By Sarah Nicastro, publisher/editor in chief, Field Technologies
The CEO of Power Pro-Tech Services (PPT) shares how the company has managed growth of more than 20 percent per year for the past five years.
Power Pro-Tech Services (PPT) specializes in the service and installation of distributed power systems. The company has more than 200 employees, 105 of which are field engineers and electricians servicing customers in 22 states. For the past five years, the company has grown at a rate of more than 20 percent per year (and at the time of print, PPT had just been acquired by PowerSecure International due in part to its ability to provide “outstanding service”).
President and CEO of PPT, Bob Byrne, has dealt with all of the growing pains since founding the company in 2002. One of those growing pains, of course, was finding the best ways to manage and optimize the company’s field force.
In the 2004 time frame, PPT acquired a company called the American Generator Company, which had a homegrown field management system that PPT decided to adopt and invest in. “At that time, we couldn’t find an off-the-shelf field service management system that met our needs,” says Byrne. “So we decided to put our efforts into leveraging this homegrown system.”
PPT’s business is 85 percent service, and the service operations are fairly complex. It is an emergency-based business, so rapid response is critical. The company’s service level agreements (SLAs) are typically from 2 to 4 hours and, according to Byrne, only getting tighter. About one third of PPT’s business is preventative maintenance, about 15 percent special projects, and the bulk of the business is emergency response repair work.
As service calls get moved to accommodate the emergency work, it creates a downstream effect of moving jobs and technicians around. In this sort of dynamic environment it is very difficult not to lose track of things. While the homegrown system was good in that it was very customized to PPT’s business, it was lacking some key features — namely, integration into the company’s financial system and more advanced scheduling and routing capabilities.
When A Homegrown Platform Just Won’t Work
“As we got bigger, the complexity of the company grew just by scale. We just started to feel it was too risky to rely on a homegrown platform,” says Byrne. “Furthermore, we needed additional functionality. As we began to do our research, we realized that there were more advanced off-the-shelf solutions that offered the capabilities we were looking for.”
PPT focused on finding four key features in a new field service management system. First, the company wanted more advanced scheduling and routing functionality to increase its ability to accommodate the growing volume of emergency work. Second, the company wanted a solution that could tie directly in with its ERP system (Microsoft Dynamics 365) so that invoicing could be automated. Third, PPT wanted a solution that provided more sophisticated inventory tracking capabilities. And finally, the company wanted a mobile solution to enable the field technicians to complete work in the field with less paperwork and manual effort while updating the system in real time.
“From the conception of the company we had our technicians using laptops and electronic work orders,” says Byrne. “But it wasn’t real automation — they would then print the work order out, take it into the work site on a clipboard, fill out the paperwork, and go back to their vehicle to scan them in.” There was a lot of redundant data entry and time wasted that Byrne knew could be streamlined and vastly improved.
Field Automation Attempt #1 Fails
Unfortunately, PPT had what Byrne refers to as a “false start” when it deployed a software solution it thought fit the bill. “The due diligence we’d done on this particular vendor looked very good,” says Byrne. “But they didn’t tell us they planned to rewrite the program. Unbeknownst to us, we were a beta site. We started making accommodations that were basically compromises to what we set out to achieve with their solution. I just lost trust in that company. We terminated the agreement, which is an expensive thing to do.”
PPT then asked Microsoft for recommendations on other vendors to evaluate, and began the process over. Ultimately, the company chose VServiceManagement from Vertical Solutions. “They were working with other companies that had a similar level of sophistication to their business, which gave us a good comfort level,” says Byrne. “We also felt like the relationship was the right fit, which was something that was clearly missing our first time around.”
To ensure success with its second attempt at deploying field service management, PPT senior management got far more closely involved. “No one knows your business as well as you do, so you really have to just commit as a company to engage very extensively with the solution provider,” says Byrne. “There’s an opportunity cost to having your COO and CFO spending their time on this type of project, but we felt it led to us getting the solution we were looking for.”
