It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was merely a few years back that when an individual was seen holding a cellphone, you could easily assume they were, quite simply, calling someone. Today, that individual might be hosting a Skype meeting, reading the news, or wiring money. When smartphones first rolled out, it took a few years of just scratching the surface of their capabilities before we started customizing the experience to meet individual needs. Scratching the surface is exactly where Paul Kearnan, telematics expert at Strongco, says the construction industry is.
“Telematics began as a concept; an idea more than anything else,” says Ted Breland, vice president of customer support with Strongco, a multiline construction equipment dealer with 27 locations across Canada and five in the northeastern United States, operating under the Chadwick-BaRoss name. “There was no roadmap. Everybody saw potential, but nobody really knew how to turn it into something that was more than just a machine-tracking system. We knew it could change the way people at dealerships work with customers and to change how informed customers could be, but like any new technology, it needs a champion, and it needs early adopters who are willing to rethink the way they manage a fleet.”
So, Breland and fellow executives at Strongco went in search of their champion. They had a vision that telematics could be more than tracking, but they recognized that before they could display that value to customers, they had to sell that value internally.
In 2011, Strongco found its champion in the form of Paul Kearnan.
4 Steps to Telematics Success
1) Partner with an expert. Work with an equipment dealer that has a dedicated telematics expert who can provide the level of support you desire, whether that means full dealer-managed monitoring and reporting, or simply the initial development of a program and training of your staff.
2) Collaborate with others at your company. Make sure all interested parties (e.g., maintenance crew, owner, fleet manager) are at the table when developing a program for your company. This is essential to getting the most of your telematics data.
3) Customize the reporting. Work with your dealer to identify the primary data points that you would like to have monitored, and develop an easy-to-understand reporting format.
4) Implement AEMP’s API. If you’re running a mixed fleet, work with your equipment dealer(s) to integrate the data from all your machines into one easy-to-interpret platform.
“When I first started, telematics was still so new,” Kearnan says. “It wasn’t something people were paying a lot of attention to yet. And here in our office, everyone was incredibly busy; there wasn’t time for them to try and tackle what felt like a huge undertaking. It was good for me in a way, because it gave me an opportunity to build this project from the ground up.”
And that’s exactly where he started—on the inside. No one is equipped to wrap their mind around a new technology in full when it’s first introduced, and like every great leader, Kearnan recognized that before he could build excitement he had to begin with education.
An educated dealer network
“When Paul came on, he created customized training programs for all divisions of our staff; from our mechanics to our salespeople,” Breland said. “It showed them how telematics could intersect with their roles specifically; what would be most important to them and how it would help them be more efficient or deliver a better product—from planning service schedules to having data at hand that customers can use to make more informed purchase decisions.”
Kearnan chuckles a bit when he reflects on how the training program was received.
“I get really excited about telematics, but not everyone is like me. Creating that program, though, some people really nodded heads, they started to get it, and they started to see how it could be part of the bigger picture. Is there still work to do to continue to keep everyone’s eyes on what telematics can be? Absolutely, but at least with those programs, I think we got everyone’s attention because they started to see how it mattered to them; how it could affect all aspects of our business and our customers’ businesses.”
Kearnan says in general, fitting telematics in as part of the way Strongco approaches business has been vital.
“At Strongco, when we sell a machine to a customer, we aim to sell them exactly what they need to get the job done most effectively, nothing more. It’s the same thing with telematics. We shouldn’t be asking customers to bite off more than they can chew. The goal is to make it relevant, not overwhelming. Every customer is going to want something different from a telematics report; it’s about finding the right value for the particular customer.”
A perfect example of “simpler can be better” is Hub Equipment, a rental house Strongco serves that has 85 machines. Hub Equipment began using telematics in 2009, when the company was offered factory-equipped telematics as part of the machine purchase through OEMs.
The company hones in solely on location tracking and machine hours to help plan service. Joe Cuzzolino, rental operations manager at Hub Equipment, says using basic telematics is a perfect fit for them: helping them better service their machines and serve their customers.
“It takes me just five minutes to pull the reports from our Volvo equipment at the end of the day. It’s incredibly easy, and it helps us plan for service in a way that least inhibits our customers. Back in the day, we used to just roll up to a job site and perform service. That’s not acceptable to our customers anymore. We can’t just come on site; they have needs they’re trying to meet for their customers, too. Tracking hours this way allows us to plan when we need to be looking at service, know where the machines are at, and allow more flexibility for our customers, whose ultimate goal is obviously to keep the machine up, running, and moving on to the next site.”
Kearnan says when it comes to owner-operators, the value proposition lies much more in being able to help them easily access information about their machines.
“These guys are in their machines for 12- or 14-hour days, every day. Do they want to come home and pull reports that show machine utilization? No. The great thing for them is that these reports can be set up to go directly to their inbox on a schedule they prefer. Easy-to-read charts that flag if there are any areas that should be looked at, and on the go. Even if a guy has 10 pieces of machinery, telematics makes sense. You can get your service plan schedule aligned with your work schedule. Say you’re on a 100-hour service plan, you’re needing service about every few weeks dependent upon application. Now you can organize your job based on that downtime. It’s not the most extensive thing telematics can offer, but it’s the smaller things like that that are making a big difference to customers’ bottom lines over time.”
