Editor’s note: Donald Stephens, a veteran field service engineer at Xerox, explains the downsides of overemphasizing metrics.

Metrics, or key performance indicators (KPIs), are essential to any field service company’s viability and success. They provide invaluable insights into how well technicians and their support systems are performing. A management team would be foolish to ignore the data its techs log during the service call.

In my experience, KPIs are often used as either incentives or “hammers” for improving field technicians’ productivity. That can lead to a muddying of the waters in the data flow — corrupting the reports that companies rely on to set budgets, allocate manpower and measure effectiveness. I believe that companies should re-evaluate how they use KPI data if they are using it as part of their field service team’s evaluation and reward structure.

Here are some common KPIs that lend themselves to manipulation and might bear closer scrutiny:

The First-Time Faux Fix

Field service companies love to brag about their first-time fix rates (FTF) — and why shouldn’t they? Customers are loath to hear that their service tech has to order a part. Technicians despise telling customers that their machines aren’t fixed, while adding another visit to their busy tomorrows. Managers grow weary of harping on their techs about declining FTF rates.

So what do companies do? They encourage techs to fix the machine the first time by setting the bar high. Then they praise techs who reach it and chastise those who don’t.

The problem with over-emphasizing FTF as an internal metric for techs is that it can lead them to finish a service call without doing a proper job. Here are a few of the most popular “fake fixes” that inflate FTF metrics:

  • The MacGyver: All that’s needed to fix the machine are zip ties, superglue or some baling wire. “I’ll order the part and replace it the next time I’m here. Whaddya mean it looks awful? Works, don’t it? Yeah, I’m a professional.”
  • The Squirrel: “Well, we don’t usually carry that part, but I have a ‘freebie’ in my van for just such an occasion.” The problem with techs who squirrel away “free” parts is they invalidate other measurements, such as the level of stock effectiveness and asset depreciation.
  • The Ninja: This tech slips back in the next day to quietly install the needed part, leaving no trace that he was there. Don’t expect the GPS on his cell or vehicle tracker to stop him. Uber is everywhere and cellphones can be turned off or left behind.

Response-Time Manipulation

Another metric companies love to brag about is how quickly they can get a service tech in front of the customer. In the old days, all a tech needed to do was perform a little reporting magic and a four-hour response time shrank to two hours, just by manipulating a few numbers. Thanks to GPS tracking, techs must now resort to more creative measures to trim the timetable.

Putting the onus solely on the backs of technicians, via a reward/punishment model, will only foster unreliable data.

Sending out someone who isn’t trained on the product in question is one tactic to stop the clock. Another? Leaving the current call incomplete for a made-up reason. Both maneuvers will shorten response times, but neither one is a good idea.

Tight-Fisted Fixes

Budgeting and expense control are essential to business. No service company would survive if their techs used as many of the parts as their hearts desired any time they wanted. However, if you make coming in under budget too much of a priority, then the MacGyvers will begin to multiply and ongoing maintenance will suffer.

The Right Way to Use KPIs

The thing to remember about KPIs is that they’re called “indicators” for a reason. A low FTF percentage could be a sign that spare part stock levels might be out of whack. Poor response times? It might be time to add another tech or two. It isn’t important which metric we’re discussing — what matters are the steps service managers take once they discover a costly or inefficient trend. Putting the onus solely on the backs of technicians, via a reward/punishment model, will only foster unreliable data.

I’m not saying that technicians have no role in turning around unfavorable KPIs, but there’s a reason those in upper management have MBAs. Managers should use KPI data to uncover areas of opportunity to improve the performance of the company’s service team.

When a KPI shows the need for improvement, it’s up to the decision makers to formulate a plan to turn the ship around. Real and sustainable progress begins when the day-to-day processes that technicians use produce numbers that a company can be proud of, while keeping the metric data stream pure.