efforts around the technology took more work.”
Partnering with XOEye has been a factor in the success of the technology adoption, according to Smith.
“XOEye has taken what could be a complicated piece of hardware and software and made it easy to use,” he said. “There are three different buttons on the hardware and only three functions we ask our guys to use.”
One button takes pictures, one records videos, and one streams video. Behind this simple interface, Smith noted that the software has a lot of functionality, including the way it uploads videos automatically to the cloud. To help technicians create better videos, Brady Services has focused on training.
“We train technicians on what to say and how to say it,” Smith said, noting that they are given scripts for what to say on a video for a preventive maintenance call versus a quoted service job. “Today, we’ve got the initial training process down to two-and-a-half hours.”
Busick acknowledged that while some technicians were initially interested in the smart glasses, others were not.
“We had a lot of skeptics in the beginning … [but now] some of those same people are our biggest advocates,” he said.
Rory Olson, service manager, MacDonald-Miller, explained that once techs realized how they could communicate and connect with each other using the smart glasses, they became excited about the technology.
“Technician peer-to-peer interactions have always been critical in our industry, and this technology makes these interactions quick and easy,” Olson said. “For technicians, it provides a unique connection to a support network of internal subject matter experts via hands-free telepresence. This essentially makes each service technician as capable as our strongest team member.”
CUSTOMER FAN CLUB
Not only is the technology changing how technicians interact with each other, it’s also impacting how they communicate with customers.
“For customers, it offers an immersive connection to the efforts being made to keep their buildings operational and running efficiently,” said Olson. “The audio and video content captured enhances the customer experience beyond the traditional written call summary and drives customer engagement and action.”
Looking ahead, he said, “I expect call summaries with embedded video content to become the new normal in tomorrow’s technology-savvy marketplace.”
Smith also thinks video recaps will be the industry standard in the future. Plus, he said it’s been interesting seeing how customers have been using the videos to create value for themselves in their own organizations.
“When we look at our typical customers and consider where they fit on their leadership teams, they’re kind of outgunned by other departments,” Smith explained. “If it’s in an industrial facility, for example, the facility manager might not have the same amount of information as the safety, quality, and production folks. So, a video helps them up their game. They can send it to purchasing or to their bosses, and it tells a better story than a piece of paper or work order.”
Summing up the customer reaction, Smith said it’s been very positive. “Some technology makes things more impersonal, but this makes it more personal. This is a way for our technicians to keep the personal link and relationship going when we don’t see the customers as much as we used to.”
While there are still privacy and proprietary concerns being raised about the use of smart glasses, Busick said, “More of our customers are saying yes than no.”
He continued, “As the economy and our culture adjusts to real-time video, anytime, anywhere, the market will follow.”
Smith pointed out that smart glasses are just the beginning.
“Smart glasses are first, but we think there will be other wearables in the future that could give data on the environment and the technician,” he said. “It sounds really Big Brother, but monitoring a technician’s heartbeat, temperature, and even strain — like if the guy is lifting too much — could really improve safety in the future.”
PAYBACK FROM PIONEERING SMART GLASSES
As noted in the April 18, 2016, edition of The NEWS, Lee Company initially issued 150 pairs of smart glasses to its technicians in January 2016. The company has since purchased a total of 500 pairs of smart glasses, which are currently being used in the field by both commercial and residential technicians.
Steve Scott, senior vice president of facilities solutions at Lee Company, said the wearable technology has exceeded his expectations in the first year of use.
“Suddenly, I can’t even imagine planning for the future and continuing the quest to create a relevant, world-class service business — and customer experience — without this technology being in the equation,” he said. “I believe we have just scratched the surface on the benefits to our customers, employees, and business with this technology integration.”
Lee Company has been carefully tracking its return on investment (ROI) and has reported that every $1 invested in wearable technology is delivering a $20.11 return. According to Scott, sales are up, which he attributes to how compelling video recommendations are compared to written reports.
“Our customers can do more than just read about the service we performed or the recommendations we are making. They can now see what we see,” he said. “I personally like to read, but I really like to read when there are pictures that go with the story. My assumption is that most of our customers feel the same way, and, 11 months in, that assumption seems to be right on the money.”
Scott also noted that the technicians’ buy-in has been crucial to the company’s success so far.
“Nobody wins if the glasses stay in the van all day not being used,” he said. “Our folks in the field are bringing us new ideas, and our customers are suggesting ways we can use the technology to better serve them. It has created a differentiating factor that has exceeded any other in the past.”
Publication date: 1/9/2017