(Part 1). Bill Pollock is president of Strategies For Growth, a research analyst and consulting organization for service businesses, and chief research officer for The Service Council, a virtual trade organization for service executives.  Pollock spoke with The SmartVan about how cloud computing, new mobile devices and other technologies are helping smaller service firms compete with bigger rivals.

What are the biggest untapped opportunities today for smaller field service organizations?

There are a number of opportunities available to SMBs today that weren’t available just a couple of years ago. For example, cloud computing has really made it easy for SMBs to begin to run large portions of their operations the same way that some of the larger companies have been doing so for years and years. The reasons why it has taken so long for smaller companies to ramp up are mainly due to cost considerations, lack of availability, and that many of the service management systems of the past were designed for the larger companies. Until recently, there really hasn’t been a venue for smaller companies to be able to emulate what the larger companies have been doing.

The cloud has really been a great equalizer that has allowed them to ramp up in many areas to be able to perform the same kinds of service operations and have the same kinds of data availability and real-time access to data that they really weren’t able to get in the past. The cloud has really been an enormous impetus for some to get started. In fact, it’s so easy, in many cases, for SMBs to get started in the use of a cloud-based service management offering that many of them don’t even know such an option exists yet. So the real problem is not in getting them up and running, the problem is that many of them don’t know that, for the first time, there really is something available to them.

What other opportunities stand out, aside from shifting to cloud-based solutions?

One of the things is the proliferation of much more reasonably priced mobile devices and technologies that are available to SMBs. If you’re an SMB and you’ve got half a dozen or a dozen field techs, it doesn’t break the bank necessarily to begin using iPads to perform some of your field-based service activities. In addition to iPads, there are other PDA-type devices that many smaller service organizations have found themselves fans of. That’s another couple of steps forward they’ve been able take that they weren’t able to take in the past. I’ve been around long enough that I remember doing projects for the old Motorola group, and I carried one of the Motorola “Bricks” around for a week to see what it’s like for a field technician to carry a mobile device.

Nowadays, with the iPad and some of the other Droid-based PDAs, the world really belongs to the small business owners, and some of the small service organizations. They’re not being forced to move from legacy, custom-developed systems that their companies have been using for years and years and that have outlived their longevity. Now they’ve got the opportunity to match the best cloud-based offerings with the best mobile devices. Even if they can’t afford the best, they can still afford to move forward in some fashion with a cloud-based solution and with the right mix of PDAs or iPads. Again, it’s very much easier for them to get off the mark. I think those two components — the cloud and the availability of some new, less-expensive devices — are two of the things that are getting a lot of SMBs off the ground.

What impacts will more consumer mobile devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy and the iPad, have on field service?

If you want to wait to get the perfect mix of technology and devices to empower your field force, then you’ll have to keep waiting because it’s not here yet, and it’s not going to be here tomorrow, and its not going to be here a year from tomorrow. So, at some point, you have to determine when to start doing something. If you’re an SMB and you’ve been working with a paper-based system, and your technology is nothing more than Post-it notes and emails, you can’t afford to wait. You’re going to get chewed up, and not only by some of the larger corporations and service organizations. You’re going to start getting chewed up by organizations that are just as large and, in some cases, smaller than you because they’ve already started to do something.

What you’ve got to start thinking about now is what you’re going to use to deploy in the field tomorrow to empower your field techs to do what they need to do. It may not necessarily be what they’re going to be using three years from now. It may not even be what they’re going to be using one year from now. There’s a lot of discussion about iPads right now, and most of the discussion is favorable about the use of iPads in a field service environment. But it’s not all favorable. For example, it’s not a ruggedized piece of equipment.

However, there are ways to get protective covers over that, and for something far less than $3,000 or $3,500 per user, you can get iPads that can deliver all the functionality that you need to get started, to move from a paper-based system to an automated system. If worst comes to worst, in two or three years you may have to upgrade to a new version of an iPad or a mobile device coming out by one of today’s known vendors, or by a new vendor that will pop up. You’ll be able to make that migration because you’re not moving from square zero to square three; you’re moving from square one or square two to square three. You’re already moving further on down the line.

Many [SMBs] are startups. They need to get their feet wet. They need to move from antiquated, non-systems. By using an iPad or another device right now to get their foot in the door, when the SMB becomes a bit larger SMB and it starts hiring additional field techs, maybe that’s the time to start thinking about moving to the next step. It might cost a little more for devices, or it might just be the next generation of iPads. With the growth of the cloud and the growth of devices, they may never need to go to a customized solution. What they’ve got to do now, though, is move along in some fashion to keep pace, not only with their competitors, but to keep pace with their end users, their customers.

If they don’t make the leap to some of these technologies, it’s at their own peril?

It really is. Five to 10 years ago, SMBs were wondering, “How in the world can we compete with the big guys? We don’t have the technology. We don’t have tools. We don’t have the budget. We don’t have the internal know-how.” Many of them just decided not to compete because they couldn’t. Today, with the cloud, with some of the iPad technologies, they can compete against the larger companies, but I believe that the biggest competition for those who aren’t taking these steps is they are going to be competing against others like them, some of whom are going to establish a nice little niche for themselves as the SMBs who can.

There are two kinds of SMBs out there: those that are going to take some steps to position themselves so they can compete, period, without worrying about whether they’re competing against the big guys or the small guys or anybody in between. However, without using the technology available today, they’re not going to be competing with anyone. If they’re not competing, they’ll be doing that at their own peril. And they’ll be run over and leapfrogged by others who are taking those steps.

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