John Ragsdale is vice president of technology research for the Technology Services Industry Association. He writes a regular blog, Eye on Service, for the TSIA. Ragsdale spoke to The SmartVan about the potential of mobile devices to dramatically change how service managers do business.

More on field-service mobile tech on The SmartVan.

As opposed to enterprise handhelds that are specifically designed for service technicians, why does the iPad hold so much potential?

It’s fascinating to me because, just from a corporate standpoint, the mobile device has always been the problem. You can get a ruggedized (Motorola) Symbol device that does everything an iPad does, but not only is it half the size so you don’t have a good viewer, it’s also about $1,500 to $1,800.

The reason I think the iPad is going to be the next new must-have tool for enterprises is because for $500, you get a tool that if you break it, you can walk into any Apple store in America and replace it; everybody knows how to use it; employees want to use them. It’s just so simple and intuitive to use that user success is really good. And on top of all that, the iPad just has a cool factor.

That really struck me at a conference in December. I was speaking at an event with a software maker and they had given their entire sales and marketing team iPads. So of course I was very jealous because I don’t have one. (The employees) knew how to use them and were constantly pulling them out to illustrate a point they were making. They just integrated them into their lives and their talking so well.

Also, I saw the ServiceMax demo for how to use the iPad for field service and it blew me away. A two-minute demo takes you through the complete process of scheduling and dispatching a call, using real time traffic updates, getting you around an accident to get you to your appointment on time, checking inventory, troubleshooting problems on site, capturing signatures. It’s everything in one device. The only thing it doesn’t do is print a receipt and you can get one of those Bluetooth printers from Zebra for 150 bucks to do that. [Editor’s note: ServiceMax is a sponsor of The SmartVan.]

I keep picking on Symbol, but it was just the most common maker of those custom devices that I’d run into. Their keyboards have odd little buttons and the display’s in black and white. You can buy a $3,000 Symbol device to do everything a $500 iPad does, but the iPad just does it better.

Which companies do you consider successful early adopters?

Xerox has created a global discussion forum for their field service techs. Some of those big Xerox industrial copiers live for decades, so the example they gave me was how a repair person walked into a back office in Brazil and saw a machine that was older than he was. He had no idea how to fix it, but because they’ve got these mobile devices and this online community, the repair person went in and, within minutes, got an answer back from someplace on the other side of the globe about how to fix this machine.

I also have a great story about this repairman who had low productivity until his company equipped him with GPS technology. After that, they found out he was spending two hours at the golf course every day.

So there are lots of little tidbits about the advantages of mobility, but the challenge has always been that people had trouble adopting it because the devices and the infrastructure cost so much. Now, we’ve got these stories about how mobility has really revolutionized field service. I think it’s because we’ve got the coolest device in the world, and it’s affordable for every company in the world. I think you’re going to see the adoption of this technology hugely increase. For example, last year only 30 percent of our members had wireless field service technology in place, but 34 percent have budgeted for it this year.  That could conceivably double the penetration from 30 percent to 64 percent in a single year.

So that’s where I think all the potential is. All this cool stuff that’s been available for the most highly paid service techs is now going to be available for everybody.

What are the features that make the biggest difference to service organizations? Is the iPad capable of all of those features?

The number one is less sexy than you would think. We just had a meeting with our field service advisory board, so these are excerpts from about 20 big technology companies that do field service, mostly on the B2B side. Their number one thing about mobility was very simple: access to content anywhere. They want to be able to access all the corporate content, the online repair manuals, the troubleshooting guides, the knowledge bases, but they simply have not been able to because of the small windows and the inability to display certain kinds of data or access real-time transactional data. The iPad can do all of that. The only thing it can’t do is show Flash, but other than that, it can search all of your corporate content.

So the top advantage is kind of obvious – it’s the mobility factor?

Absolutely. I would say the next biggest thing that’s also a cultural change is the change from push to pull scheduling. The old way of scheduling is push scheduling – you show up at the beginning of a shift and your supervisor hands you a route sheet and says, “Here’s where you’re gonna go today.” That’s great until your first appointment takes two hours longer than you expected and you’re off for the rest of the day. With pull scheduling , when you finish an appointment, (the mobile app) analyzes all the available appointments, where you are, what skills you have and what parts you have on your truck. It recommends the next appointment that’s the most appropriate for you. By moving from this push to pull mentality, we’re seeing at least one additional shift per person, per day. Because it uses that GPS device to tell you to avoid the big wreck on I-95, it really is increasing productivity in a huge way.

And the third thing is signature capture. We did a survey about up-sell/cross-sell for field service and using an iPad app was usually about a 100 percent effective because if you’re in the home or in the office and you’re making a recommendation, it’s really hard for the customer to say no to you in person. They also trust you because you’ve got that in-person advantage. The challenge has been that if you can’t collect a signature in person, someone has to call or email or write a letter to follow up later and that gives the customer a chance to decline.

Or change their mind?

Right, so if you can capture a signature and maybe even print out a receipt while you’re onsite, you close the deal and it’s having a big impact on up-sell and cross-sell.

So when are you getting an iPad?

Whenever somebody gives me one!

See all related content on The SmartVan about mobile devices.

ABOUT Sara Suddes

San Francisco-based contributor Sara Suddes writes frequently about small business, the economy and technology.