Gem Plumbing & Heating automates field service: a New England contractor raises the bar on field technician productivity

Gem Plumbing & Heating automates field service: a New England contractor raises the bar on field technician productivity

Peter A. Buxbaum

The truth is that the average field service technician is only 50% productive. This is so of even the most successful field service contractors. “That means that half the technician’s time is spent traveling from one job to the next, stopping at supply houses to pick up parts, going on vacation, attending training sessions, and performing other activities not billed to the customer,” says Anthony Gemma, president of Gem Plumbing & Heating of Lincoln, R.I.

Gemma’s company is the largest plumbing and heating contractor in Rhode Island, with over 300 employees and 110 trucks. In addition to plumbing and heating, its mobile service technicians provide air conditioning and drain cleaning services from its new headquarters near Providence.

Gemma is shooting for productivity of 75% to 80%, and he intends to achieve that goal through a three-pronged automation program that Gem is in the process of implementing. The success of Gem’s program will hinge on tying inventory management, dispatching, and customer interaction into a single seamless process. That part of the implementation is still ongoing.

Three Not-So-Easy Pieces

“We decided to automate within the last five years or so,” Gemma explains. “We just moved into a new facility, and now all of the automation is being deployed.”

The procurement and inventory management piece of the automation process began four and a half months ago. At that time, Gem outsourced its procurement activities to Ferguson Integrated Supply, a subsidiary of Ferguson Enterprises Inc., a $7 billion building supply company based in Newport News, Va. Ferguson manages Gem’s inventory with a four-person on-site team and provides Gem with proprietary supply chain integration and inventory management systems that accommodate just-in-time delivery of parts and materials.

The second piece of the process began about a year and a half ago and involves the use of SuccessWare’s contract management system. This software helps call center personnel prioritize service calls and performs a host of accounting and reporting functions.

For the final piece, Gem is working with a company called Vettro, which provides a communications architecture that will interact with SuccessWare to provide information and functionality to remote technicians over mobile phones and deliver real-time data back to the company’s accounting and dispatch systems. Vettro will also provide connectivity between the truck and Ferguson, providing the latter with real-time inventory information that it will use to restock the trucks.

Procurement and Inventory Management

Before Ferguson started managing inventory for Gem, the plumbing and heating company had to procure stock from multiple vendors. Items were often out of stock, and drivers had to take side trips to the supply houses to pick up parts for jobs.

Gem and Ferguson worked for two years to develop an automatic truck replenishment program, which went live three and a half months ago. Gemma was attracted to Ferguson because of its track record in managing just-in-time procurement and inventory for Fortune 100 companies, such as Motorola and General Motors, as well as other leading companies in aerospace, medicine, power generation, and semiconductors.

“We’ve contracted with Ferguson Integrated Supply to procure everything we need, from toilet paper to paper clips to plumbing materials to automotive supplies,” Gemma explains.

Ferguson scours local suppliers for the lowest prices on materials and parts. Gem stocks 350,000 stock-keeping units in its warehouse, while each truck carries between 3,000 and 6,000 items. Gem’s trucks are standardized so that each stocks every part in the same place. Each part, whether on board or in the warehouse, has been bar coded by Ferguson.

Prioritizing Service Calls

Ferguson’s procurement and inventory transactions are uploaded into SuccessWare. This data lets the software calculate job costs and profitability so that Gem dispatchers can prioritize service calls.

Incoming calls are assigned one of five priority levels by SuccessWare, based on the type of call and the available technicians. “Prioritization enables us to take the most profitable calls available when we’re over capacity,” says Gemma. “If we can’t get to all of them, we give priority to existing customers and turn away the least profitable jobs.”

SuccessWare provides its product to Gem through a remote application service provider, which lets Gem run the software from any location with Internet access. The system is also available by way of a local area network installation.

SuccessWare also automates invoicing, which enables users to deploy office personnel more efficiently, according to the company’s director of sales and marketing, Chris Di Re. In addition, the system provides customer-history information, which can be used to target sales. “The user can call customers to make repairs that have been recommended but not yet ordered,” explains Di Re.

Tying It All Together

The Vettro communications implementation will tie everything together. “We don’t develop back-office solutions,” says Matt Finkelstein, Vettro’s director of product management. “We make SuccessWare mobile by providing the communications architecture that enables access to SuccessWare over cell phones.” Vettro’s products also target fleet management and sales force automation applications.

