A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 15, 2018

Software Demand Grows For the Blue Collar Workforce

Offering a technologically sophisticated solution as what was once mechanical becomes increasingly electronic. JL

Deborah Gage reports in the Wall Street Journal:

For years, the software industry focused on knowledge workers who work in offices. Now, software developers are paying closer attention to those who don’t work at desks (there are 113 million such workers)—specifically plumbers, contractors, garage-door specialists and other field-service workers. Software for tablets and phones promises to radically change the customer experience by enabling field-service workers to view and share data on the spot. The next step: automation and predictive maintenance
Business software companies are turning their attention to the blue-collar workforce.

For years, the software industry focused on what it calls knowledge workers, cranking out spreadsheets, word processors, presentation software and communications tools for those who work in offices.

Now, software developers and entrepreneurs are paying closer attention to those who don’t work at desks (there are 113 million such workers, according to an estimate from investment firm Battery Ventures)—specifically plumbers, contractors, garage-door specialists and other field-service workers, who in some cases are still relying on desktop programs or paper and pencil to get their jobs done.

Sophisticated, intuitive software for tablets and phones promises to radically change the customer experience by enabling field-service workers to view and share data on the spot. These programs also promise to help business owners better manage everything from scheduling to inventory to customer information.

Helping their fathers

Bob Minkert, the owner of a plumbing business called Mr. Rooter and an electrical-services company called Mr. Electric in Roswell, Ga., now sends out his technicians with tablets so they can pull up a customer’s repair history, with photos, before arriving on a service call. Customers get a photo of the technician via email or text, along with his route and arrival time, so they aren’t opening their doors to strangers, Mr. Minkert says.

Once a problem has been diagnosed, the technician can show the customer an image of an appliance to explain what needs to be done. “Tell somebody, ‘Your dip tube in your water heater has corroded’…and they’ll say, ‘What the heck is a dip tube?’ ” he says. The software also keeps track of parts on his trucks, and allows technicians to offer financing on the spot to customers who may not have budgeted for, say, a $1,200 water heater.

Many of these new programs and apps were created by people who are intimately familiar with the challenges of running a blue-collar business. The software Mr. Minkert uses, ServiceTitan, was developed in California by Ara Mahdessian and Vahe Kuzoyan, college friends whose fathers worked as a contractor and a plumber after arriving in the U.S. as refugees. They built the software with the idea of helping their fathers, and when other business owners discovered the program by word-of-mouth, they eventually turned it into a business.

Mr. Minkert says the ServiceTitan technology has allowed him to eliminate paper invoices, so he needs fewer people in accounting. He also can use the software to track advertising, demand, customer calls, the dispatch center and his technicians, meaning he can adjust business based on what is happening at any given moment. If he sees he is getting more calls than he can handle, for example, he may cut back on advertising, which could save him $5,000 a week in marketing costs.

“The sales cycle is so short in the service industry that any changes you’re able to make this week, you can feel the impact of it next week,” Mr. Minkert says.

At the Cincinnati Marriott Northeast in Ohio, the hotel’s maintenance team also has gone digital. They’ve traded radios for smartphones and now use a mobile tool from UpKeep Technologies Inc. to report, prioritize and track work orders for everything from burned-out lights and broken furniture to malfunctioning rooftop air-conditioning units, says Ron Pembleton, director of engineering.

The time it takes to respond to the creation of a work order has dropped from the standard 15 minutes (a goal that often wasn’t met) to seven or eight minutes, he says. Work orders don’t get lost, he says, and maintenance manuals are online.
Guest security also has improved, Mr. Pembleton says, because hotel clerks don’t have to use a radio or phone to relay guests’ requests to the maintenance team. “You don’t want to announce a room number beside a sleazy character at the front desk,” he says.

UpKeep Technologies was founded by Ryan Chan, who used to work as a process-development engineer at a manufacturing plant where he says breakdowns occurred almost daily. The plant’s cumbersome maintenance process, which required technicians to jot down information on paper and enter it into a desktop computer program, inspired Mr. Chan to eventually build a mobile tool for managing work orders, a business he initially ran out of his mother’s garage.

Mr. Chan says the company now has more than 1,000 paying customers. One of them is the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, which operates 24 aging facilities, some of which have infrastructure dating back to 1907. The department is rolling out UpKeep on mobile devices, so workers can report maintenance issues and receive work orders via their phones.

The next step

Other mobile-based software startups that are targeting companies in the construction and engineering industry, among others, include FourKites Inc., which lets companies track and manage their supply chains; Smartsheet Inc., a spreadsheet-like project-management software; Procore Inc., which lets groups involved in construction projects collaborate; PlanGrid Inc., which lets workers collaborate on digitized blueprints; and eSUB Inc., which helps subcontractors manage change orders.

Clint Elliott is the owner of Action Mechanical , a mechanical-contracting firm in Little Rock, Ark., that handles plumbing, heating and air conditioning for large commercial projects. He says the eSUB program has allowed him to cut both costs and the potential for legal liability.

Keeping track of subcontractors’ work can get complicated, says Wendy Rogers, the chief executive of eSUB. Any communication problems between designers and subcontractors can cause “rework and delays and finger pointing,” she says.

Now, at Action Mechanical, everything associated with a job, from requests for information to blueprints to computer-aided drawings of prefabricated pipes, is tracked through the software and can be called up on a tablet, establishing a digital trail in case a subcontractor needs to prove anything about how a job was done.

“Fifteen years ago, I never thought my plumbers out in the field would be carrying an iPad around,” Mr. Elliott says. “Most of them didn’t know how to turn on a computer. But now anything we do in the office, they have access to it in real time. There’s no lag between the two.”

Whether mobile technology is making deskless workers more productive overall is hard to measure because the industries they work in are fragmented, says Jaana Remes, an economist at the McKinsey Global Institute in San Francisco. But she says she sees anecdotal evidence of productivity everywhere, from faster problem solving to elimination of paper work to improved logistics.

The next step, she says: automation and predictive maintenance—getting software to become smart enough that it knows when a machine is about to go wrong, she says. At UpKeep, Mr. Chan says he’s working on that.


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