And then there are the fleet managers. And when you even mention the group fleet manager, Kearnan starts talking faster. He’s excited.
“The opportunities that exist for companies that employ a fleet manager are incredible,” Kearnan says. “Fleet managers really seem to be understanding the value of telematics, and that’s where opportunity starts to turn into reality. When you have a champion on your customer team who understands the value of telematics, then you can start an ongoing program; discussions that will allow for the most informed decision-making that’s ever taken place at a company. Owners and fleet managers can have complete management and insight into their machines.”
Kearnan notes, however, that to make the most of telematics, fleet managers, owners and dealers have to change the “old” communication model.
“The most valuable change will come when we change the way we think about the ‘traditional’ model of communication and partnership between a dealer and a customer,” he says. “The best-case scenario for telematics is that a telematics point person at a dealership is working in conjunction with both a fleet manager and an owner to build and track a telematics program.”
Kearnan recognizes that fleet managers have so much on their plates, dealers have to be a partner in telematics. But, he says, it’s vital that all three parties are in communication so that everyone is getting the most out of the partnership.
“Fleet managers and owners have different roles at their business for a reason,” Kearnan says. “Our customer support staff can work with them to ensure the telematics program we build gives them both the information that they need to make strong decisions. That said, though, we have to shift the communication model. There have been multiple times we’ve made a recommendation and it seems to get lost in the shuffle. Big companies have a lot more people at the decision-making table, and it’s vital to get all of those parties on the same page in regard to their telematics program in order to get the most from it. We’ll see opportunities, for instance, where it makes sense for a customer to swap two smaller class machines for one larger machine. They won’t lose on productivity, and they will gain on fuel efficiency. That’s a decision that needs to be made by the fleet manager, and likely an owner or an executive.”
Kearnan says one of the best things about telematics is the opportunity to build customized programs for customers, so that they’re getting information that is most relevant to them. He likens it to apps.
“A smartphone is a smartphone, but what makes it more valuable to us is what we choose to put on our home screen. Mine won’t look like yours because I care about different things. And that’s what we’re beginning to do with telematics—hone in on those things that mean most to certain companies so that they can be more empowered.”
Kearnan says exciting things await in regard to telematics growth.
“We have more and more customers who have started to realize the value in using telematics for service planning. There’s so much we can do for that; not just sending alarms when it’s time for service, but creating your own service plan and lining that up with your telematics system so that your system is highlighting the intervals you want, adding extra intervals if you’d like. I add in warranty registration as well—inspection times that need to be done—we’re building on all of these things, and it’s exciting to see customers beginning to find the value in it.”
With bigger operations and bigger fleets, it can be easy to become distanced from your operators. However, telematics data offer an excellent opportunity to monitor operator behavior and improve training. It gives fleet managers insights about how they may see productivity differences and fuel efficiency gains in certain operators, and begin to communicate changes with the operator and provide training that can lead to long-term benefits.
One of the reasons many people have been slow to adopt telematics as a larger-scale program beyond just machine hours and location tracking was due to the fact that multiple manufacturers offer telematics systems. The question arose, “If I have a mixed fleet, and I’m having to run multiple reports to gain insights about my machine, how much benefit is there in the program beyond the system that I already have? How are you going to make that easy versus feeling like a headache?”
It wasn’t a small question; it was one that required a lot of people at the table. The force most equipped to tackle the issue was AEMP, which recognized it was going to be an industry-wide challenge that would require extensive collaboration and compromise. AEMP drove the initiative forward, and in 2014, launched its Application Programming Interface (API). The program provides customers with mixed fleets the ability to conveniently access 19 data fields, regardless of brand.
But just as with telematics, driving adoption of the API will require multiple champions, and Strongco will once again need to lead by example with its customers.
“We have roughly 3,500 customer machines being monitored by telematics—many of them operating in mixed fleets—but off the top of my head, I can only think of one customer currently using the API. That’s why we at Strongco are now implementing the API in our telematics control center that we’re building to be better able to train our customers on its use. Ultimately, it’s going to drive adoption of telematics, which will make everyone’s lives easier, from the OEM to the dealer to the customer.”
It’s this triangle relationship, according to Kearnan, that is key to progress.
“I have the luxury of sitting in this seat where I see what’s ahead,” he says. “I see so much opportunity for us. Predictive maintenance is going to add a ton of value for our customers. Right now, it’s just on us to phase customers in to telematics in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them, but helps them see how it can make their lives easier. Without a doubt, it’s our role to bridge that gap between OEM and end user, and the way we do that is a little different for each of our customers.”
Despite there being many more guidelines to success than there were five years ago, there’s still a long way to go, according to Kearnan, and communication is key to furthering the roadmap.
“As we continue to build more customized programs for our customers, we’re reporting back up to the manufacturers, and they’re using that feedback to further research and develop their technologies. Simultaneously, some of the manufacturers we’re working with are starting to arm us with more program options, such as dealer-managed and even OEM-managed telematics monitoring and reporting services, that ease the adoption process for curious customers who don’t know where to begin.”
As for the future of telematics, Kearnan doesn’t want to overwhelm anyone by speculating about the minutia. Rather, he puts it as simply as he does when trying to ease a customer into telematics in the first place.
“I think it’s going to be a great thing,” Kearnan says. “I’m pretty excited about it, to tell you the truth.”
And with good reason.