Wireless Access—a Useful Tool for Appliance Repairmen

If you’re a homeowner, you probably know all about service calls—how much they can cost, how long they can take, and, how critical it is to get through and get immediate help in an emergency.

Service America, a Deerfield Beach, Fla. company that provides maintenance and repair services for major appliances and household plumbing, heating and air-conditioning systems, knows that too. Because it’s their business to know. With nearly 500 technicians on the road handling an average of 3000 service calls per day, the company’s mobile workforce is constantly on the go.

Armed with the latest

wireless data

technology, service

technicians make

short work of repairs

at Service America

But it hasn’t always been that way.

Before implementing a wireless data solution, the company’s field technicians were often left waiting, resulting in unnecessary delays. Even the most routine tasks—such as getting a customer’s address or phone number, obtaining details concerning a particular call, or closing out a job in order to move on to the next assignment—required that a dispatcher be available to respond to their queries. But no dispatcher can be available to every caller every minute of the day. So that meant technicians were being put on hold, sometimes for extended periods, several times a day.

Faced with this challenge, Service America network manager Mark Piatt began exploring options that would enable the technicians to directly access customer data and schedule information stored on the company’s AS/400 Model F95. Initial attempts to provide wireless connectivity using HP Jornada handheld devices and Citrix thin-client software resulted in some improvement, but not enough. Although the technicians could get to the AS/400 data, the connection was extremely slow.

“With the Citrix implementation, it would often take the technicians five minutes or more just to get to an AS/400 sign-in screen,” explains Piatt.

It wasn’t until Service America’s AT&T sales representative began asking questions about what the company was using its wireless connection for that Piatt realized there might be a faster alternative. After Piatt explained that the ultimate objective was to provide its mobile workforce with real-time access to data stored on the company’s AS/400, the representative mentioned a company that might be able to help. “That company was ClientSoft,” says Piatt.

Although ClientSoft (Hawthhorne, N.Y.) promised fast access to corporate data through the use of its network-independent in.Touch family of products, Piatt was doubtful that the results would be much different than what he had already experienced with Citrix. And when the talk began to center on ClientSoft’s ability to provide a GUI interface and a Windows-like environment, Piatt had to stop them and explain that this really wasn’t what he was after.

“I need a green screen application that will run on a Windows CE device, that’s faster than the Citrix solution we’ve been testing,” he says. ClientSoft’s response was straightforward. “We have a product for that, too—it’s not the one that most people ask about, but we’ve got one. It’s called CE Term,” answers the ClientSoft representative. Still skeptical, Piatt requested a trial period of at least six weeks to test this technology in the field. ClientSoft agreed and asked when they could get started.

Within a week, the ClientSoft team was back in Piatt’s office, loading the server component of CE Term onto the company’s Windows NT server, making some minor configurations in the firewall, and installing the CE Term emulation software on several of the HP Jornada devices. “It all came together pretty quickly,” says Piatt.

In about four hours, all the software was in place. And that would have been the end of it, except for one thing—the CE Term client wasn’t compiled for the HP Jornada. “But that was quickly remedied,” explains Piatt. After a few phone calls to the ClientSoft programmers, the problem was taken care of. “By the next day, we had a compiled version for the Jornadas. We installed it, and everything worked fine after that,” he says.

The results were impressive—what had taken several minutes using Citrix, took a fraction of that time with ClientSoft’s technology. “With ClientSoft, once you’ve got the wireless connection up and running, and you click on the icon for the AS/400, it’s up within a matter of seconds,” says Piatt. “That kind of time savings offers big advantages.”

But another thing that Piatt liked about the ClientSoft solution is that CE Term can take whatever appears on the AS/400 screen and put it straight through to the client. “There are no programming changes that are specific to the HP Jornadas, so you can go from a dumb terminal to a PC or to a Jornada, and it’s not going to change at all as far as the screen is concerned,” he explains. “That’s one of the problems we would have run into if we had chosen to go with Norand or any one of the other handheld devices out there. With those types of devices, you have to customize the screens. The ClientSoft solution doesn’t require that.”

The real test, however, would come in seeing how well the newly equipped Jornadas would actually perform in the field, in the hands of Service America technicians. “They were ecstatic,” says Piatt. “Even now, every time I talk to them, they tell me how great this stuff is. No more waiting to get a hold of a dispatcher, and no more waiting to get to an AS/400 screen.”

“Lead technicians are now able to manage many of the requests previously handled by the dispatchers,” says Piatt. So now, dispatchers can focus on handling emergency calls and job assignments, and the technicians can more effectively manage their own schedules.

So what’s ahead? “At this point, we’re looking at putting HP Jornada 820 devices in the hands of about 60 lead technicians, and we’re exploring the possibility of using WAP-enabled cell phones for other members of the team.” But Piatt isn’t expecting that these phones will take the place of the company’s Windows CE devices, at least not anytime soon.

The bottom line is that compared to any other wireless data alternatives, ClientSoft’s wireless technology and the HP Jornadas offer the fastest and least expensive wireless host access option for them at this point. With potential savings of between $600,000 to $800,000 per year and perhaps more importantly, the ability to better service its customers, the Service America is enthusiastic about its new wireless capability.

“It was like a pleasant slap in the face to discover that this type of technology existed,” gushed Piatt. “I’ve been working with the AS/400 and networking for going on nearly 12 years, now. And this is probably one of the most exciting developments I’ve come across in all that time. Anytime you can access data and monitor operations without being locked down to being in the office—that’s a big plus. A really big plus.”

Related Editorial:

  • Straight Talk About Wireless-An Interview with Andrew Seybold
  • ClientSoft Opens Window for Mobile Users
  • SEAGULL Supports Wireless-to-Host Solution

    Related Information:

  • Service America (new window)
  • Citrix (new window)
  • ClientSoft (new window)