Decoding the Service Chain: Dissecting the Links

In a world full of on-demand services, customer expectations are at an all-time high. Regardless of the industry you serve, you’re competing with companies like Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb that offer their customers instantaneous service and real-time visibility into delivery.

So how can organizations that deal with complex tasks and constant disruptions, keep up with customer demands and meet business goals? Successful execution requires demand forecasting and planning, creating a flexible schedule, connecting with the field in real time, and measuring the outcome to continually improve the process.

In the last Decoding the Service Chain, we introduced the term Service Chain Optimization (SCO), a decision-making process that considers the full life-cycle of service delivery and works best with automation and artificial intelligence. In this week’s post, we further dissect each link in the chain—planning, execution, and analysis—and discuss the tasks involved.

Planning

Whenever you’re undertaking a complex task—whether it be a building a house or throwing a party—it usually starts with some sort of plan. The same goes for field service scheduling. You must first determine the scope of demand and then evaluate and distribute resources accordingly.

Demand Forecasting

Building a schedule should rarely be done on the fly (emergency jobs are an exception) and won’t be successful without careful preparation—especially when there’s so much to consider. For example:

  • How many jobs will there be on a given day?
  • How many unplanned jobs do we expect?
  • How many technicians should be on hand to meet demand?
  • Will there be a lot of traffic? Or a big storm?
  • What tools will be needed for a particular job?
  • Where are all the jobs located, and which makes sense to go to first?

Before you can come up with a plan, you need to know how many resources (technicians, skills, tools, equipment, parts) you’ll need on a given day or timeframe. Demand forecasting is the process of predicting the number of tasks that will arise during a particular time period, and the amount of resources and time it will take to complete them all.

You might be wondering how, without psychic abilities, you are supposed to forecast demand. Look at your historical data to help make predictions (artificial intelligence comes in handy here). At this time last year, how many jobs were there? What was the weather like, and did it cause delays in the schedule? Were there a lot of storms or potential for emergencies? How much time and how many resources were spent on a particular job type in the past?

Once you can calculate demand for resources, it’s time to allocate these resources appropriately.

Capacity Planning

Capacity planning is the art and science of ensuring you have enough field resources to do both the scheduled and unplanned work on any given day. It’s easier said than done.

For instance, you could have all your field techs on call just in case demand peaks. But that means you’re wasting money on resources that you likely won’t use. Or you could schedule just enough techs for the planned jobs, but when an emergency job comes up you are forced to cancel on a customer.

The best way to cut costs while meeting customer demands and SLAs is to find the optimal amount of resources you’ll need through forecasting and planning. You’ll need to know how many techs will be needed, which skills will be required to complete jobs, and which parts and equipment will be needed. From there you can distribute the resources accordingly.

Execution

Once all the necessary planning is complete, you’re ready for execution.  This includes appointment booking, scheduling and dispatch, and all work carried out in the field. Let’s take a closer look at some key elements.

Appointment Booking

Appointment booking is the process of agreeing to a service window with a customer. Though part of the execution stage, this usually occurs days or weeks in advance.

Many organizations (typically those who use manual processes) offer appointments based on a number of pre-determined slots for a geographic area or time window, until all slots are filled. This way it’s a simple first-come, first-served approach. However, this approach doesn’t consider the location of previous jobs or the true availability of workers and their skills.

Think about it. A tech is assigned a job in the west side of town and his next job is far east. Later in the day he’ll have another job on the west side. Does it really make sense to send him back and forth when both money and time could be saved if he stayed in one area, completed multiple jobs, and then went to the other side of town?

Scheduling

Scheduling is the most critical link in the service chain. Up until now you’ve been forecasting and planning with a degree of certainty, but now it’s time to match real jobs to specific times and mobile workers.

It can also be one of the most difficult tasks, because jobs aren’t scheduled in isolation. You need to consider the next job, it’s location and requirements, the next job, and so on. There will also be in-day disruptions such as emergency jobs or customer cancellations that you’ll have to account for. As a result, you’ll likely be moving things around quite a bit throughout the day. Manually reshuffling is very difficult to do effectively, so it helps to have a degree of artificial intelligence and automation on your side.

