GPS technology keeps tabs on field service workers

That cool tool that helps you find your way from the airport to your hotel is now being used to keep tabs on your remote staff.

The same location-based services that help you find your favorite Italian restaurant by using your mobile phone are now being used to help business owners keep an eye on field workers.

There goes that extra coffee break.

That's not a Big Brother thing. But once they know we have GPS, they know it's there.
Robert Taylor
merchandiser supervisorCrescent Crown Distributing LLC
According to Gartner Inc., 63% of handheld mobile devices sold in the U.S. this year will support Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. And with GPS phones readily available, vendors are offering modestly priced products to help with what is a growing concern for business owners -- how to keep tabs on field and remote staff workers.

About 45 million customers worldwide subscribe to location-based services, says Gartner. The Stamford, Conn.-based research firm did not identify how many of those subscribers are business users, but it said vendors that offer enterprise applications have a "significant opportunity."

These vendors are offering hosted software technologies, such as time management and navigation, which integrate with GPS phones from major carriers. The hosted model allows small and midsized businesses (SMBs) to take advantage of the technology without significant capital investments.

"This is definitely an up-and-coming area of adoption that is attractive to small and midsized businesses," said Brent Iadarola, industry manager for Frost & Sullivan Inc.'s Mobile Communications Group. "With large enterprise deployments, most tend to have more integration on the back end with whatever their mission critical applications tend to be. And depending on the vertical you're looking at, larger organizations are going with in-vehicle embedded GPS solutions as a way to track both employees and equipment."

Cost benefits of spy technology

Iadarola said SMBs are leveraging GPS-enabled phones to deploy more affordable location-based services. He said an in-vehicle solution might cost $800 per vehicle, plus software and professional services fees and a monthly fee of $40 to $50 per user. A hosted solution on the phone, in contrast, will have no up-front costs aside from the phones, and a monthly cost of $25 to $30 per user.

"Another benefit is that a lot of times the employees may already have the devices," he said. "The field services fleet may already have Nextel phones in hand."

Jack Gold, president of J. Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based consultancy, said the hosted services will appeal to large businesses as well. Although some large companies are reluctant to invest in technologies that can quickly become obsolete.

"After two years, the technology can change," he said. "Rent-to-try is not a bad strategy, as long as you don't have to sign a six-year commitment with these guys. Trying it out is not a bad thing to do. Then you make the decision as the technology gets better. You can bring it in-house."

Last spring Robert Taylor, merchandiser supervisor at Crescent Crown Distributing LLC, adopted GPS TimeTrack from Xora Inc., a Mountain View, Calif.-based vendor of location-based services.

Taylor supervises about 50 merchandisers at Crescent Crown, a Phoenix-based beer distributor. The merchandisers travel from one retail client to another, stocking customers' shelves with beverages.

Given the diverse needs of his customers, which includes large chain stores such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Taylor wanted to track whether he was deploying his merchandisers efficiently. With Xora, Taylor's employees use their phones to clock in and clock out at each job site. The GPS confirms where the merchandiser is whenever he or she checks in.

By knowing how much time his staff spent at each client, Taylor was able to deploy his people more efficiently.

"We did find that some stores were taking longer and that some stores weren't taking as long as we thought," Taylor said. "We could take a store that took too long off of one route and give it to another route. What it did was allow us to make sure [the merchandisers] could spend the correct amount of time at each store to service it correctly."

Using the Xora solution has also cut back on waste. Taylor said his merchandisers used to call into the office from home to punch in. Then they would drive to their first job site. Essentially, Crescent Crown would pay those merchandisers for their commute. The merchandisers would follow the same practice at the end of the day, punching out once they got home. With the Xora product, those employees punch in at the first job site. The GPS technology ensures that they are at the site.

"Moneywise, we really haven't sat down and figured out what it's saved us," he said. "But timewise we're guestimating about a half hour per merchandiser, per day."

Taylor said there are other benefits to the tracking technology. Through Xora, he can set up email alerts. If an employee is running late and misses his first stop of the day, Taylor will receive an alert. Then he can either call that employee or deploy a replacement.

"It even tracks the speed limits," Taylor said. "The general merchandisers, they're all in company vans. We have a very good safety record. We're very proud of it. Anytime I want, I can pull this up and make sure they're not exceeding the speed limit."

More on mobile devices
Mobile devices are changing the rules of the road

How to pick a mobile device for field service; privacy issues with GPS
Iadarola said location-based services have raised some concerns about privacy.

"A lot of employees use these phones as their primary phones for personal use, too," he said. Iadorola said some larger companies, particularly utilities, have been slow to adopt the technology due to privacy issues raised by employee unions.

Taylor said he doesn't use the technology to look over the shoulders of his employees, but there is a mutual understanding that the information is there for management to look at. He described it as "checks and balances."

"It tends to have that effect," he said. "That's not a Big Brother thing. But once they know we have GPS, they know it's there."

Vendors catching up to demand

Iadarola said major phone carriers are playing the wait-and-see game with location-based services. They're waiting to see which technologies win acceptance in the business market. Eventually the carriers will partner with companies like Xora to bring these technologies to a wider audience.

"TimeTrack is one solution in a wide variety of location-based solutions," he said. "Eventually you'll see a broader location-based platform."

Iadarola expects more interactive applications, such as one that can match skill sets to certain job sites. Businesses will be able to send to a customer the worker with the right skills, rather than simply the nearest worker.

Gold said location-based services will also offer companies an audit trail. GPS will prove to regulatory agencies that employees were at certain locations that were required for compliance.

"The kinds of stuff you can do with location-based services are endless," Gold said. "One reason companies haven't deployed it in the past is it's hard. Now it's easier. Companies like Xora say 'We'll figure out the device, we'll figure out the interface for the carrier.' They've basically become a system integrator."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)