The first time he tried to roll out a mobile product for his field service workers, in 1997, John Ragsdale met with some resistance. Mobile phone technology was progressing rapidly, to the point where techs in the field could get directions and orders sent to them over their cell phones — a potentially ground-breaking development. His company was eager to tap into the savings and efficiency mobile tools promised.

Problem was, they just didn’t work that well. “To be honest, most field techs refused to use the software,” Ragsdale, the vice president of technology research for TSIA, said during a webinar Thursday titled “The 5 Drivers of Field Service Mobility.” The webinar was co-hosted by Susan Tonkin of ServiceMax (disclaimer: ServiceMax sponsors the SmartVan).

“It was not a pretty training session,” Ragsdale said. “The field people pushed back, and said, ‘This is not something that’s going to help me.’”

In the 15 years since, though, our mobile phone (and now tablet) capabilities have come a long way from the days of those WAP, menu- and text-driven interfaces. Tools like the iPhone and its Android counterparts, plus the iPad, not only offer techs easy access to critical information about routing, ordering, customer history, and the ability to communicate in real-time and over social networks, but they’re easy to use, too. And getting techs to use them isn’t like pulling teeth.

And organizations are realizing that the time’s right to get serious about adopting mobile tools and applications in the field: According to his research, Ragsdale said that spending field service has grown rapidly. In 2010, 28 percent of companies polled were using some sort of mobility device or application in the field. In 2011, that number climbed to 38 percent. And this year, it’s already up to 47 percent.

Predictably, spending on mobile tools for field service is up, too. Ragsdale said 62 percent of field service members of the TSIA have approved budget room for adding additional dispatch and mobility tools. Forty percent of all companies he surveyed have budgeted to add mobile tools this year.

“These last few years, spending’s really been trending up,” he said. “This year I’m a little surprised at how high spending is — it’s higher than I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of pent-up spending because some of these old [field-service] products are so out-of-date and hard to upgrade.”

Ragsdale pointed to five main reasons that field service organizations are scrambling to outfit techs with these new mobile tools:

  • Device cost and availability: For one thing, smartphones and tablets are all over the market, driving costs way down. The average smartphone now costs $135, down from $149 in 2010. And that number’s shrinking even more.
  • User adoption and ease of use: Frankly, the iPhone and iPad are just easy to use, which the old Palm devices and first-generation cell phones weren’t. So getting FSEs to use them is easy. “If employees don’t use their devices, companies never get any return on investment,” Ragsdale said — a problem with his first mobile deployment. “But now employees are demanding — are begging for — them, so ROI is very rapid.”
  • Improved operational metrics and revenue generation: Truck rolls are expensive, so it’s critical to avoid extra dispatches. Mobile tools can help here, too, by giving workers remote access to information they need to better make repairs or answer tricky questions in the field. Also, mobile tools help initiate up-selling opportunities — most iPads have add-ons that can process a credit card order, or capture a signature, or even print a receipt.
  • Architecting the customer experience: FSEs are brand ambassadors when they’re in customers’ homes and offices. Mobile tools and apps can help ensure they’re representing the company well, by helping ensure better on-time performance, building automatic and accurate audit trails and leave-behind reports. Plus, showing up with a high-tech tool under your arm is just a nice, professional first impression on a customer.
  • Increased employee collaboration: Instant Messager, Chatter (Salesforce’s IM tool), Twitter, Face Time, Facebook, online blogs … the number of applications that help techs get ahold one outside experts to help complete a repair or answer a tough question is almost limitless.

“This is the year of the mobile revolution,” Ragsdale said. “If you haven’t started figuring out how to introduce mobility, you’re already behind the curve. The time’s right to get in and start digging. We’re already seeing some amazing ROI from early adopters.”

To view slides from Thursday’s webinar, click here.

Click here to download a free whitepaper, “Five Steps to Make Field Service Profitable.”

ABOUT Ian Stewart

Avatar photoIan is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.