Turf Magazine - October, 2013


Is GPS Tracking for You?

If you say "yes", do your homework before choosing a system
By Mike Ingles

Compare GPS fleet tracking suppliers to find a vendor that offers the specific features that fulfills your company's unique needs.
Photos courtesy Fleetmatics.

Technology is the driver of efficiency, and every small businessperson knows that in this tough economy increased productivity is the key driver of profit.

Global positioning systems (GPS) are becoming a staple for landscape and lawn service companies because the technology has proven to be reliable, efficient and cost-effective. GPS systems can track vehicles and provide data reports on productivity and safety. The choices are as varied as the myriad of GPS companies offering the services. But the centralized resources of many software providers are the navigation programs developed and manufactured by Garmin Industries, TomTom and Magellan.

Whether the software is being offered through Fleetmatics Group, Teletrac, Inc., Omnitracs or a host of other software and service companies, the routing by GPS and data collections are essentially the same. The main differences are the types of services a landscape company might want to monitor and, of course, prices.

"There's a learning curve, and when it was time to decide to renew with our previous partner or try a different service, we'd learned what works best for us and what was missing," says Scott Slawson, CFO, The Greenery, Inc., Hilton Head Island, S.C. "We are an employee-owned company, and we owed it to ourselves to make necessary changes," says Slawson.

Tom Clark, the Greenery's accounting manager, and part of the fact-finding team, concurs, and says that the company's previous GPS tracking provider wasn't a good match for the company.

GPS Tracking Firms Serving the Landscape Industry

"We were getting false readings, including idling reports from vehicles that were moving. We had some units that would go out intermittently and come back on. We tried to get them replaced, but we didn't get much help from the previous provider," says Clark.

The first choice to make for most companies is the type of services they need and can also afford. The simplest GPS system is with passive software, also known as data-loggers. They simply record basic information on stops, length at the stop and speed of the vehicles. The information can then be downloaded into a computer for analysis. There are no real-time advantages such as adjusting routes or customer service concerns or monitoring of employees driving habits. Passive software carries a one-time fixed cost and can be an effective management tool for small businesses with limited personnel and tight budgets.

However, the predominate growth in fleet tracking software is in active, real-time tracking, which includes a real-time display monitor in each unit, as well as home base, and can offer dozens of data points for managing safety, routing, fuel monitoring, interfacing with smartphone technology, compiling reports, billing and making real-time adjustments in service schedules.

Active software is more expensive and providers charge a monthly fee for their services as well as installation charges. These service companies offer either network-assisted or network-based monitoring. Assisted networks are more reliable as they utilize network resources to locate and maintain satellite interfacing, whereas network-based relies on cell-towers that are subject to spotty hookups in certain terrain and in loss of signals in congested areas.

"We had a real problem with our previous provider in that we serve locations in many coastal regions that don't have as many cell towers; so one of the improvements we were looking at was to engage with a provider offering more reliability in these areas," adds Slawson. "We operate about 200 vehicles and for these 50 units, we decided to change providers and go with SageQuest, a solution from Fleetmatics Group."

Many companies discover that once techs get used to GPS tracking their performance rises and fuel costs drop.

As a "Software as a Service" (SaaS) provider, Fleetmatics is one of several fleet tracking systems marketed to the landscape industry that offers applications beyond GPS routing, including: reducing labor costs, fleet tracking, maintenance reports, fuel utilization, security, unauthorized use of vehicles, fuel card integration and driver identification and characteristics.

GPS: What's in it for Me?

By Ron Hall/Editor-in-Chief

At a recent potluck party at a friend's house in the country I found an unoccupied lawn chair beside a driver for a certain package delivery service. No, he wasn't one of those guys in the brown uniform that delivers packages to your front door. But, yes, that's the company, and five days a week my new friend drives a bigger truck full of packages about 400 miles between distribution centers.

As we chatted over plates of pulled pork and potato salad, our conversation circled around to our respective careers. As we talked it became apparent to me that he wasn't very happy with his job. Some of this dissatisfaction centered on the company's reliance on GPS to actively track his driving habits.

"They can even tell when and how many times I buckle my seatbelt," he grumbled.

He claimed he had been driving for the company for more than 20 years and that he had maintained an impeccable driving record - both before and after the company introduced GPS tracking into its trucks.

I didn't know whether to commensurate with him or to think that he has a touch of paranoia. After all, a lot people in my part of the country, the so-called Rust Belt, would appreciate having his job.

Although I didn't respond to his comments about GPS tracking, if I had, I might have told him that I'm not sure how I would react to an employer using active GPS to "track" my minute-to-minute activities each workday. However, I suspect that I would find it to be unsettling. Intrusive perhaps. At least initially I would anyway.

It's not unreasonable to assume that would also be the case with some of the employees in your landscape or lawn care company should you inform them that you're installing GPS tracking in their service vehicles. It's unlikely all of your employees are going to celebrate the announcement. That's especially true if they don't see any obvious advantage in it for themselves.

It would seem to me that any employer considering implementing GPS tracking for their employees would have to convince their employees that, not only does it benefit the company, but that it also benefits them.

Well, perhaps it won't benefit everybody in your company. GPS tracking will make it much easier to identify the poor performer, the careless and the dishonest employee. That's one of its benefits. At that point, careless and poor-performing employee might be given training and instructions to mend their ways and the dishonest employee would probably be shown the door.

