Staying In Touch

It's the message rather than the technical messenger that is most important in mobile communications.

It's the message rather than the technical messenger that is most important in mobile communications.

By Paul Hull

There are dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of devices that are promoted as the latest, most efficient, best value, etc. in communications tools. The majority of them are good, too. In recent decades, new technologies have improved the sending and receiving of communications in our industry so that even workers who are in the most remote locations can keep in touch with their home bases. We are all grateful for the advances in communications technology, but we should never forget that it is the message, not the messenger, that is most important. When computers first entered our offices it was their abuse rather than their use that seemed to garner the most attention (time wasting, for example, by people who shopped, sent personal messages, placed bets and played games on the fantastic new machines instead of doing the work they were paid for). With the ready availability of communication devices today, the biggest concern may be that users will also abuse their helpfulness.

Something that I was asked recently about the advances in communications between office and field, between those who give the instructions and those who receive them, was: "Do we need as many supervisors traveling from site to site as we used to?" I don't know the answer to that for particular utilities, but it's an interesting question. If communications can be sent from anywhere to anywhere, is there a need for people to travel around in expensive-to-run vehicles that are little more than communication devices in some cases? I recently had more input on this topic when a team of field workers mentioned that their supervisor had spent more than five hours of the day sitting in the pickup. Was he communicating urgent instructions? Could his communications have been done more promptly (and, probably, less expensively) through today's devices?

Good communication is essential to successful business, any business. For those of us who work in the power and telecommunications sectors, good communication means that everybody knows what should be done, that it is done, and that our customers know we are doing the right thing. The communication of business is necessary. It's as important as the tools and vehicles used and, like the best tool, it may not be in use the entire day-it may not be going all the time because it is not needed all the time. There must be very few situations where the office or the field technicians need to talk to each other several times an hour or for many minutes at a time. The field technicians are trained; they know how to do the vast majority of their projects. Looking over their shoulders, verbally, several times an hour, usually does not produce better results. If anything, it disrupts the real work at the customers' sites. Communications that are too frequent and/or too lengthy can become intrusions into work rather than enhancements for it.

Speeding Good Service

Devices that track vehicles should be considered communication tools. Some global positioning system (GPS) fleet management systems have a feature called dispatching. It allows fleet managers, or others who need to know where workers are, to schedule work and dispatch the utility vehicles to the correct location. It can also send messages to and from technicians in the field. Not all GPS fleet management systems offer this capability, so it may be a practical move to research the features of those you would like to have. One obvious advantage of a GPS-based system is that a manager can send the vehicle and crew closest and most readily available to a request for service. Such a system could eliminate the need for cell phones for field workers to communicate with their fleet managers, dispatchers or other supervisors; text messaging (often the medium most appropriate for office-field communication) is banned while driving in more than 40 states, for all drivers.

When I was in high school and telephones were the wonder devices, I knew fellow students who thought a telephone had to be in constant use. The mania for telephone communications then is not unlike today's social media mentality, but we must constantly remind our employees and ourselves that business communications are for business. It's not always the field technician who keeps the conversation going unnecessarily; it can be the supervisor or manager.

One result of the proliferation of communication devices is that our customers have now been encouraged through all kinds of media, social or not, to develop the frame of mind that expects everything to be done instantly, in both personal and business situations. Because it is becoming so easy to communicate with anyone from anywhere, more customers want immediate answers to their questions and problems. The one thing that seems to have changed is that, in business, there are fewer people to answer questions. The technologies have replaced the people, and not all customers like that. In understandable efforts to save costs, many companies have reduced the number of people answering phones. In a related area, it seems that relying on calling homes with information is not sufficient for a society that wants to be mobile. This means that your mobile workforce should be able-trained and enabled-to use communication tools that can respond to different communications devices from customers. A challenge for today's utilities will be to keep your good employees in control of jobs that can be termed operational but also on top of communications that may be more sales related. It's a difficult task and requires excellent employees and excellent devices.

As changes occur in business operations, we all learn that techniques we thought impossible to improve have become obsolete; an employee racing around a business sector in an expensive vehicle to learn or communicate something that only needs to take a few seconds is one of those. Another technique worth investigation is whether all our communication devices should be for information between office and field worker. What about communication between field technician and field technician? The communication could be instructions or customer requests but it could also be a newer worker asking advice on an unusual situation from an experienced worker. A communications system that includes GPS tracking of vehicles and technicians and practical scheduling that depends on the location and efficiency of particular workers can prevent one of those events that infuriates customers and users: the delayed and repetitive contact between you and them. Some customers-who may be big businesses and not individual householders-have had to wait hours for the response to a simple question, all because the technique for contacts is antiquated and awkward. If your mobile workforce control system allows dispatchers, field technicians and even customer service reps to have access to applications, then your field workers can find answers to their questions about difficult assignments without going through several communication points. It could be technical advice but it could be as simple as locating a part that Technician A does not have on his truck but discovers that Technician B does have available, and only three streets away.

Choosing the right tools for communications with your mobile workforce reminds me of walking into a supermarket and asking if there is anything to eat. There are many good products available. One of them is probably exactly what you need for your projects. The responsibility for selecting the right one is on your shoulders, not the responsibility of those who are offering all kinds of options with their equipment. This is surely one of those occasions when consulting with your field technicians is essential in helping you make the best decisions. You should also consult relevant articles and advertisements in magazines such as Utility Products, especially those articles that are provided by manufacturers. Where to start? Perhaps your regular dealer or distributor would be a good place, but you should bear in mind that they may not have the product that is best for your company. This research is hard work, but it will bring long-lasting success when you have done it. To recap, we have an enormous number of excellent communication devices available and one or more of them may be ideal for our particular projects with our mobile workforces. The situation is like that with all equipment purchases. What do we really need that will make our mobile operations smoother and more efficient? The solution is probably available now. The first step, then, is to discuss and decide what is really wanted for your particular work. Then find the device that solves your problems.

More in Vehicles & Accessories