Leveraging Mobility to Reinvent Field Service

Enterprise application vendors began touting mobile capabilities for field service a decade ago, with wireless access protocol applications delivered by several CRM vendors as early as the late 1990s. The user interfaces were clunky, the functionality thin, but it was true innovation to have service employees suddenly able to complete transactions in real time from their car or a customer site. Many analysts, including this one, touted mobile access to enterprise content as "the next big thing," but years passed with little adoption and zero reference customers.

To drive greater adoption, mobile field service tools had to evolve beyond just putting applications on smartphone browsers. Some actual improvements to processes, productivity, and operating costs were required. Today we see field service automation vendors providing rich mobile applications, including native smartphone and tablet applications. Field service organizations looking to take the next leap in productivity and margin improvements must accelerate investments in mobile technology.

When building the business case for mobile enablement, look for return on investment in these four areas:

Productivity improvements. With mobile access to enterprise content and knowledge bases, field technicians can check part inventory in real time, access knowledge bases and online diagnostics while at the customer site, and even collaborate with a global team using discussion forums or other social media channels to solve complex problems. The cost savings from these "knowledge anywhere" capabilities include less customer downtime, shorter on-site appointments, and more issues resolved on the first visit.

Improvements to accuracy. Traditionally, field technicians would log all of the work performed that day from memory or notes taken throughout the shift. Mobile applications provide a more accurate audit trail by recording exactly what time a technician arrives on-site or when a repair is completed, as well as more accurate recording of parts, labor utilization and travel, and expense records. This accuracy can come in very handy when reporting on adherence to service-level agreements for response time or resolution time, as well as for accurate billing and inventory management, requiring integration to back-office/enterprise resource planning ERP systems.

Push versus pull scheduling.Today, most field service agents receive their appointment schedule at the beginning of the day, i.e., the schedule is "pushed" to them at the start of their shift. With a wireless-enabled workforce, schedules can be changed throughout the day, so as technicians finish one job, the next appointment can be dynamically determined based on any number of criteria: current location, skill set, customer value, parts availability, etc. If an emergency situation arises with a priority customer, the next available field technician can be dispatched to that customer without contacting every field person to juggle schedules. Appointment schedules may evolve throughout the day and technicians can "pull" assignments in real time.

Intelligent routing. One of the hottest features in mobile field service technology is leveraging global positioning system (GPS) integration. The GPS location software, using either a tracking device mounted to a field vehicle or even the GPS tracking feature in a smartphone, can identify the current location of a field agent and provide updated driving directions, or identify the closest agent for a pending appointment. Additionally, routing instructions can use current traffic conditions to help field techs make it to the next appointment as quickly as possible.

In addition to these ROI factors, TSIA data shows that field service technicians can be very successful in selling additional products and services to customers since they are face to face and have established some level of trust. With this intimacy, it makes sense for the field tech to suggest training classes, preventative maintenance options, upcoming conferences, etc. One of the key barriers TSIA members identified to successful field service selling was an inability to close the deal in real time—collecting an approval signature, accepting payment on-site, and processing the transaction immediately.

Wireless devices solve this problem, not only by allowing field technicians to finalize the deal and accept a signature and payment, but also by leveraging offer management software to identify selling opportunities. These systems allow unlimited offers to be stored and associated with particular products or known problems. Over time, the system "learns" when an offer is likely to be most effective and will prompt the agent when an existing offer applies to an interaction, factoring in the products purchased, the reason for the call, the customer's environment and purchase history, etc.

Beyond mobile automation, field service organizations should also evaluate a new breed of video streaming tools coming to market. At a recent TSIA conference, one partner demonstrated a small drone with a built-in video camera that can fly to inaccessible areas to take a look at a problem—think the side of an offshore oil rig or hard-to-reach HVAC roof system. Another TSIA partner offers small earpieces with an embedded video camera, allowing novice field technicians to be walked through repairs in the field by senior techs at headquarters.

Early entrants to the mobile field service market are now publishing success stories and best practices, and new tools are emerging frequently. If you haven't invested in mobile field service tools, now is the time to start the planning to be included in your 2014 budget. Leverage these ROI factors to build the business case, and then look forward to the very first technology rollout that employees will be fighting to adopt!