This Customer Complaint is Unfortunately All too Common: “I called more than two hours ago regarding the outage and no one has been here to help.”

Unforeseen events such as emergency repairs and customer requests for same-day service disrupt routine service calls and scheduled maintenance. Understandably, unforeseen events can be frustrating for utilities and their customers. When field crews are late or, worse, do not arrive at all, the responsibility falls on the utility to manually pinpoint the location of its field crews, reroute them to the emergency location and eventually restore power to the outage area while also servicing scheduled calls in a timely fashion.

To help resolve these common problems, many utilities implement mobile workforce management software to enhance the way they operate their businesses in three distinct areas. First, it enables real-time communication by providing a computer-aided dispatch functionality to support communication between dispatchers and field technicians. Second, it facilitates appointment scheduling by allowing call center workers and dispatchers to match resources to tasks more accurately. Finally, it can improve visibility of field workforce location by providing GPS-based automatic-vehicle-location features that give dispatchers and call center personnel the ability to monitor crew locations in real time.

To operate as a modern, forward-thinking utility, Central Hudson Gas & Electric (Poughkeepsie, New York, U.S.) sought to run its business better by streamlining operations while merging five regional dispatch centers into one central location. CHG&E also wanted to boost productivity and enhance customer service by improving the way it scheduled service appointments for both regular and emergency field work. However, the utility was burdened with a homegrown mainframe-based system, and relied heavily on radio dispatchers and paperwork to capture information and manage service calls.

FORWARD THINKING

In today's modern utility, customer service representatives, dispatchers and technicians must be in sync with one another at all times. As such, it is important to have an effective mobile workforce management solution in place. CHG&E has been using Oracle's (Redwood Shores, California, U.S.) mobile workforce management software since 2003 to address these challenges.

Last year, for several specific reasons, the utility decided to upgrade to the latest version of the software, Oracle Utilities Mobile Workforce Management 1.5. First, CHG&E wanted to take advantage of the real-time optimization functionality, which would allow it to manage intra-day schedule changes due to emergency work requests and other day-to-day activities. With the new software in place, the utility would be able to recalibrate crews' routes in real time to allow more flexibility in dealing with emergency outages. In addition, CHG&E wanted to leverage Oracle's appointment-grading functionality, which would significantly reduce the time customers waited to schedule service appointments, thus improving customer service.

MOVING ON UP

For CHG&E, the upgrade was a necessary change in order to serve its customers better. With a subject matter expert team and a core team in place, the utility met with Oracle and established a statement of work that identified CHG&E's business-process goals. The implementation team worked together to identify gaps in functionality between the old and new systems, and also looked for opportunities to change business processes to operate more effectively while staying as close to the base product as possible.

As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” CHG&E spent the longest and most extensive part of the implementation process on testing. The utility checked each and every function in its dispatch and mobile workstations, as well as in its own internal processes. The implementation team created a duplicate of the system (so as to have a copy of the system in case of any problems) and spent one day cutting it over to the production system. CHG&E then pushed out all the changes to mobile devices in the field and eventually went live with the upgrade on Feb. 11, 2008.

Currently, 97 field representatives, 10 supervisors and a centralized dispatch center use the system. In addition, a team of 63 customer service representatives takes orders that go into the mobile workforce management application.

OPERATING AS A MODERN UTILITY

The upgrade has allowed CHG&E to move to real-time work-order scheduling, which gives call center representatives an up-to-the-minute view of existing service schedules. In addition, CHG&E's real-time wireless communications capabilities facilitate effective interaction between operations personnel and the field workforce. CHG&E can now remain flexible and responsive in the face of ever-changing market, regulatory and environmental conditions.

Now when CHG&E receives an emergency call, the real-time optimizer in the mobile workforce management application evaluates the existing schedules of mobile workers and then routes crews based on their proximity to the emergency site. With this real-time view of all pending tasks and available resources, along with the rules-based scheduling functionality, CHG&E can match local service needs with field technicians who possess the appropriate skills. For example, if a service specialist calls in sick, the system will assess the skill set in the available workforce and reassign jobs as necessary.

The utility can also now calculate routes that most efficiently group service calls for technicians working in a particular geographic region, reducing the overall workforce travel time and minimizing costs as well as vehicle wear and tear. Overall, CHG&E has reduced its technicians' travel time by 10% by automating and optimizing routes, and has increased service-worker productivity by 10% through efficient scheduling.

The upgraded application also allows CHG&E to automatically coordinate changes to the schedule's tasks and readjust other work in the series in real time, as opposed to having to manually reschedule various tasks. This saves the utility time and reduces human error. CHG&E has reduced the time required to update a work-order status from five minutes to a mere 30 seconds.

Furthermore, the application's appointment grader takes into consideration the work already scheduled and “grades” each appointment request that comes back into the system by priority. Call center representatives can go into the system, put a request out and receive graded appointment slots. Each representative can immediately access available crews and determine precisely where they are located in the field. CHG&E is now able to offer a two- to three-day wait period for customers to secure appointments — a significant reduction, as customers previously had to wait up to one month. The appointment-grader feature has contributed to CHG&E's commitment to customer service; the utility has fulfilled 99.4% of its appointments over the last year.

In addition to scheduling and routing, CHG&E has realized several other benefits with the upgraded application. For example, it can better track what repairs customers must pay for, thus increasing billing accuracy. The solution also helps with the hiring process by enabling managers to identify skill shortages and create business cases that prioritize hiring needs. Finally, by providing customer service representatives with easy access to real-time progress reports on fieldwork, CHG&E is able to keep customers informed about work in their neighborhoods, increasing customer satisfaction.

CHG&E has benefited from the upgraded system features in other ways, as well. The system has:

  • Enabled end-to-end, real-time integration of work-order updates, from field workers to dispatchers to customer service representatives, which reduces the need for radio and telephone communications and eliminates miscommunications.

  • Allowed street-level routing of field workers to minimize driving time, which maximizes productivity, reduces fuel expenses and increases the expected lifetime of service vehicles.

  • Provided digitized and pre-populate forms, which reduces the time required to fill out and compile information to produce reports and ensures the utility accurately completes orders.

  • Increased the number of field appointments field workers can handle per day by allowing for more flexible appointment times.

  • Increased the visibility of worker productivity, by measuring work efficiency and duration, to drive operational improvements.

LESSONS LEARNED

Following its successful mobile workforce management implementation and upgrade, CHG&E offers some advice:

  • Establish best practices and ensure they are implemented across the enterprise.

  • Remember that it is critical to find the right technology fit. Assemble an evaluation team with representatives from all key areas and make sure to carefully evaluate all options before pursuing a mobile workforce solution.

  • Ask questions about what aspects are vital to the growth of the utility.

  • Clearly establish roles and goals for each member of the implementation team.

  • Maintain regular communication with both the implementation team and the vendor.

Keep in mind that operating efficiently today will make for greater innovation in the future. In essence, doing more with less will pay off in the long run. Mobile workforce management software can significantly reduce fuel costs and overtime while increasing project management efficiency.

Utilities that move from paper-based processes to today's leading-edge solutions — that include features like real-time scheduling optimization — typically find the software pays for itself in a short time. After that, utilities can allocate savings toward infrastructure expansion and growth, which to most is a priceless advantage.


Timothy Scott (tscott@cenhud.com) has been working for Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. for 17 years and has held several positions in operations: operator, Danskammer Generating Facilities; system operator; engineering associate; substation construction, maintenance and rigging foreman; operating supervisor system operations and project manager/mobile computing coordinator, customer services group.