No reasonable employee wants to work with a malingerer, someone who is careless in his or her driving or work habits, or with a thief. Responsible, honest employees want to work with other responsible honest employees.

How well you explain the purpose of GPS fleet management will determine the success of employee buy-in and acceptance. Yes, you're convinced that it will make service delivery more efficient, save fuel, help keep insurance costs under control, reduce traffic violations and so forth. But, if there's nothing apparent in it for them, so what?

Your job as an owner is to educate your employees how a top-performing landscape company, using technology such as GPS fleet management, is better positioned than its competitors to provide job security and is also more favorably positioned to offer higher pay and more career opportunities for its reliable, loyal employees.

The biggest challenge of implementing GPS tracking in your service company (apart from selecting a GPS provider) will probably be getting your team onboard with the idea. Then it will become sharing with them the rewards of the lower costs and increased productivity that results from its implementation.

"SageQuest can track many events in real-time with our standard reporting frequency of every 90 seconds. Additionally, speeding, hard braking, quick starts and harsh cornering events are also captured and sent to SageQuest upon triggering," says Jim Kronenberger, director of enterprise sales for Fleetmatics.

"Examples of complex data within our solutions is provided to our customers in a simple format within SageQuest's proprietary 'Safety Score.' Each driver within our customer's fleet will be evaluated on a 0 to 100 score, which will help identify how safe a driver is on the road," says Kronenberger. "The higher the score, the better the driver. SageQuest developed this proprietary algorithm by taking into consideration a variety of variables that leading insurance companies also utilize in order to determine how safe drivers are, including hard braking, quick starts, harsh cornering incidents, high speeding events, nighttime driving, peak or rush hour travel and the total miles accumulated."

The Greenery expects to reduce vehicle maintenance issues by capturing hard braking, quick starts and hard cornering with sensors calibrated to the vehicle class.

"That system has been an eye opener for us," Clark says. "We've been able to identify really good drivers and drivers who have poor scorecards. So we're working on changing behaviors to get more life out of our vehicles."

"The system also allows us to check on employees who are getting out of the yard late," adds Slawson. "And we can better utilize information and provide data to our safety committee and managers."

GPS tracking combined with satellite imagery can show at a glance the progress a service technician is making on his or her route.

The Greenery can monitor speeding more accurately, as well. The company's original GPS technology would only allow users to see whether a driver exceeded a pre-programmed speed. For instance, the speed limit on a particular road may be 45 mph, but the previous service provider may have programmed the system to only send alerts if a driver exceeded 65 mph. SageQuest captures the speed limit on the road and compares that to the driver's actual speed.

Saving fuel by lessening idling time is also a big cost-savings advantage, according to Slawson. "We run mostly Ford F150 and F250 trucks, and we discovered our employees were idling 30 to 45 minutes a day to keep their trucks cool. Since then we've been able to reduce that idle time to less than 17 minutes a day," he says.

Clark adds, "Since we started with SageQuest, our people know that this is one of the items we're going to monitor, and we've already seen that substantial reduction and cost savings even before we've implemented any type of incentives."

The Greenery expects additional cost savings through more efficient routing by using SageQuest's mapping and route replay features. The software provides management the ability to see where vehicles are located in real time on Google Maps. In addition, the SageQuest mobile app allows drivers to communicate in the field immediately.

"Most of our guys in the field have smartphones, so they're getting the alerts and information from SageQuest," Clark says.

About 70 percent of The Greenery's drivers are using the SageQuest app in the field, adds Clark. "The mobile apps have been helpful in getting drivers their reports, and they can call right away if they're getting an alert. And if somebody needs to know where someone else is they can log into their phone and find out where they are."

The Greenery plans to provide all of its drivers with access to SageQuest when its contract with its original provider expires near the end of 2013. Fleetmatics installed SageQuest in 50 trucks in just two days. So far, Clark has been impressed with the support he's received from SageQuest. "Right now we're only monitoring the SageQuest system. We're not even using the old system. SageQuest provided us with good training and customer service support when we needed it."

What's next with GPS technology?

Gavin Industries released their 2013 nüvi line, hand-held devices that offer "dedicated" interfacing with satellites and are not dependent upon cell towers. The three separate instruments range in length from 4 to 7 inches and have increasing sophistication, however, are not yet being offered in commercial applications.

Kronenberger says Fleetmatics will grow in unison with advancing technologies, "As a part of our all-in pricing model methodology and as a SaaS, application upgrades and enhancements are provided without additional cost."

Still other ways to save with GPS technology as this example from Kronenberger points out: "We recently had a customer that had a driver ticketed for driving 85 mph in a 65 mph zone. The driver called his dispatcher immediately to report he wasn't speeding. The dispatcher pulled the tracking data and learned the driver was traveling 54 mph in that exact location where he was stopped to be ticketed. This report was sent to the judge assigned to the case. The next day the judge notified the customer that the ticket was dismissed. The judge said, 'This is awesome. Not only was your driver going 54 mph at the time, but every driver behind him was wondering why this guy won't drive faster.'"

Mike Ingles is a researcher and writer who specializes in small business and its many challenges and issues. Contact him at duckrun22@gmail.com.