Letting Customers View Their Histories
"I come out of a long line of HVAC businesses," he said. The family business, Willison A/C, was founded in Nebraska in 1906. "We moved to California in 1971," Willison said. He is the fourth generation to run the company, which now concentrates on industrial projects.
He has made a lot of changes to improve the company's stability and value.
"I watched my grandfather and father build up the business and try to sell it; the sale flutters, fails, and falls apart," he said. As he sees it, the strength of the company is based on the relationship between the owner and the customer. "The strength of the ownership holds the company together."
What would happen to the value of the company, then, if something were to happen to the owner?
SYSTEM FOR LONGEVITYIn order to maintain business continuity no matter what, Willison turned the company into a "systems-based business."
"If something were to happen to me tomorrow," he said, "my business would run just fine." The systems include a policy manual, insurance, and a high-tech customer history/dispatch system. The latter, in particular, is "valued by me and my customers," he said.
MyServiceForce.com, a mobile technology field service company, recently launched on-demand software that is integrated with Windows Mobile 5.0. The hosted solution gives field service teams real-time access to sales and customer information, eliminating paper-based tracking.
In addition, the mobile technology "has a wonderful piece to it that most people haven't thought of: Internet access for my customers," Willison said.
"They can see their history and information on all their service equipment. Instead of them having to pick up the phone and research their service history with me, they can look it up online. Or, if they want to sell a specific property, they can view all of the information, a complete history of all their equipment, service calls, and costs. It allows them to make great decisions, and the buyer knows exactly how much work and maintenance has been done."
Customers can also view work orders and invoices, so they can see what has been done to each piece of equipment. This helps operations staff justify equipment replacements and upgrades.
It makes them so happy, in fact, "They're less likely to float off to some other service company," Willison said. "They get true value for what they paid for.
"I don't want satisfied customers; I want cheerleader customers."
CUSTOMER BASEPMS offers sales, service, and design services for a broad range of HVACR projects, "from complex, multistage, low-temperature refrigeration systems, to conventional comfort conditioning systems," Willison said. "We've worked with construction management and we've been assigned the role of construction manager often."
The company's techs are trained to service, repair, and maintain large-tonnage refrigeration systems, centrifugal units, and small-tonnage comfort systems. They are dispatched through a computerized system, and are on call 24/7/365.
Typical projects have included the installation of a 110-ton absorption chiller system on Ghirardelli Chocolate's cogeneration generators to provide chilled water for the company's binder room. The contractor also installed a Carrier R-134a backup chiller.
The contractor also removed the old air quality system and replaced it with new air scrubbers and Greenheck ventilation systems for the Santa Rosa Water District, a project valued at $250,000. This included the installation of an FRP duct system for high-corrosion areas.
And at Nellson Nuetracuetical, PMS designed and installed a new brine process chiller for the chocolate process. The equipment was piped in while keeping the process lines in operation.
"Our services include identifying air quality problems, solving comfort complaints, and performing energy and operating cost studies," Willison said.
PAPERLESS AT LASTAll of the information accessed by customers and the contractor is logged online on a secure server. The benefits of this system are not just on the company's service side. "We track all of our construction work with this technology," Willison said. "We know day to day what labor has been put into it, and what materials." A field report can be extended to the construction team, such as outside project engineers and the owners.
"It has made us a paperless company," he said. "Hardly any paper floats through the business anymore. From a work order standpoint, it's all done electronically."
The resulting growth for PMS has been a $1 million increase for every year he has been in business. "I get my billing out in three days on average," Willison said. "We've reduced accounts receivable to under 45 days.
"We're also running 22 guys with one dispatcher. I'm the backup dispatcher. You don't have to have expensive hardware in your office," he added. "Everything is Internet-based."
The company also backs up its QuickBooks account daily on a flash drive. Regarding information security, myServiceForce.com "is 200 percent redundant," Willison said, with a large database system out of New York. There are no expenses related to bandwidth use, he said.
"Instead of having six file cabinets, I have two. It cuts paperwork by about two-thirds, and allows me to run thin and lean."
Willison said that PMS's overhead has dropped to 8 percent, thanks to the technology. "Most air conditioning companies carry 18-19 percent overhead nationally."
TECHNICIAN BENEFITSMyServiceForce.com provides PMS with handheld devices and field service software that allows all 18 technicians to print bills on site, post invoices online immediately, and update customer information in real time. Data is instantly synced back to the main office via a wireless connection.
As a result, only three other staff members have to manage the remaining work: one dispatcher, one bookkeeper, and the president, Willison.
A main benefit is that the company's techs love it. "It took â€˜em a little bit to get used to," he said, "but with the new PDAs [personal digital assistant], it's a no-brainer. It slides apart and has a keyboard on it."
According to Willison, "A lot of what a/c guys face is the training issue. With myServiceForce, you can build a custom troubleshooting checklist; all you have to do is fill in the blanks. The checklist writes the service order for him."
It's necessary to take care setting up the checklists in the first place. "The better your checklists are, the better your service is. I create the checklist myself with my service manager." They can be customized for specific kinds of service calls.
"No cooling call? He has to check a lot of things, and young guys tend to forget things," said Willison. "These lists are the best training tool I've ever had."
Sales leads can be forwarded from the technician's PDA. "If he sees he's working on a 1986 unit that needs to be replaced, he taps the sales area, adds information on what kind of unit, voltage, amps, etc. I have it e-mailed to the salesperson and myself." It is not included in the company's online information.
Speed is increased for installation and maintenance work, he said. "We replaced 63, 30-year-old units on a roof in one month. We know all the maintenance history on them. Our company has a belief in having service and maintenance contracts to keep units lasting longer. You can just about double the life expectancy of a unit." The data logging helps document and justify the savings.
"It makes it very easy for us to sell service contracts," he said.
"They get to see the service history and what we are doing. We create value by giving them excellent reporting.
"Our net profitability stays up in the 20-26 percent range," he continued. "There is a lot less slipping through the cracks. Most techs hate paperwork; they stack it up to the end of the week, then fill it out from memory. With this program, they can't get their next service call without completing the paperwork for the service call they're on."
The profitability is passed on to the employees. Willison said he can offer his techs $25 to $35 an hour, and profit sharing on large projects with key personnel.
MyServiceForce.com said it gives field service businesses a lower cost of entry to mobility solutions. The company offers a range of handheld devices, including PDAs, smart phones, and ruggedized field handheld computers and tablets running Windows Mobile 5.0 or Windows XP Tablet Edition. It can be used by large or small service companies.
For more information, visit www.myserviceforce.com or www.pms4svc.com.
Sidebar: How It WorksAccording to the company, myServiceForce.com's mobile devices work even when they are out of range of a wireless network; they resynchronize as soon as they're back in range. Invoices are printed immediately upon service. The system can be linked with scheduling software to optimize dispatching efficiency.
The system can be up and running within three days, the company said. Full payback is possible in 120 days. Customers have reported an almost immediate return on investment due to increased technician scheduling, elimination of paperwork, more efficient truck inventory, and reduced administration/dispatching support.
Initial devices include smart phones from Verizon, Cingular, or Sprint; PDAs; and the handheld Symbol MC70.
"Field worker efficiency and inventory tracking are field service companies' biggest pain points," said Gary Rawding, president of myServiceForce.com.
"We're bringing pay-as-you-go mobile field service technology to the small business market, with the kind of back-office integration that every company needs."
Founded in 2001 as Aereon Solutions, myServiceForce.com is headquartered in West Chester, Pa.
Publication date: 10/09/2006