Sumair Dutta, senior research analyst with the Service Management team at the Aberdeen Group, spoke with The SmartVan about what field service organizations must do, and change, to succeed and grow in today’s business environment — from embracing mobile technology that allows field agents to more efficiently do their jobs to management strategies that engage field teams to drive the business.

What is the profile of a successful service organization today? What kinds of technology and tools and best practices are part of the mix?

I’ll break it down into some of the bigger buckets that we see and maybe some of the processes or features in each one of those buckets that seem to be reflective of what the best in class companies are using. The key word I’m seeing in field service, and we’re seeing this across broader industries and broader technology types, is empowerment.

The top action being taken by the best-in-class companies as per our 2011 Field Service research is to invest in mobile tools to empower the field workers with better access to information in the field.  And this doesn’t just mean investing in a handheld or a mobile application.  It’s not specific to a technology solution.  It’s about empowering that field worker with the right tools, with the right information, with the right steps to get his or her job done within that required period of time.

It’s become a  productivity game, and the need to align productivity goals with those of customer satisfaction, cost management and revenue generation, which is all being funneled into this empowerment puzzle that these organizations are focusing on right now from a field service perspective.

So how do you get to empowerment? Do you just put a device in your technicians’ hands?  The device discussion, with the tablet and the iPad2, is one that’s top of mind for a lot of people.  Not only is it the devices, but I think we’ve got to step back and think about what is it that the technicians need in that field?  The device is just a medium for them to get the information.  The operating system is a platform for them to get that information and the application is essentially a channel from the back end to the front end.

So what are some of the things that they need, more than just technology, and more than just data service applications?  It breaks down into broader process and organizational support discussions. From a process perspective, scheduling is an important piece. I wouldn’t say dynamic scheduling is the only way of the best in class, but there tends to be a propensity for the best-in-class to be a lot more frequent in scheduling. So whether it’s dynamic, whether it’s daily or two times a day, we found about 53 percent of the best-in-class are fully optimizing their scheduling. So there’s a scheduling element, a frequency of scheduling that comes into play.

Any other tendencies that you’ve noticed among the most successful service organizations?

To add to the scheduling, there’s obviously the mobility piece in terms of how service jobs are made available to technicians.  It’s about getting them information on a mobile platform.  The best in class tend to be a lot more equipped, from a mobility perspective, especially in the capabilities that are afforded to workers on the mobile device that reduce the need for consistent back and forth on a phone call with dispatch.

From a workforce perspective, we’re also seeing a bigger investment from the best in class in planning.  We’re beginning to see a lot more of companies augment performance from a day-to-day execution perspective by scheduling faster and scheduling more, but there’s probably a limit to how much they can drive performance with their given set of resources, with the given set of tools that they have.

Things happen in service where you can’t predict every possible failure.  As much as companies would like to get to that 100 percent level of predictability, that’s just not the case right now, and more so in the case of the mid-market.

In planning, the Best-in-Class are not only looking at running static or seasonal workforce plans but are also taking a greater stake in measuring future demand in order to have better oversight over the quantity and quality of resources available to drive utilization. An underutilized workforce can be as dangerous as an over-utilized workforce. For the best, it comes down to having the right quantity of the right type of service resources, specifically from a skill set and knowledge point of view.

The third piece, from a workforce perspective, revolves around organizations trying to understand better retention and engagement strategies for their field workers.  This is not tied externally to eventual impact on the customer, but internally by trying to make sure field agents are aligned with broader service initiatives, business goals and have a say in process changes, technology improvements etc. In the example of a technology deployment, we have found that the best strategy is not just to make a IT-based decision or a business owner-based decision, but to also consider IT as well as the eventual users of the technology to drive that desired level of use and adoption.

We’re seeing companies invest a lot more in trying to understand and get their field employees more engaged in the profitability of the business and the general performance of the business.

To wrap up, that’s sort of what we are seeing the Best-in-Class engage in from a workforce perspective.  We’ve already touched uponscheduling and mobility from an execution angle, highlighted the focus on planning, and eventually discussed the increased interest in workforce engagement tied to field service workers. Beyond the field workforce, and from a broader serviceorganization perspective, we’re seeing a stronger focus from the best-in-class on performance management and insight.

What do you mean by ‘performance management’?

I think there are three stages to the performance management curve.  There’s the capture of information and making sure you have it all.  The second is the analysis stage. And then the third is how to use that performance information to drive business change and add value to the eventual customer. What we’re seeing from the Best-in-Class is differentiation in the third piece or the use of information, particularly for better planning, better purchase insight and eventually towards a better understanding of all the interdependencies prevalent across the entire service organization. For example, the Best-in-Class are looking to understand how a decision in field service could impact the overall service performance in the contact center. Often the primary goals for these organizations aren’t in alignment and it is vital that a minor process change be evaluated by its impact on the entire service org.

In any of these areas you just discussed, whether it’s empowerment in general, scheduling and planning, or other aspects, which one of those is the biggest hump for a lot of these companies to get over?

The conflicts of scheduling and planning aren’t new to the field service environment. People understand the resource availability, time management and visibility challenges faced by service leaders all the way down to the front line dispatchers and technicians, especially when it comes to scheduling. I won’t dive into that further here.

With all the talk of new technology, there are two primary challenges. The first revolves around the integration of systems to ensure that the front-line workers are actually able to take advantage of available technology. This gets more complex when you consider the number of workers, type of work done and various platforms that systems are built on. There is noise about how newer platforms and deployment models can quench some of these challenges, but there is still a significant amount of work that needs to be done. The other challenge with tech adoption stems around change management, and we talked about that a little bit.

From a planning perspective, I think the challenge is more around the depth of planning. I think companies have invested over the last five-to-10 years in analytics and better intelligence, but what they’re getting right now are static snapshots. Companies have invested and are doing a lot better in getting access to data. We have a very data driven economy, but I don’t think service organizations are doing a great job of converting data into action. Businesses need to ask, What is this information telling me, what is it that I can do with that it and, eventually. how will this impact the customer?” And the ones that are able to do that are the ones that are moving forward. The challenge is converting that mass of data into actionable intelligence.

One of the most challenging areas for field orgs to adapt to will be around engagement, especially in understanding what it means from an organizational culture perspective, and in ensuring that front line agents genuinely buy into practices and programs structured to drive engagement. Service and HR are going to have to collaborate better in truly pushing the right engagement plans, which will effectively require buy in from the ground up. These initiatives can’t just be seen as top-down mandates. We are seeing a lot of activity around workforce engagement.

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