Why Process Mapping Is Critical
The other step PPT took to maximize the benefit of its technology investment was to put time in up front doing process mapping. As Byrne put it, a system is just a system — it’s the people and processes behind it that make the real difference. “The first thing we did was a process mapping exercise. We asked all the questions — what exactly is it we do? What does a day in the life of a technician look like? What is the work order process? How are invoices opened, and processed? How are work orders created?” says Byrne. “You have to do the systems side right, or you will fail. You aren’t just automating all of your processes — you need to take the time to examine them and think about what you need to do differently and what you can do better.”
PPT took an additional step in this process by hiring a consultant that specialized in business process mapping to assist. “She had come from a big Fortune 100 company where she did systems implementations, so she really knew how to sit with people, understand what they are doing, create process flows and map out how we were doing things, and then examine what was working and what could be improved upon,” explains Byrne.
Only after its process mapping exercise did PPT begin to work with Vertical Solutions to determine how the product could be mapped to its business. The company looked at what out-of-the-box functionality would work given its processes, and what aspects of the solution may need to be modified or customized.
Be Realistic About Change Management
Once the process mapping was complete and the solution customized as needed, the rollout began. PPT’s strategy for successful deployment included a realistic approach to change management. “It is human nature to resist change,” says Byrne. “We anticipated that there would be some frustration or pushback, and we just focused on getting ahead of that and creating a sort of campaign that went around the deployment of the solution.”
That campaign was geared mostly toward the field engineers, because, according to Byrne, he was less concerned about managing change with the back office staff. “The office workers, generally speaking, are pretty facile at systems and can adapt quite easily,” he explains. “We were more concerned about the field, because we were introducing something brand new to them — they were going to be required to complete a lot of tasks using the mobile solution, and that wasn’t the way they were used to doing things.”
PPT went into each of its regions and invited field engineers to meetings to introduce the technology. The campaign they created was focused not only on the functionality of the solution, but the benefits it would provide both the field workers themselves and the company overall. Of course, it went perfectly smoothly and as planned from there — right? Wrong. “There are always tweaks you have to make in the first phases of deployment,” says Byrne. “A point of work flow missed, a processing speed running slow. Whatever it is, you just have to stick it out and make sure they know there is no going back — this is the future.” Byrne suggests anticipating and planning for the worst, and make sure you have a solid feedback loop — you’d rather hear firsthand what your employees are thinking than have them vent to one another or on social media.
Reap The Benefits Of Deployment Due Diligence
While PPT’s false start with field automation was a rocky beginning, the company’s due diligence its second time around has paid off. The VServiceManagement solution is proving to be a good fit to help the company achieve its four key objectives, and there have been some notable changes so far.
First, the company has increased the productivity of its field force by more than 10 percent. Second, the company’s open work orders have been reduced by more than 50 percent. Byrne explains that emergency repair work often requires multiple visits. Parts may not be readily available on the first diagnostic trip, and as a result, work orders remain open as parts get ordered and are awaiting delivery. Without the discipline of a system, work orders would sometimes fall by the wayside or remain unresolved due to neglect. Now, the system tracks the age of work orders and provides alerts as they get past a reasonable time frame so that PPT can make sure jobs are being completed in an efficient manner.
Data entry is no longer needed to re-key data from the field or to create invoices, because these are now done automatically. Those resources have been redeployed to other functions to accommodate the company’s growth. As a result of streamlined invoicing, PPT has improved its cash flow. Byrne estimates that the billing cycle is about 5 percent faster.
Going forward, PPT plans to develop integration with some of the portals its customers use to publish and manage purchase orders (its customers use their own systems to send work orders to PPT, which the company has to go and retrieve — the idea is to integrate directly with those systems so the work orders are collected automatically).
Byrne’s advice, in closing, is to use technology as an enabler but to always keep the focus on your processes and your people. “Technology can help you better manage your processes and people,” he says, “but it’s also the skills you need to change as you get larger. You always have to reassess the people on the bus and ask yourself if they are in the right seats. It’s more about the people than the systems, but when you get those two things right, it makes a world of difference.”