Tomorrow is Independence Day in the American Colonies (ahem, the United States). And, as odd as it may seem for a ‘Brit’ to admit, the colonists’ revolt offers several management lessons that field service executives would be wise to heed. Among the lessons are the importance of listening to grass-roots opinion and allowing people to manage themselves (within clear and appropriate boundaries, of course). You’ll be surprised by how well technicians respond to the freedom and responsibility.

A workplace survey, released by Gensler in 2013, found that employee autonomy leads to an increase in happiness, motivation and job performance. So, how can field service leaders begin to let go and allow their field techs to govern themselves? Here’s some advice, drawn from my experience as both a technician a manager and an executive in the service business:

Empower Techs to Lead

Field service technicians interact all day, every day with your customers. They’re not only the eyes and ears of your company, but also the face of your brand. Situations come up in the field that require technicians to think on their feet and find unconventional methods to solve a customer’s problem. These experiences give technicians a unique perspective into customer’s problems and the company’s products, and managers should listen to — and act upon — their feedback.

In a previous management role in the industry, I held a monthly update call with a cross-section of my field service team. During this call, I would give technicians a 15-minute update on their service performance and major company projects that could affect them. I spent the remaining time listening to their needs. These calls cut through bureaucracy and gave me a lot of valuable feedback. I always took notes on technicians’ input and updated them on what I had done with their feedback, even if it didn’t require immediate action. I would also relay technicians’ product feedback to the rest of the company.

This practice allowed me to empower my team to put the customer first. Customers often view technicians as trusted advisors, a status that will disappear if technicians aren’t empowered to follow through on commitments to customers.

Micromanagement Hurts the Bottom Line

Micromanagement is a common problem, even at the best companies. Here’s an example: In a previous job, a colleague called a technician while he was at a customer location to ask why he’d chosen a route that required a $2 toll. The incredulous field tech said that he wanted to get to the customer quickly and took the fastest route. The manager then wasted another two minutes chastising the technician and explaining the rout he should have taken. Two questions immediately came to mind while I listened to this exchange:

  • Is this the best use of both your (and the field tech’s) time? The call likely cost the company more than $2.

  • Is this issue worth losing your tech’s trust over? Micromanagement to this extreme creates a sense of mistrust and resentment with employees that is difficult to overcome.

Build a Team of Independent Thinkers

Hiring the right employees is key to creating a field service team that can act independently. My advice is to hire for attitude, then train for skill. The majority of field service organizations hire based on technical skills. Technical know-how is no doubt important, but it doesn’t cover all of the skills that the job requires. Plus, technical skills are easier to teach than soft skills (assuming the basic skills are there in the first place such as a technical qualification, college degree or years of experience).

“Technical know-how is no doubt important, but it doesn’t cover all of the skills that the job requires.” — Dave Hart

Hiring managers should determine candidates’ technical ability, and then look for traits such as kindness, empathy, optimism, creativity and curiosity that are necessary to sell and to provide great customer service. If managers balance soft skills and technical skills during the hiring process, the company will more likely have field techs who exceed customer expectations — and who drive more service revenue.

Focus on the Top Priorities

Managers who micromanage spend too much time on the small, inconsequential details that technicians can handle on their own. Micromanagement hurts employee morale and productivity, and it can also limit managers’ career development. The choice is to either let go and allow the field service team that you’ve built and trained to work independently, or to work longer hours yourself. Successful managers get out of their own way and let their team work within clear boundaries toward shared goals. This frees managers to focus on the strategic issues that are truly important to the organization, such as driving additional revenue, increasing customer satisfaction and improving efficiency.

That’s not to say that a completely hands-off approach is best. Managers should perform regular performance reviews with their technicians, and use social and communication tools, such as Salesforce Chatter or Yammer, to reinforce priorities.

Whether you’re celebrating the 4th of July in the States or simply preparing to enjoy another summer weekend, take the time to reflect on what your team needs for strong autonomy this year. These are the areas that will make a difference on an organization’s success, not harassing technicians about their afternoon driving routes.

ABOUT Dave Hart

Avatar photoDave Hart is the former executive vice president of corporate development at ServiceMax. Previously, he was vice president of global customer transformation at ServiceMax, where he worked with prospects and existing customers to understand and unlock the true value their field service organizations. Having started his career as a field service engineer, Hart has decades of field service management and customer transformation experience, most recently leading Pitney Bowes' entire European service organization. During his more than a decade at Pitney Bowes, Hart also managed the international DMT (Document Messaging Technologies) service group, UK GMS (Global Mailing Solutions) group, and national operations of Pitney Bowes Management Services.