Mobile Field Execution

Managing and keeping track of a mobile workforce can be difficult because everyone is in different places at once. Being said, it helps to maintain a degree of real-time communication with both your workforce and customers. This could mean updating the customer when the tech is on the way, or sending them a reminder the night before. It could also mean keeping in touch with techs via mobile devices or tracking their location to make sure they’re both safe and on schedule.

Analysis

The final link in the chain is where data from the day of service is collected and analyzed. Though it’s the last stage of the process, it doesn’t really end because the results are fed back into the forecast as fuel for continuous improvement.

Service organizations have been collecting data on all aspects of the chain, and applying it to measure key task types and KPIs. They are increasingly incorporating more data sources like weather, traffic, and customer demographics, and applying artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to get even more precise service delivery. Let’s discuss some examples:

Customer Service History and Demographics

Data about your customer’s history and demographics can help you predict the likelihood of a customer cancellation or no show. For instance, if the customer has a history of cancellations when they have an appointment slot in the middle of the day, you customer service team will be prompted to offer them an appointment time that falls outside of normal working hours.

Traffic and Weather Patterns

Tracking traffic and weather patterns enables optimal routing and travel decisions to save both time and fuel costs. For instance, if you know what time traffic has historically been the heaviest you can wait to send technicians into a particular area until traffic has died down. You can also keep track of how weather has affected travel times and traffic in the past. For instance, heavy snowstorms or torrential rain will likely delay travel so you can account for that ahead of time when scheduling.

Before you can ensure near-flawless service you must understand the service chain and how it works. Once you know what’s required for optimization you’re ready to take action. In the next Decoding the Service Chain we’ll discuss some methods to get you there.

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Decoding the Service Chain: What is Service Chain Optimization?

Every customer-centric business is ultimately measured by how it performs on the day of service delivery. But the day of service is just the last link in the chain of decisions made weeks, months, or even years in advance. And sometimes your best-laid plans don’t play out as expected. Disruptions in the schedule are bound to happen the day of—customers cancel, jobs take longer than anticipated to complete, traffic conditions vary, and technicians call out sick.

So how can you possibly ensure your techs are at the right places at the right time, while increasing productivity, delivering positive customer experiences, and keeping costs down—even when managing the unexpected?

For one, you must consider the entire service chain, or everything that occurs before, during, and after the day of service. Let’s dive deeper into what this means.

Service Chain Optimization

service chain optimization clicksoftware

The modern-day customer has more power than ever before. With companies like Amazon and Uber setting the bar for customer experience, customers today demand and expect reliable, flexible, and almost flawless service. And that’s not impossible to deliver.

In 1996, ClickSoftware coined the term “Service Chain Optimization” (SCO) to define a decision making process for ensuring an efficient day of service. It considers the full life-cycle of service demand, from the early stages of forecasting and planning, to scheduling and dispatching, to execution and analysis. And it’s meant to help you find the optimal balance between business goals and customer expectations.

It’s important to understand that all the steps in SCO are interrelated, and that missing steps mean service delivery could suffer. Let’s say a dispatcher jumps right into assigning work without considering how many resources are needed to meet demand or their available capacity. They might have too many technicians on a given shift, which is expensive and creates excessive idle time. Or they could have too few techs available for work, which would mean slower response times and frustrated customers. Likewise, without proper planning, a tech might find that he or she is without the right parts to complete a job—again, leaving the customer upset.

It’s not hard to understand why it’s important to consider all links in the service chain. Let’s  break it down into the three major stages:

The Months, Weeks, Days Before: Planning

Ultimately the goal of SCO is to ensure your technicians are at the right place at the right time, fully prepared to meet customer demand. But as the service day is full of unpredictability and variation, success is derived from what happens in this planning stage.

