HVACR Software for Under $100: Wireless and GPS Technology for Managing Mobile Workers

For many small- and medium-sized HVACR wholesalers, investing in technology means signing up for Internet access. Most of the time, these companies simply cannot afford the cost of more advanced systems, nor do they have the in-house expertise to deploy and manage them.

Fortunately, a new breed of technology solutions is emerging that allows smaller companies to gain the same business process advantages as larger ones. Based on a model that enables companies to “rent” technology services rather than purchase expensive hardware and software packages, these next-generation technology solutions are easy to use, affordable, and can be deployed quickly. In most cases, these rented services – otherwise known as “hosted” solutions – can be implemented to serve a handful of users for less than $100 per month, a price that is extremely attractive to the small- and medium-sized business market.

One example of an inexpensive, hosted technology solution is the location-based Mobile Workforce Management service, for improving field-to-office and intra-office communications. An emerging market category, Mobile Workforce Management services leverage the Global Positioning System (GPS) network, wireless technologies, and the Internet. Today’s most advanced location-based services work on GPS-enabled mobile phones. They use it as a tool for time-keeping and project management. Because GPS is free (the U.S. government provides it), companies using location-based services need only pay for the wireless airtime, Internet access, and the monthly cost of the solution, which is often based on a per-user/per-month basis.

Here’s an example of how it works: For a wholesaler of heating and air conditioning equipment, on-time delivery of parts and accessories is critical, as it enables the company to meet commitments they’ve made to customers. In an effort to help ensure that merchandise arrives at customers’ sites on time, the wholesaler provides its delivery drivers with mobile phones running the GPS-based technology service. Delivery drivers use the service on the phones to clock in and out from the field, and record information about completed assignments. Because the phones are equipped with a GPS receiver, the wholesaler’s office staff can track the location of its delivery staff throughout the day.

Using maps and reports generated by the Mobile Workforce Management service and available over the Web, a dispatcher at the wholesaler’s main office can tell if a driver has been stopped at a particular location for longer than the normal time, how fast a driver is traveling, or where the drivers are in their delivery route at any given time. This up-to-date information helps the dispatcher respond to problems or delays as they occur, rather than at the end of the day when it’s too late. Also, if a customer calls with a question about the status of their delivery, the dispatcher can reply quickly by checking the maps and reports.

The wholesaler’s drivers can also use the GPS service to indicate the completion of a job. Each contractor to whom the wholesaler delivers equipment has a unique five- or six-digit code. Delivery drivers enter this number into the phones when arriving at a customer site and repeat the procedure when they leave, indicating the assignment is done. As with the location information, the job-completion data is available to the dispatcher over the Web.

Several times a day, the Mobile Workforce Management service can export driver location and job data to a dispatch summary report or some other productivity management system. This tool enables the wholesaler to demonstrate to customers that it is complying with required service level agreements.

While a number of technology vendors offer vehicle-mounted devices as the hardware solution for locationbased services, clearly the hand-held, mobile-phone-based system is more practical. If a sheet metal worker is out of his truck for 15 or 20 minutes, what good does it do the company to have the device installed in the vehicle? For most companies, it is critical to be able to locate field staff at any time during the work day, whether they are in their vehicles or not.

Integrated wireless text alerts available with some location-based services allow field staff to send instant messages to office workers, and vice versa. If a drywall patchman is at a job for two hours, but only 90 minutes of that time is billable, he can send a text message with that information to his company’s customer service representative. Not only does this expedite the billing process, but it also allows the company to provide the customer with real-time information regarding the cost of a job and the specific work performed. Should the customer have a question about this information, the customer service rep can respond immediately, versus a month later after sending the invoice when no one really remembers the nature of the work.

A recent study of HVACR contractors found that technology is changing the way companies conduct business every day. This news comes as little surprise to today’s most advanced companies, where delivering excellent customer service and improving worker productivity are foremost among their goals. Going forward, HVACR contractors (and wholesalers) will face the challenge of implementing technology solutions that streamline communications between the field and the office, reduce the costs of field operations, and help to create new revenue opportunities. To meet the needs of the country’s construction companies, Xora Inc. has introduced a location-based service known as Xora GPS TimeTrack. For less than $100 per month, a construction company deploys Xora GPS TimeTrack to a handful of mobile workers. Given the low cost of the service and subsequent fast return on investment, it is easy for companies to justify the expense.

More and more small businesses are finding a way to use technology to improve business processes. Due to the availability of hosted services and technology advancements such as free GPS, it is easy to significantly reduce the cost to deploy these solutions and satisfy key business objectives.