Employee Tracking: Solving Billing Questions and Helping to Improve Efficiency and Set Goals

First Alarm, a leading security dealer and monitoring (and guard services) company in California's Bay Area, recently made the switch from a traditional time card system to a phone/GPS system that not only allows installer employees to clock in directly from the jobsite, but also records their position using GPS coordinates. The company is using technology from Xora, and according to Dave Hood, vice president and general manager, the need for a better system for tracking billable hours became necessary as the company moved further into the arena of large-scale commercial projects. As a rule, First Alarm (www.firstalarm.com) doesn't involve itself with tract homes or low-end systems, but does get involved a great deal with fire and security systems at corporate facilities. The drive for bigger projects has taken the company to a mix of 70 percent commercial and 30 percent residential.

With about 125 employees working for the alarm side of the business, with another 400 to 500 in the guard services side of the company, obtaining the appropriate record of billable hours could be a tough task. At any day, Hood, who oversees the sales and installation divisions, may have a couple dozen techs in the field, from San Francisco to Menlo Park to Saratoga to Watsonville - and while the system shows Hood exactly where his techs are, he says the ability to digitally log hours for a job without using a time card has really been what has helped improve efficiency and accountability. SecurityInfoWatch.com recently interviewed him to talk about implementing this system, challenges the company faced, and what a more accountable system meant for this 38-year-old, privately owned company.

SIW: What's changed in our business that brought about the need for this kind of tracking system?

Hood: I have an old joke about how our type of company operates. It was that the sales department brings in a job. Then the office staff creates a file on the job. A guy makes a box and puts all the equipment and job specs in it. And then the tech comes by, gets the box and installs the system. As we started taking on larger commercial projects, we didn't change anything; we just went and got a bigger box. You still need the bigger box, but there were other things that had to change.

SIW: Where was First Alarm a year ago, before the company went to an employee tracking and electronic sign-in system?

Hood: It was a manual system, more or less a traditional honor system. We had periodic jobsite visits and some other ways of verifying hours, but mostly we just gave our employees the equipment, the work descriptions, and sent them out. The old way to track billable hours was with paper time cards, which we still use. The inaccuracy of paper time cards isn't so much a concern when we were a smaller company. We're now doing the larger jobs and spreading out geographically, which made us invest in this system. One of our clients, a beverage distributor, was already using a GPS system, so we got their thoughts and found out their problems and how they used it.

SIW: What kind of timeframe were you looking at to get this system running?

Hood: I guess the question should be how long it took us to get it, and then how long it took us to get it to where we wanted it. We installed it within about a month, but it took a few months for us to get it the way we wanted. We gave out the new phones, about 45 of them, and we had to do an office-by-office swap to move data from the old phones to the new phones.

There are always going to be problems. At first we had problem of the slowness of the system to communicate; problems and delays of getting data uploaded and downloaded.

SIW: What has employee reaction been?

Hood: There's a reaction that "They're watching us." But our main goal was to streamline record keeping. If this system had come without the GPS [function], I still would have used it. By doing hours on a real-time basis, we create accountability. It helps people with fuzzy memories. You heard guys all the time in the break room preparing to fill out there time cards, having to ask, "How long were we on that job last Monday?" "That was a long day; I think we were there until six o'clock." The system helps out people with fuzzy memories.

SIW: Can you look at the system and say there's been a benefit?

Hood: There are a lot of things we've done to improve efficiency, like estimating and selling the project. But our operation is running more efficiently. People asked me about the system, and I said, "Absolutely I do believe it is saving us hours per month."

We find that this system keeps honest people honest. This hasn't changed the way a lot of people operate. That said, we did terminate an employee immediately after installing this system. His paper time cards were different [than his digital job stamp], and we asked him about this. That obviously wasn't the only thing involved in the termination; that kind of discrepancy usually has other indicators.

SIW: Does the tracking system pay for itself?

Hood: It pays for itself if we save one hour per employee per month. I think it's helping us. We have been meeting labor budgets this year.

SIW: Overall, what's the final word on using a location and billable hours tracking system?

Hood: The alarm industry can be difficult, because they don't look at installers as a profit center. There's a benefit to being able to show what we did versus what we budgeted. Our tracking and billing system works with our accounting system, which can show the hours an individual did, how a type of project did, and more. Mostly, I think it's helped us talk to our employees. If you can't point to measurements and scientific information, it's hard to set goals.