Wayne Ashworth is the past, present and future of Lee Company, a Franklin, Tennessee-based contractor with 1,000 employees, which provides facility and residential services throughout its home state and Alabama and Kentucky.
In a manner of speaking, the 30-year HVAC industry veteran still makes service calls each and every day – only now while sitting comfortably in front of a computer inside what Lee Company calls its “triage center.”
From that vantage point, Ashworth looks over the shoulder of any of Lee Company’s 300-plus service techs, reviewing hi-def images and videos all while listening and speaking to the techs directly at the worksite.
Ashworth is right there without climbing up a ladder to a rooftop unit or crawling around in a basement mechanical room thanks to wearable computing devices equipped with custom applications and cloud-based software that Lee Company started outfitting its techs with two years ago.
“When a tech gets stuck, we used to do what a lot of people in this industry still do,” says Steve Scott, senior vice president of facilities solutions for Lee Company and a 19-year veteran of the firm. “Pull a tech off of another job or send a supervisor. We’d end up with two or three guys on a job and end up billing for one tech. Meanwhile, the customer is down longer while we’re waiting for someone to just get to the jobsite.”
Scott admits Lee Company would still be stuck in the same old same old, if not for its partnership with XOi Technologies, based in Nashville.
CEO Aaron Salow started the business in 2013 and brings some blue-collar street cred that other tech companies may lack since he grew up in a family owned manufacturing business.
“I think we can have a conversation with a tech, and understand their world because I lived it in some capacity,” Salow says of his firm. “And also be able to talk to an executive about return on investment and the metrics that are driving their businesses. So I think our ethos as a software business is a lot different because of that.”
As a result, Salow said his company is focused entirely on blue-collar verticals throughout the United States and overseas.
After some brainstorming sessions to develop customized software just for HVAC field service techs, plus a successful test run, XOi initially provided Lee Company with Vuzix M100 Smart Glasses bundled with XOi’s custom applications, and its proprietary, cloud-based Vision platform for its commercial service techs.
The glasses look very much like the safety glasses the techs are all used to wearing. But it’s Vision that allows for what Salow calls “telepresence” that enables Ashworth back at home base to offer his decades of wisdom.
Data, including live-streaming video and real-time two-way audio, can be communicated from the glasses and accessed through Vision.
Ashworth isn’t the only one back at the office lending support. Three others on staff at the triage center offer guidance, but Ashworth does figure prominently in the videos Lee Company posts on its website and YouTube to promote its tech savvy.
The capabilities of the wearable tech also extend beyond capturing images and audio and include, for example, optical character recognition to identify the make, model and serial number of equipment.
All this data captured by the techs helps Lee Company address the main problem vexing the industry: the labor shortage.
“In order to grow, we have to have people be more efficient and use technologies to close that gap,” Scott said. “That was the driver for me, to try to really take the responsibility of continuing to create a sustainable business that continues to offer our employees a place to work so that we don’t just become dated, and we can’t perform because people aren’t available.”
As a result, techs can get systems up and running much faster, allowing them to move on to new customers and get more calls done in a day.
Since the original 2016 launch, Lee Company has introduced the wearables to its residential service techs, and has also moved on to incorporating an XOi Technologies’ mobile app and a smartphone as the next level to stay connected.
Salow adds that this tech solution applies just as much to labor issues affecting Lee Company’s customers as it does its own workforce.
“Customers on the commercial side are also aging out of the facilities management jobs as well,” he explains. “And they're being replaced with younger people, who have grown up with Google, which means they expect data at their fingertips at all times.”
Follow Salow’s logic and it’s easy to see how the tech represents a whole new approach to customer service for Lee Company.
After all, Ashworth isn’t the only one who doesn’t have to shimmy up a ladder or crouch down to view a mechanical problem.
The wearables also help connect customers to the intricacies of the repair work being done to complex HVAC systems. Software lets techs attach video clips from the repair site, captured by the smart glasses, to service tickets so customers can see what was done to solve the problem.
Scott was the driving force at Lee Company behind INSIGHT, the company’s comprehensive technology platform for facility managers. Much of the information the techs record funnels into the portal for each of Lee’s customers to tap into.
And when a recommended repair arises, techs can create videos that scope the work while showing the logistics, access and site conditions.
This highly visible process of documenting the work performed helps create detailed service reports.
“We’ve been asked for years to be the eyes and ears for our customers,” Scott explains. “And if we see anything on the roof that doesn’t look right, our techs take a picture and include a note about it. It might be related to equipment, but it could also be a safety issue that the customer should know about. In this way, we become part of the solution to maintain our customers' facilities and their assets and not just someone there to fix a problem.”
Scott started out in sales at Lee Company so he knows the value of providing this data.
“We can now not only say our techs are the best and that their work is the best,” Scott adds. “We can actually show the before and after images and video of what we did.”
That’s a major improvement over the old-fashioned invoice that simply stated the tech was on the roof and changed the filter and cleaned the coils.
“And if we don’t put images and video on the ticket,” Scott says, “our customers call us and let us know that the content was left off. It didn't take long for them to really start expecting that.”
The combination of smart glasses (or app and smart phone) and smarter technicians is also helping Lee Company get more business.
“It’s easier to get customers to make decisions on projects when we’re giving them a compelling narrative,” Scott says. “We’re showing them how it looks on the roof, or we walk through a mechanical room that has damage, and we can talk through the repair process. That kind of data helps decisions get made faster.”