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The 3P’s of Effective Field Service Automation
On February 21, 2016 / By Peter Purcell

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Field Service Automation

A version of this article first appeared on CIO.com.

The current economy is driving companies to mine value from key, revenue generating functions. The most value typically comes from reorganizing the sales and service functions while implementing new, efficient processes. Another way to find value is by focusing on operational excellence, which can reduced costs as a result of improved safety and reliability programs. As new processes and programs are introduced, many companies quickly realize the need to implement field service systems accordingly.

Field service solutions can eliminate paper-based systems and support processes while providing timely information to field employees.

However, selecting the right field service solution is a bit like hugging a porcupine. It must be done carefully given the impact on field employees! After all, field employees are the ones performing critical, customer facing processes that generate revenue.

How can a company confidently determine which solution will support field employees efficiently and effectively? Consider the following:

Process

Which processes should be automated? This question is often given little thought. Many companies assume that all activities performed by field employees can be supported by field service automation, no matter how non-standard the activity. As a result, companies often select and start implementing field service solutions only to stop mid-project as budgets are exceeded by a significant amount.

Field service solutions work best with standardized processes. Given the broad range of activities performed by field employees, determining which processes should be supported by a solution can be difficult. The most obvious processes to be considered include those that are checklist or form-based including safety incident reporting, inspection, maintenance and work tickets.

Standardizing these forms and processes across divisions and geographies is challenging. Create an inventory of forms reports and work flow supporting each process. Work with the divisions and geographies to determine if existing forms and processes can be standardized. Expect resistance! A lot of resistance! The business case for standardization should easily trump the “we don’t do it that way here” syndrome. A field service solution can be considered once agreement on the proposed future state is obtained.

Platform

Many field service solutions are sold as SaaS (Software as a Service) cloud-based software. The SaaS model is designed to help ensure reliable service without additional IT hardware or support personnel. The functionality of many SaaS solutions is based on the assumption that field employees have internet connectivity 100% of the time.

Unfortunately, expecting internet connectivity 100% of the time is unrealistic in many industries. Crew pushers, field mechanics and field service technicians often work in environments that are out of range. Only consider solutions that provide robust functionality in disconnected mode.

The optimal solution will download all the necessary information to support field employees as they perform day-to-day tasks. At a minimum, this should include work tickets, price lists, engineering drawings and checklists. The solution should also allow field employees to enter changes to work tickets, including pricing, as well as capture key check list items. Once the employee gets back into range, the solution should sync with the cloud. Local databases and software should be updated at the end of the sync process.

Pokeability

This new solution will not work for me! Put a new technology solution in front of field employees and the reaction will be almost unanimous. Why this reaction from the same people who have no problems navigating smart phones when not at work? Perceived difficulty in navigating and using a new technology tool leads to resistance.

Watch these employees in the lunch room on smart phones and you will see a lot of poking on the screen. Smart phones are “pokeable.” Menu layouts are intuitive and activities require few screens to navigate. Unfortunately, many field service solutions are quite the opposite—very hard to navigate with many screens capturing small amounts of information.

Field service solutions that support menu and screen simplification through configuration will be easier for field employees to accept and use. Getting to screens that support key processes should use no more than two menu drop downs. Each process should be supported by no more than two or three screens. Workflow should support approval processes with a minimal number of steps.

Additionally, one of the biggest mistakes companies make is selecting a solution that supports both tablets and laptops. Choose one platform or the other and optimize features and functions for touch or keyboard. It is difficult and costly to choose both. Think Microsoft’s Windows 8 release!

Remember:

Choosing the right field service solution to improve customer service must be done carefully. The biggest challenge will be process standardization, but don’t let that be a barrier. Expect initial resistance, but don’t let that porcupine scare you. Implementing a field service solution in the right technical environment can reduce costs and increase efficiencies, all with the greatest ease of use.