Field service operations these days are increasingly expected to help drive profits, not just operate as cost centers. What’s been the biggest struggle in making the shift?

We asked field service managers this week at Maximize 2012, an industry user and prospective customer conference held in San Francisco by ServiceMax (this blog’s sponsor), to identify their biggest challenges. Whether it was improving first-time fix rates and reducing call-backs, one concern that shone through: All efforts should ultimately be grounded in improving the customer experience. Here’s what they had to say:

Moving to the Cloud

The rapid rise of cloud-based computing is a great opportunity for businesses to make important data accessible to technicians out in the field. But figuring out what data to move to the cloud, and what to keep stored on local servers, can be a tricky question, said Martin Wiranta, a senior director of IT for Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Sodexo, which handles food and facilities maintenance for hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and other sites.

“There are several operations with the potential to move to the cloud, but the core, backbone [infrastructure] probably needs to say on-site,” Wiranta said. The company is focused on “where it makes sense” to invest in cloud technology.

Keeping Pace With Technology

For some high-tech verticals, simply keeping up with the pace of innovation means that the capabilities service technicians require are constantly evolving. Chris Egger, a technical manager with Oregon-based Tektronix Communications, which produces metric and diagnostic tools for engineers in semiconductor, computing, and networking industries, explained that Tektronix products serving wireless carriers have to be able to analyze signals from every new mobile device that hits the market. That means a lot of on-the-fly thinking, quick-fix resolutions, and the ability for technicians to be able to expand their technical aptitude constantly.

“[This industry] can be very complex,” Egger said. “New devices introduce some different messaging signals, and different [key performance indexes].” That leaves little time to test new technologies in-house — meaning technicians need to be able to decode those signals right away.

Embracing Self-Service

Not every customer problem requires rolling a van — in fact, that should often be a last resort. For Brian Wilson, the vice president of IT and facilities for Quantum, a San Jose, Calif.-based company offering data storage and protection solutions, the challenge is in call deflection. What information and answers can the company give customers up front, so they can get an immediate solution to their problems, without having to call up the support team?

“We want to change how we present our Web portal,” Wilson said. “The goal is making everything easier for our external customers. We’re looking for ways to deploy [answers] easier and faster — so more self-service.” Wilson acknowledged that sometimes, stuff just breaks, and that’ll always require a technician to come out for a repair. But for everything that can be fixed without a truck roll, figuring out how to allow customers to get the information they need is becoming critical.

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ABOUT Ian Stewart

Ian 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.