Editor’s note: Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. Below, the veteran tech explains how field service managers can get the productivity benefits that new technologies promise — without the distraction hangover.

Lately, it seems as if every repair takes longer than it should. Just when I start to get a grasp on a difficult problem, I get an alert on my smartphone about the next service call, a text, or a phone call from my boss or another tech. It’s important that I respond to all these distractions, so I often find myself turning back to the machine, scratching my head and wondering, Where in the world did I leave off?

But when I read business psychologist Tony Crabbe’s latest article in Quartz, I had an epiphany: many of the productivity gains promised by field service technologies are being negated by the distractions they introduce.

Any honest technician will tell you that they spend almost as much time looking at their smartphones as they do the machines they service. It’s time to take a look at the problem and make a plan to recoup some of the lost productivity.

Focus, the Apple Way

One example given in the article is a biggie. Apple is the most profitable company of the 21st century. The key to Apple’s success, at least in part, Crabbe argues, is its restraint. The company focuses on making a few excellent products, instead of a wide array of mediocre products and services.

Many of the productivity gains promised by field service technologies are being negated by the distractions they introduce.

Apple spent more than $8 billion on R&D in 2015. You can bet that all the top-notch brainpower Apple employs have come up with more innovative ideas than the company knows what to do with. But Apple’s leaders remain focused on just a few, iconic products.

I know what you’re thinking: Apple is a company — not an employee. How does this relate to field service reps?

It turns out that the same principle applies to individuals, too. As Crabbe reports, switching between tasks can reduce task-completion times by 40 percent. In the “run lean and get there yesterday” climate of today’s service providers, a 40 percent loss in fix time is not something to be ignored. The percentage might even be higher in the field service industry. (The study Crabbe cites references office workers.) I’ve done both jobs, and I can tell you that it’s easier to multitask behind a desk than in front of broken machine with an anxious customer breathing down your neck.

Tame the Master of Distraction

As I see it, the main culprit is that master of distraction, the smartphone. Sure, field service managers aren’t likely to let their techs use smartphones as skipping stones at the beach, so I suggest coming up with a strategy that allows your techs to prioritize fixing a machine, then giving their full attention to whatever important email you just sent. Here are a few suggestions that are based on my own experience.giphy

  • Hand off pre-screen responsibilities: Ask employees other than techs to handle pre-calling customers to give an ETA. If your organization is large, perhaps the customer relations group could handle this task. This will allow your techs to focus exclusively on the task at hand. When the tech finishes a job or takes a break, he or she can check the ETA on their mobile device, via field service software, and give an updated ETA if needed.
  • Or at least share pre-screen duties: If your company is too small to have a customer relations group, have the techs rotate handling the pre-calls. (Don’t be surprised if the pre-caller is the week’s low performer.)
  • Block time for email: Establish a set time (or times) each day when you’d like your techs to read email, ideally when they are away from a broken machine. A lot can be missed when reading a message while your brain is still working out how to fix a problem.
  • Create no phone zones: Require that techs leave their smartphones in their vehicles, or someone other than in their pockets. If the phone is within hearing distance, it should be on mute.
  • Be flexible: Occasionally messages just can’t wait until a long service call is completed, set times throughout the day for techs to walk away from the machine to check their messages.

Compliance will be your biggest challenge. We’ve all grown to love our smartphones and we feel incomplete when they’re out of our sight. This is why your best approach is to get the conversation going with your techs and let them tell you how annoying it can be to return emails, texts, and emails while trying to fix a tricky customer problem. Your techs will likely be receptive to the new rules — and you just might recover some of that 40 percent productivity loss.

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