How VARs Can Better Serve the Field Service Market

By Lisa Terry — June 05, 2013

The field service sector has always been customer-focused. In addition to striving for efficiency, many field organizations have attempted to take advantage of the customer touch opportunity inherent in a service visit to drive new revenue through incentives and retooled business processes. But it can be challenging to implement a sales and customer satisfaction focus with a workforce of left-brain, engineering personalities.

Now technology can help. Graphical, feature-rich, affordable mobile devices and low-cost data plans are making it feasible to equip field service workers with technology that helps make them both efficient and revenue-driving. The addition of tools that offer visuals and interactivity to tech-client relations, for example, is making it easier for field workers to access and present persuasive, personalized data to the end customer.

“There is an inherent trust” in a field service technician versus a salesperson, says John Pomerleau, North America field mobility principal, Motorola Solutions (www.motorolasolutions.com). “He’s the guy fixing your thing.” That’s a great foundation for, say, introducing a new service contract or warning of an impending part failure that can be addressed now—generating additional revenue and saving the field organization the cost of a subsequent truck roll a month later.

Organizations are relying on new metrics to measure success such as average revenue per stop, customer retention rates and ratings assigned by customers through post-visit surveys alongside resource utilization levels, first-time fix and other common metrics in evaluating field service activities.

“More and more organizations want a relationship with the customer,” says Jeff Trotier, president of auto ID and wireless solution provider TPI (www.tpi1.com).

Adoption Trends
“In 2013 there’s been a rise in importance in the minds of end users that increasing revenue is an important thing,” adds Tim Eusterman, senior director, industry marketing for Intermec (www.intermec.com). “We tend to see it across the board, but particularly in field service companies in really competitive markets, such as those with low switching costs.”

In addition to direct revenue, organizations are being asked to deliver enhanced service quality and experience, driving up customer satisfaction and ultimately repeat business.

One Motorola customer, for example, delivers equipment to hospitals. Technicians use a tablet to take pictures of the condition of the items in addition to scanning the barcode. They also document, through photos and free-form notes, delivery details such as what gate and door to enter for drivers making subsequent deliveries. “That means better service and limiting liability,” says Motorola’s Pomerleau.

Better First Impressions
The quality of field service interactions is being enabled by technical advancements. Perhaps the biggest change is the increasing adoption of tablets. Some are choosing consumer-grade devices, while others are opting for newer 7-inch and 10-inch ruggedized tablets, often with options such as Android or Windows Mobile or even Windows 8.
    
“Having the rugged guys adopt Android is a positive step because it raises the user experience of the device,” says Don Grust, CEO of mobile solutions provider Apacheta (www.apacheta.com). “A lot of people use smartphones in their own day-to-day lives and they like it.”

Other technology advancements fueling customer satisfaction and revenue include: 
   
Connectivity: Faster data speeds and cellular coverage enable more frequent, real-time communication with backend systems, and the ability to access larger files such as video.

SaaS-model field service apps: “We’re starting to see much broader development of SaaS-based field service applications that can take advantage of the new world of mobile devices,” says Intermec’s Eusterman. Rugged devices using the same chipsets as consumer grade offer familiar user experiences such as an accelerometer to reorient the screen. Some techs are fans of Apple’s Facetime to show a repair challenge to a remote colleague and collaborate on solutions.

GPS: In addition to route mapping, GPS-enabled, location-based services are allowing field service applications to automatically download customer histories, schematics and other pertinent data as the truck nears the repair location. Some field service companies are using GPS to log the location of activities performed, combined with a badge scan to record who performed the action, says TPI’s Trotier.

Mobile browsers: Some hosted field service applications rely on browsers to enable field workers to access backend applications and data. The ability for customers and service workers to interact with a cloud backend is actually eliminating tasks such as pre-sales visits to customer sites, says Thomas La Susa, territory account manager for Quest Solution (www.questsolution.com).  

Display advancements: Screen size needs depend on the application, but some field organizations are gaining more options thanks to 7-inch and 10-inch tablets, while others like the lightweight and portability of a smartphone form factor. Higher resolution images are enabling better use of schematics and diagrams without the need to zoom—something techs hate to have to stop and do, says Tom Barber, VP and GM of the Enterprise Solutions Group at DecisionPoint Systems (www.Decisionpt.com), an enterprise class mobile computing solution provider. Tablet specialist Paradise Computers (www.paradisetablets.com) has found tablets a big hit among its HVAC, utility, medical and beverage clientele to enable forms completion and signatures on the screen, while being light enough for all-day use, says Nancy Nelson, owner.

Mobile printing: The ability to generate paper documentation on the spot, whether receipt- or full-size, puts the finishing touch on the visit. “You can leave behind a proposal that was dynamically produced right then and there,” supporting upsell opportunity, explaining post-visit medical care or explaining the just-signed service agreement, says David Crist, senior vice president sales and marketing, Brother Mobile Solutions (www.brother-usa.com/mobile).

