Building Wireless Enterprise Connectivity
Software developer Maxwell Systems, Inc. expects its year-old wireless field service automation solution for the construction industry to account for 20% of this year's sales revenue.
He's the guy with a tool belt strapped around his waist. Maybe he's an electrician, plumber, or heating and air conditioning installer. Whatever the case, if he owns a construction service-related business, Maxwell Systems, Inc. (Norristown, PA) wants to meet him (or her). After all, Maxwell is a software development company specializing in job cost accounting systems for the construction and related service industries. However, within the past two years, Maxwell has been contacting its typical clients for a new reason: wireless field service automation (FSA).
The Need For Paperless Workflow Systems
To understand how and why a company would decide to jump into the wireless fray after 12 years of stable growth with an accounting product requires a short history lesson. During the late 1990s and early 2000, Maxwell President Randy Alexander and VP of Marketing Rick Hartman began noticing a new trend in what their clients wanted. "Customers were asking for complete integration between field and back office [e.g. accounting] operations," Alexander explained. "They wanted timely and accurate reporting of information pertaining to specific field work." Hartman added, "A great deal of attention was being given to creating paperless workflow systems by automating field personnel systems [e.g. dispatching] and allowing these workers to participate in the data entry process."
Therefore, Maxwell decided to develop a wireless software product to meet this new market demand. But, instead of starting from scratch and creating new wireless FSA software, Maxwell established a strategic alliance with an existing vendor of this technology: FieldCentrix, Inc. (Irvine, CA).
Partner To Create A Field Service Solution
FieldCentrix is a provider of wireless and Internet-based FSA software. Essentially, Maxwell and FieldCentrix merged their two areas of expertise into one solution. "One of the first questions our customers kept asking was, 'When we get this wireless data back from the field, where does it go?'" explained Hartman. "Usually, the answer was the customer's accounting package. But, then the customer wanted to know how to get that info into their accounting package without having to perform manual data entry. Through our relationship with FieldCentrix, we were able to design a solution specifically intended to seamlessly integrate into our own accounting software package. This integration eliminates any rekeying of data for users of our accounting software." For example, service technicians using ruggedized laptops receive work order and dispatch assignments via the FieldCentrix wireless dispatch software. As they work, the technicians transmit information on an assignment. The back office can then actually bill the service call before the technician leaves the job site. Employees can also wirelessly enter their time sheets and look up information pertaining to jobs.
Close The Deal With Quantified Benefits
So now Maxwell had an additional product it could sell to its existing construction customers as well as related service trades (e.g. plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning). Even better, the decision maker for this new product was the same person who had previously chosen the accounting software (remember the guy with the tool belt?). But, Alexander and Hartman realized this product couldn't be sold the same way their accounting software had been. Therefore, the company added sales, training, implementation, and support departments specifically for its FSA software product. Furthermore, customers have different ways of estimating the expected return on their investment for an FSA solution as compared to an investment in accounting software.
"For this new solution, we ask questions like, 'How much time do a customer's technicians spend on the phone or searching for parts?'" Alexander explained. "Or, we ask how much time technicians spend going back to the shop for a part when they could have gotten it from another service technician who was on a separate, nearby job. Sure, service and accuracy of a system is important, but demonstrating a return on investment through the optimization of an existing staff's workload will ultimately make the sale."
Can Any Industry Benefit From FSA?
In the third quarter of this year, Maxwell plans to offer a sales force automation solution. This software would be designed for low-powered, non-ruggedized PDAs (personal digital assistants). A foreman in an office who occasionally goes to check the progress at a job site would be a candidate for this kind of solution. Furthermore, white-collar markets such as insurance sales could also benefit from this type of product. In fact, these solutions wouldn't even have to be wireless, since the data collected probably isn't needed in real time.
Think about when Maxwell was launching this new product. It was 2001 - certainly not a time of booming IT spending. Still, the company wasn't taking a horizontal approach to FSA. Instead, Maxwell designed this new software specifically for the needs of the construction-related service industries. According to Hartman, these are markets that tend to flourish during economic downturns. "As new construction slows down, companies are more likely to service their existing equipment," he said. "That's why 15% of our sales revenue in 2001 was attributable to our new FSA software and why we are expecting a 20% figure this year." He also noted that 90 days is the average sales cycle for the nearly 20 installations of Maxwell's FSA solution sold thus far.
Hardware For Hard Hats
Of course, FSA is not a new concept. Unfortunately though, as with Maxwell's construction-related customers, the guys with the tool belts often think a consumer-based PDA will be sufficient for their FSA needs. They soon find out otherwise. "Palm Pilots or consumer PDAs aren't rugged enough for many of our service- and construction-related customers," Hartman said. "These devices are difficult to read in bright sunlight and inevitably will be dropped or get wet. In addition, their screens are too small to display a work order. Thus, a field technician still has to call the office for the details of an order, thereby not improving the process from its previous state." Instead of PDAs, Maxwell resells ruggedized notebooks from companies such as Itronix (Spokane, WA) and Melard Technologies (Armonk, NY).
Along with this hardware fallacy for FSA, Alexander said many end users underestimate the importance of the wireless software's ability to store and forward data. For example, what happens if a technician is in a tunnel or a basement and loses the wireless connection? What happens to the data? Some software will continue to try to send the information until a connection is made. However, some software will try a certain number of times and then send an error message to the person sending the data. "If the guy with the tool belt has to pick up a phone and call the office, then we haven't done our job," Alexander concluded.