Vettro’s Service Contractor application uses a communications architecture that integrates with SuccessWare to push information to the technician over Java-enabled Motorola cell phones and the Nextel network. The phones include Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) browsers, which allow them access to the Internet. Gem’s field technicians already use the Motorola handsets for voice and text communications, so Gem isn’t incurring additional hardware costs.

The information provided to technicians will include job lists, customer contact and billing information, point-to-point directions, special instructions, service histories, agreements, and warranties. When the application is fully implemented, Vettro will also update Gem’s dispatch board and provide for on-the-spot billing and credit card acceptance.

Vettro will also dovetail with Ferguson by wirelessly updating inventory data. A key-chain scanner attached to the serial port at the bottom of the cell phone will relay inventory replenishment information to Ferguson.

When Service Contractor is fully deployed in six months, Ferguson will have access to truck inventory information in real time and will be able to restock each truck at the end of the day. “That goal is six months down the road,” says Gemma. “As a technician removes a part from its bin, he will scan it, and the information will come back to Ferguson wirelessly. The Ferguson system will automatically generate a pick ticket for the truck at end of day.” That’s going to boost technician productivity by cutting down on excursions to supply houses.

Vettro will also make it possible for Gem’s field technicians to continue working even when they are outside of the range of the network, thanks to logic that resides on the phone itself. This feature is increasingly important to Gem because it pushes the company’s service area out to rural locations.

“The goal is to make connection status irrelevant to the user,” says Finkelstein. “In reality, some things can’t be done without a connection, but we inform the technician in a way that lets him continue work on a process without losing everything he’s just done.” With Vettro’s system, technicians can view information downloaded to the handset, scan parts for jobs, and update inventory quantities whether connected or not, according to Finkelstein.

Gem and Vettro are currently working out data transfer glitches related to the sketchy connectivity in parts of Gem’s service area. “Vettro is having some issues with Nextel over data packet transfers,” says Gemma. “As I understand it, the challenge is peculiar to Nextel coverage in Rhode Island.”

“We’re working with Nextel and Motorola to make sure all the glitches are worked out,” says Finkelstein. “Then we want to ramp the system out to around 40 technicians in a first phase of training.”

That leaves the Vettro segment of the implementation in a holding pattern for now, but “these things happen when you’re pioneering a new technology,” says Gemma.

Pushing the Envelop

Gem is itching to get going, says Gemma. “We are trying to tie a lot of different technologies together so that we can be as automated as we can be and so that we can get our technicians to be as efficient as possible.”

“Most contractors don’t realize the importance of the productivity factor, and that’s why they’re not making as much money as they could,” says Gemma.

Gemma projects that Ferguson’s inventory and supply-chain management systems will add 8% to Gem’s productivity, that daily restocking of the trucks will add another 3%, and that the Vettro functionality, when the application is fully operational, could add as much as 10% to the company’s efficiency. And he believes that Gem will probably realize these results in a quick six months. FS

Peter Buxbaum is a freelance journalist based near Washington, D.C. He specializes in business and government technology and security.

At A Glance

Company Gem Plumbing and Heating


* Field service automation


* Consumer service, accounting, and reporting software

* Web-enabled cell phones

* Wireless communications


* Increased field service technician productivity

* Improved customer service

* Expanded range of service

* Better inventory management

A stellar call center

Gem Plumbing & Heating relies on its call center personnel to keep its operation humming. “Our schedulers are expected to be ahead of the curve,” says company president Anthony Gemma. “It’s their job to make sure the technicians are hitting their time slots. If they can’t make an appointment, the scheduler calls the customer to reschedule. The last thing we want is for the customer to call us asking, ‘Where’s the technician?'”

The dispatchers also help the technicians avoid delays on the road.

“All of our trucks are equipped with global positioning satellite tracking,” Gemma explains. The GPS data is downloaded to the call center, and the trucks’ positions are projected on a large screen. Gem also takes live feeds over the Web from state-run traffic cams. The images are displayed on another call center board.

All this increases dispatching efficiency because the dispatchers can tell where the trucks are and can instruct technicians to avoid problems on the way to their next call. Having that information at the fingertips of dispatchers has increased Gem’s efficiency by 3% to 4%, according to Gemma.

Extra! Extra!

For further reading on this and related topics, see these articles, available at

“The Changing Face of Field Service” March 2004

“Changes Ahead for Field Service” June 2003

“Tracking Field Employees with Mobile Phones” February 2003

Company Information

Ferguson Integrated Suppy

Newport News, Va.



Reston, Va.


SuccessWare Inc.

Williamsville, N.Y.



New York, N.Y.


COPYRIGHT 2004 Advanstar Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group