Bluetooth capabilities in models such as Intermec’s PR3 mobile printer enables easy connectivity to a tablet or PDA to print out an invoice, receipt or work order for the customer, says Paul Constantine, president, ScanSource POS and Barcode (www.scansourceinc.com).

Motorola’s Pomerleau recommends working closely with field service hardware manufacturers to get advance insight into the direction of hardware development as well as operating system choices.

“Being able to utilize your application in all those platforms future-proofs it and protects the customer,” says Quest Solution’s La Susa. “If you don’t have that in your design, you will be left behind in the market.”

Solutions “also need to be selected in a forward-thinking manner for the capability to fulfill a need that may come three to five years down the road,” says ScanSource’s Constantine. “When learning about new technology, solution providers should try and think about new ways these solutions could help the customer.”

Helping Field Organizations Transition
Helping field organizations adapt to a sales role starts with having the right talent in place within the solution provider.

“You can always find people that get the technology,” says Tom O’Connor, senior national business development manager at Panasonic System Communications Company of North America. “People need empathy for the end user.” That helps solution providers assess the need with the proper perspective. Steps to success include talking to all stakeholders—not just the executive driving the project.

Ride-alongs with drivers, for example, help solution providers establish the as-is state, record detailed observations on field tasks and find out what techs want from a solution. Other key contacts for sales and satisfaction goals include customer service and sales and marketing. DecisionPoint is finding an increasing number of sales involve both operations and the sales and marketing departments as field service jobs increasingly incorporate customer satisfaction and driving incremental revenue.

Another easily overlooked group in evaluating needs is the end customer. “What does the customer define as a positive experience? On time? Completed the first time?” says Intermec’s Eusterman. “Understanding that puts you in a position to generate revenue through upselling,” while failing at basic block and tackle aspects of the job undermines any attempt to sell.

Culture Shift
One of the biggest challenges is helping techs overcome the mindset shift from technical tasks to sales. Role playing is one strategy to help techs anticipate potential situations and their reaction, says Panasonic’s O’Connor. So is building into the software prompts when an upsell opportunity is apparent.
Keep generational differences in mind in solution design; older and younger workers bring different types of experience to the table. For older workers, it’s deep product expertise, for younger, it’s interfacing easily with technology.

“They have different learning curves,” says Panasonic’s O’Connor. Well-executed help functions, training content and product flows can be key to helping each group with their trouble spots.

Another important design component is avoiding too much “head down” time—when the tech is in front of the customer—by automating as much data capture as possible.

Solution providers agree that advances in hardware, software and connectivity mean there are few barriers left to accomplishing whatever field organizations need to do on the front end. The obstacles that remain are at the backend, connecting field service organizations to host systems. Equally important are business processes—the people and solutions to make use of all that real-time data flowing in from the field. DecisionPoint includes a server component in its solutions to allow front-line management to enact decision-making in a timely way without having to build this capability into the host application itself.
One advantage of a cloud-based approach to field service solutions is the ability to be ERP agnostic, which helps future-proof customers against changes in those systems, notes Quest’s La Susa.

Another important frontier in ensuring field service organizations are equipped to support sales goals: integration of backend parts management and labor management, to make sure talent and inventory line up correctly. One prospect of DecisionPoint noted that the organization would be able to sell more high-value, two to four hour service level agreement contracts if it had that backend problem solved.

Sensing the Future    
One emerging field service capability is the ability to connect mobile devices with sensors, monitors and other equipment deployed in the field to collect data or make a diagnosis. “We will see a tremendous explosion of companies taking advantage of sensors,” says Intermec’s Eusterman, from temperature sensors for fast food equipment to EKG machines used in home healthcare.

In fact, sensors promise to reshape field service entirely. Cisco and Tech Data are among those making major moves into the Internet of Things—equipping objects with minuscule identifying devices that can automatically communicate via cellular connectivity to the Internet. Experts predict 50 billion devices will have such capability by 2020. Solution providers such as Apacheta are closely tracking the developments of this concept for application with their customer bases.

Real-time monitoring of status, inventory levels, readings and other feedback can help field service organizations avoid unnecessary trips and shape daily activities. “It enables real-time monitoring and creates more responsibilities for people in the back end, reporting and acting on data,” says Charles Kriete, EVP of TDMobility (www.techdata.com/tdmobility), which is developing training and product offerings to help solution providers enter the space. The concept is already delivering rapid ROI for applications such as vending and service of high value equipment.

Those developments will continue opening up an already widening array of opportunities for field service. “With the advances in tablet, PDA and smartphone technology, field service techs are able to fill more roles in their companies, including sales and service, creating big impacts from operational efficiency,” says ScanSource’s Constantine. “Field service techs are much better prepared walking into a customer’s site than ever before.”

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