As one generation of field service technicians nears retirement, industry leaders are facing a talent crunch as they look to attract and retain new workers with the right mix of hard and soft skills.

To learn more about how field service executives make these strategic hires, we spoke with Steve Nava, director of North American technical operations at Luminex, an Austin, Texas-based biotechnology firm specializing in molecular diagnostic testing equipment. Nava manages a team of 26 technicians who service an array of cutting-edge equipment in academic, government and clinical laboratories. Here, he discusses the challenge of staffing and managing remote teams, why the military is a wellspring of talent —and why, even with complex medical equipment, soft skills are in high demand.

What do you look for when hiring field service techs to fix high-tech medical equipment?

Steve Nava, Luminex

Steve Nava

Steve Nava: There are three main things I look for in candidates. The first is a solid general technical skillset, but this isn’t necessarily specific to servicing medical equipment. Industry experience is a plus, but it’s not required. Next, I look at a candidate’s critical thinking and logic skills and their ability to troubleshoot problems on the fly. The third piece, which is the most difficult to find and quantify, is someone who has a hardwired customer-first attitude and can make customers feel valued and loyal toward us.

Where do you find employees with the right blend of customer service skills and technical aptitude?

We look at military veterans very closely. We also recruit college and technical school graduates. A lot of my recruiting is done by word of mouth, too. Field service is somewhat incestuous — you don’t see a ton of churn, but you do hear a lot of the same names mentioned of people wanting to move onto a bigger company or vice versa.

How do you evaluate someone’s customer service abilities?

When I’m doing an interview, I gear the questions towards their soft skills. I like to ask about a candidate’s first job, or a job that isn’t on their resume, to get a sense of their personal story.

Don’t miss Steve Nava speak at Maximize 2015 (May 13-15 in San Francisco) — Register today

The aging workforce is a big challenge in field service. How has it affected your hiring strategies?

The skills we’re looking for have changed. Before, you just looked for someone who could fix everything. Now, we’re looking for someone with a customer-first mentality, not just a “fix it guy.” A field service technician needs to know how to communicate with customers in their own language — in biomedical labs, particularly, the people who work with our instruments are in their own little world. Being a successful tech means being able to really understand their needs.

What is the biggest challenge that leaders face in running a field service team today?

Field service managers have to be very strong at running remote teams. It’s a very different experience from managing people who are in the office with you. Field service teams don’t typically have regular Friday night happy hours or a softball league where everyone can catch up. And many technicians are working alone in a particular city. We exploit every avenue of technology to stay connected, from webinars to internal messaging systems and even Apple’s FaceTime.

Don’t miss Steve Nava’s presentation at Maximize 2015 —the biggest field service event of the year — on May 13-15, 2015 in San Francisco, CA. Register today.

ABOUT Preeti Upadhyaya

Avatar photoPreeti is a multimedia journalist with expertise in technology, economics and markets reporting. Her work has been featured on Marketplace, Chicago Public Radio, MarketWatch, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. Preeti has a M.S. in advanced business reporting from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.