Devices Improve Software Solutions for Field Technicians, Contractors
By Jim Wenninger
For many years, mobile software capabilities have been limited by outside factors. For instance, it took a long time for cell phone providers to build out their networks to reach nearly everyone with coverage. And, until the last couple of years, many of the tablets, smartphones and other devices on the market weren’t user friendly or didn’t have the capability to run sophisticated programs.
Now that data coverage has expanded and mobile devices have improved to meet demand, it’s off to the races for software providers to develop business solutions that can help contractors boost efficiency and keep them better connected. This mobile movement has already come a long way in a short period of time, yet there is still much more to come.
One of the basic achievements of the mobility trend has been getting field techs off paper-based systems. Rather than handwriting work orders in the field and physically handing the paperwork into the office, the work orders can be filled out and submitted electronically. Through mobile work order submission, service contractors have experienced many benefits.
For starters, some businesses have drastically reduced administrative time spent re-entering information. Under the previous workflow for entering labor, administrative staff would type in the information from the handwritten work orders that field techs dropped off at the office. Now, through a fully integrated mobile solution, a field tech’s labor is automatically updated in the system after he submits it electronically. The field tech no longer has to make trips to the office to drop off paperwork, and the administrative staff can spend its time doing more valuable tasks, rather than redundant data entry.
By entering labor into the system immediately, businesses can also bill much faster, since they don’t have to wait for work orders to trickle into the office. In fact, many contractors can send out invoices within two days versus two weeks. This helps them maximize cash flow, so they rely less on a line of credit to pay their bills. Additionally, it increases the likelihood of the contractor getting paid in a timely manner, since customers are more likely to dispute an invoice if it is received well after the service date.
More Benefits of Mobility
In addition to faster billing, there are many more advantages that come with mobile solutions. Mobile devices eliminate a lot of unnecessary trips back to the office, resulting in more billable time for field techs. And since there is no paperwork to shuffle around the office, records don’t get lost.
Also, mobile devices allow field techs to pull customer history, equipment diagrams, troubleshooting guides and other valuable information in the field to help them do their jobs more effectively. This is especially useful for newer employees, who may not be as familiar with the equipment as the more seasoned ones. In fact, some contractors have used mobile solutions as an advantage to recruit the top field techs, because many of the rising stars in the industry are drawn by new technology and are more compelled to join a company that offers to equip them with the latest mobile devices.
Furthermore, mobile solutions may also include asset management functionality to build maintenance agreements specifying the parts and tools needed to perform various repairs. In addition to monitoring inventory, asset management solutions help contractors track the equipment that they own and rent. Personnel can view and update service history, meter readings and a wealth of other information directly from their devices.
A Look Ahead
Perhaps some of the most exciting trends in mobility are the up-and-coming ones. A cross-platform solution, for instance, is one offering that many contractors are excited to see come to light. For years, service departments were hesitant to make hardware decisions, knowing that whatever devices they purchase today will be obsolete in a couple years.
Fortunately, software providers have responded to these concerns by developing applications for Android, Apple iOS and Windows operating systems. Some providers even offer multi-platform licenses, so a field tech can run the software on an iPad, Android smartphone and laptop, while the company only pays for one license. Thanks to this advancement, contractors can receive support for a variety of business- and consumer-grade devices.
Next, contractors are just starting to recognize the possibilities when it comes to document management. Under a paper-based system, when a field tech is on a job, it is common for him to attach multiple documents, drawings or photos to a work order. Then, if anyone from the organization needs to refer back to the job, all of the related information is in one file. This, too, is possible through mobile solutions, which make it easy for field techs to capture all the useful information from a job. With the camera and a scanning app on their mobile devices, they can simply scan documents or take photos, which can quickly be linked to a work order. From there, anyone who views the work order can also click to see other important files relevant to the job. Everything is saved electronically for easy access in the office or in the field.
Because field techs have so much first-hand customer experience, more organizations are starting to use customer relationship management (CRM) software to capture their knowledge. In turn, software providers are starting to build mobile solutions on CRM, allowing field techs to submit electronic quotes. For example, if a field tech performs an approved maintenance task and also notices another issue that requires repair, he can enter the information into the system for the sales team to see. From there, the project manager can propose a price to the customer to complete the repair. If the new work is approved, the quote automatically rolls into a work order.
Finally, as more contractors implement mobile solutions, their customers are starting to demand access to real-time information. They want to be alerted when a field tech reaches the jobsite and when a repair is completed. The best solution to meet this request is a customer-facing portal, which provides a secure website for the customer to view status updates as the field tech arrives on site, finishes his work and captures a signature. From the website, invoices can also be reprinted as needed. Demand for this information has become so strong that some customers have begun stating in their maintenance contracts that the contractor will provide access to it.
Integration Is Key
Keep in mind that these benefits are only possible through a fully integrated solution that connects all departments with real-time information. Standalone software does not offer the same streamlined workflow. For instance, some solutions may allow field techs to submit work orders electronically but, when they are received in the back office, the labor needs to be re-entered into the company’s financial software. Other solutions may only offer batch synchronization, so labor that was entered during the day is updated in the system overnight. Although this method does reduce the need to re-enter information, it doesn’t give companies the real-time view of their operations that they desire.
Web-based applications are also available, but these pose problems whenever field techs lose connectivity. If there is no mobile connection on a jobsite, the field tech has no way to save information from the job, and he must hand-write everything. On the other hand, a complete mobile software solution can offer full offline use with store-and-forward functionality that synchronizes information when the field tech enters an area of connectivity again.
In just a few years, mobility has seen tremendous growth, but we’re only in the beginning stages. As more contractors adopt mobile technology and devices keep improving, the industry will continue to see advancements in functionality. No matter what direction the trend goes next, one thing is for sure. Integrated solutions will always be the key to helping contractors maximize their organizations’ connectivity in this mobile movement.
Jim Wenninger is the CEO of WennSoft, a field service software provider based in New Berlin, Wis.