These days, field service firms don’t always need to send a technician in a van to fix a problem. From training to dispatch, field service is becoming more virtualized than ever. So we spoke with Denis Pombriant, a prominent customer relationship management analyst and the CEO at Beagle Research Group, to ask about how service firms can “virtualize” their operations, especially in an age when customers seem less than enthusiastic about waiting around for a van to show up.

The SmartVan: First off, what do you mean by “virtualization”?

Denis Pombriant: I think this is a good place to start because I think what I mean by virtualization is probably not what others mean by it. I think a lot of people, when they talk about virtualization, are talking about moving their computer room or IT department into the cloud. But at a business-practice level, what I’m talking about is trying to find ways to provide alternatives to physical, face-to-face, “let’s roll a truck” to do some repair or maintenance.

What are the top ways that field service firms can be virtualized. What doesn’t require an actual technician, in a van, to go to a customer location?

Well, some forms of training. And I think we’ve already done a lot to virtualize training. I think there’s more that we can do. Organizations have relied heavily on video as a method for capturing courses and replaying them. I think the opportunity with video and training is to supplement that with animation that gets big ideas across quicker and easier than watching somebody lecture or do a demo.

In field service, particularly, there’s always going to be a need for some amount of field service maintenance. If you’re a certain age and you grew up in the vacuum-tube age of television, you’ll perhaps remember people coming to your house to fix the TV. As TVs got more reliable, that changed into walk-in service. You’d have to walk in with this monstrosity of a TV and say, “Gee, it doesn’t work, can you fix it?” And even that’s more or less gone by the wayside. These days, you get a new TV, plug it in, and when it stops working, it’s 10 or more years later and you want to get a new one anyway.

But for the time being, we’re always going to have reasons to roll a truck, whether it’s because you need to roll a bucket truck and get 20 feet in the air, or some other reason that requires very detailed expertise. Beyond that, as product reliability continues to grow, organizations are able to prescribe solutions to many problems, and they’re able to either walk customers through a test mode to identify a particular problem so when a truck does show up, the technician has the right parts and knows exactly what they’re doing. Or, in some cases, it’s actually possible for the customer to do a self-repair under the guidance of a technician on the other end of the phone.

All that’s extremely helpful. Large companies have done it for quite a while. Technology is getting better that enables smaller, startup organizations to take the same kind of approach and deliver pretty good customer service, either across the Internet, through video or live on the phone.

How do mobile technologies — smartphones and tablets, primarily — fit in with this push toward virtualization?

The tablet is rapidly becoming the preferred platform for video in a mobile setting. It’s the right size, and it has enough memory capacity to enable organizations of almost any stripe to build relevant videos for their customers and let either the customers access them through the mobile device or to enable technicians on-site to quickly look up something and see exactly how to fix something. The example I like to use, which is a little afield from field service, is the pharmaceutical industry. Pharma companies are outfitting their sales reps with tablets, with iPads, and they’re making hundreds of videos of their products and then sending their people into the field — not so much to talk to and detail drugs to doctors and pharmacists, as they had traditionally — but to show them videos. You can get a lot done in a minute or two, which is sometimes all the attention span that someone has.  

What are easy ways companies can make the shift toward virtualization? Is this seen as being overwhelming?

What you’re discussing is not that different from what happened in the call center. All the more modern technologies — video or smart devices or social media and communities — those are all things that effectively perform a natural triage on a problem. What’s interesting about all that triage is that when a problem finally bubbles up to a vendor, that problem has defied solution for a little while, so you might find that you have, No. 1: harder problems; and No. 2: more frustrated customers who are maybe a little less tolerant of delay.

… The No. 2 search engine in the world today is YouTube. When people, especially digital natives, want to know something, they go to YouTube and query it. I find that fascinating. Not only from a pure information standpoint, but when people want to get service, to get something fixed, the first they go is not to the vendor or to the vendor’s website. The first place they go is to Google, it’s to the community, it’s to YouTube to find third-party sources of help.

So, these days, it’s even more important that companies use these technologies to fix the problem correctly the first time?

Don’t forget that some of what we’re talking about is not really technology, it’s culture. A company can do an awful lot and save itself a ton of money by considering how it might upgrade its culture to be more participatory in things like community and social media to help customers find solutions that don’t necessarily require the traditional, “let’s roll a truck” response. Back in the day, “let’s roll a truck” was the only solution in many cases — perhaps the majority of cases. Over time, we’ve gotten to all of these wonderful, intermediate steps that are enabling us to become more lean, mean and help our businesses become more robust and satisfy our customers more.

Is the new generation of technicians entering the workforce the main impetus behind this change in culture?

Very much so. There was an article in the New York Times that discussed the upgrade in the field service staff for Comcast [“Today’s Cable Guy, Upgraded and Better Dressed”]. It involved upgrading the uniform. It also dealt with the education level of people they’re putting in the field. The people they’re putting in the field now have at least bachelor’s degrees, in a lot of cases, in engineering or electrical engineering or science or something relevant to dealing with technological challenges. They know computers. They know routers. They know Internet. Smart field service organizations are definitely upping their game.

Even with a solid background of education, the technicians are going to school on a regular basis within their companies to hone their skills and to make them aware of the absolute latest and greatest things. It’s not a question of if you don’t do it, your competition will. That’s sort of the result. The reality is that the customer is demanding it, the sophistication of the products is demanding it, and you’d have to be pretty callous or unaware not to see that you need to up your game because of market demands.

A version of this article appeared in Field Technologies Online.