Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. Here, he offers some hard-won advice about how field service managers can adopt technology without ignoring the humanity of employees on the other end.

Today’s service techs have more technology thrust upon them than in any previous era. Field service software directs them where to go, tells them how much time it should take to get there, what parts to carry, how much time it should take to fix the machine and where they will go next. Some might say that such automated direction is a liberating talisman, giving a technician the ability to concentrate on the job at hand — but in some cases it has the opposite effect.

Interruptions, unforeseen complications, traffic delays, defective parts, a chatty customer — they can all throw a monkey wrench into a technician’s computer-planned workday. And that can have a ripple effect that reaches across the team, making the unlucky tech appear as a slacker or a non-conformist. When the day doesn’t go according to plan, there is huge pressure to get the proverbial train back on schedule to meet SLAs, ETAs and other customer expectations. Nothing is less liberating than the burden of playing catch-up while trying to fix complex equipment.

Nothing is less liberating than the burden of playing catch-up while trying to fix complex equipment.

Everyone has pressure in their jobs, of course, but a field service manager’s leadership style can wield that pressure for good or ill, motivating techs to reach new productivity heights — or causing them to fracture and fall apart. I’ve experienced managers on both sides of the spectrum.

Here are a few techniques I’ve learned from the managers who are able to look beyond the technology and see the goal we (should) aspire to: a better human experience.

Expect the Plan to Fail

I’m not talking about a fatalistic or glass-half-empty outlook. What I mean is when a tech calls to tell you had badly the day went, do not say, “The system is never wrong.”

Instead, say something like, “Things never go according to plan. Do your best, and we’ll pick up the pieces when you’re done.” Your attitude during a crisis is contagious. A calm response, while acknowledging a computer’s inability to predict the unexpected, will go a long way.

Practice Management Yoga

Flexibility is key. There are ways to customize your field service software to allow your techs to adjust their schedules, and manipulate ETAs and travel times. If you are uncomfortable enabling these features, then you will need to do it yourself. No system can anticipate the 10-car pileup that’s left your tech stuck in traffic. When your techs begin to view the system as a flexible, intelligent guide that exists to facilitate productivity — instead of an unforgiving taskmaster —you’re on the right track.

Be Skeptical, But Trust Your Techs’ Decisions

The only thing worse than inflexibility is being harsh when techs make the wrong decision. They are human. They will occasionally make bad choices. It’s alright to ask why they handled a situation in a seemingly incorrect manner, but be careful how you respond if you don’t agree. Be sympathetic and instructive to show techs you respect their decision-making abilities. Say something like, “Yeah, I see why you did that, and I might have done the same if I were in your shoes. But here are a few other things to consider the next time this happens.

Cyborgs Exist Only in the Movies

Photo: flickr/Maurizio Pesce

Photo: flickr/Maurizio Pesce

I’ve had managers who only cared about the bottom line. There was no mercy shown for stress, personal problems or unanticipated situations. If I didn’t hit my numbers, then I wasn’t doing my job. End of story. This management style gets results, but it also has a very negative effect on morale and, eventually, productivity. Employees are less inclined to go the extra mile for a manager who treats them like a cyborg. But the manager who keeps technicians’ humanity in perspective will also earn their respect.

Technology will continue its advance, changing field service in ways we can’t imagine. But one thing will not change: the human factor. The manager who keeps this in mind will help the service tech deal with any new challenge that arises.