Planning involves predicting the expected demand on a particular day or week, based on past performance and many other factors. And it’s where you determine the optimal amount of resources you’ll need to complete every service call, without over or underestimating. Historical data (or anything gathered from the analysis stage) can help you make the right decisions.

The Day of: Execution

The day of service is where everything happens—from scheduling and dispatch, to fixing the customer’s problem and following up with a survey. Though a schedule may have been created days or weeks in advance, not everything will go according to plan. There will likely be customer cancellations, traffic delays, or emergency jobs, which will require real-time management.

As noted, the success of this day depends on the planning ahead. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen on the day of service, but you better be prepared for anything that comes at you. This stage relies heavily on maximizing your time and responding effectively to changes. So it helps to have the flexibility to reshuffle the schedule as new jobs appear.

The Day After: Analysis

We all know that service doesn’t end with execution. In the final stage of the service chain, field service providers must look back on how the day went and whether goals were met. And if they weren’t, what is it that kept them from achieving their goals? How did customers feel about the job done?

Because you can’t improve what you don’t measure, track your performance and use customer feedback to continually improve quality. You can also monitor the performance of regions, districts, and individual technician behavior to target areas of improvement. Although it’s called the service chain, it might be more accurate to think of it as a continuous cycle, where you feed the results of your analysis back to the forecasting and planning for subsequent visits.

Use artificial intelligence to your advantage

You might be wondering how a mere human can possibly optimize every step in the chain, make accurate predictions, and quickly reshuffle the schedule when something comes up. Fortunately, with the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, you can automatically optimize schedules and make accurate predictions in seconds.

Here’s an example: with a mobile workforce, it’s important to reduce idle time and keep technicians moving so they can complete more jobs and make as many customers happy as possible. AI-driven technology can take into account both historical and real-time traffic data to quickly choose the best travel routes to customer sites. By avoiding traffic, techs can complete the job faster and move on to the next.

Or consider when there are schedule disruptions. Instead of leaving white space when a customer cancels, the AI-driven technology can account for technician locations and automatically dispatch them to another nearby job. Likewise, to make room for emergency jobs, the system can take SLA requirements into consideration and reshuffle low priority tasks to make room.

The achievement of Service Chain Optimization is a journey, but with the right technology, proper planning, and analysis, it’s possible to deliver near flawless service to your customers. Over the next few weeks we’ll continue to discuss the service chain, delving further into the components and how to achieve optimization.

In the meantime, you can learn more about field service optimization and best practices by subscribing to Field Service Matters.

Visibility: The Key to Managing Your Mobile Third-Party Workforce

Businesses are always looking for ways to grow revenue while shrinking costs. An increasing number of field service organizations are turning to an external workforce of contractors because it makes expanding to new locations or services more scalable.  A ready to go workforce is much easier to deal with—and much less expensive—than onboarding new employees on a short timeline. While the benefits are tempting, outsourcing workers also creates challenges for the company that owns the customer relationship. Without clear visibility into contractor service delivery, customer service, SLA compliance, and the brand could suffer.

Fortunately, technology exists to eliminate gaps in visibility and make the third-party workforce nearly indistinguishable from the service organization’s internal workforce. The right mobile workforce management solution will allow companies to oversee contractor operations and make them easier to manage.

The Challenges of a Third-Party Workforce

The appeal of outsourcing is clear: you can save on labor costs, broaden skill sets, and it’ll be easier to expand geographically. If you’re looking to enter new markets or expand to new locations, it’s simpler to turn to local contractors instead of onboarding a whole new team in that location or area of expertise. And for businesses with seasonal demand fluctuations, it’s easier and a whole lot cheaper to outsource than hire a full-time team that you won’t need year-round.

But the potential risk to the company that owns the customer relationship often goes unrecognized. These companies put their brand reputation on the line when they allow external employees to interact with customers.

The management problem stems from a lack of visibility and control over the contractors. It’s a lot easier to manage internal employees because with your mobile workforce management system, you can see what they’re doing, and communicate with them directly. But tracking down contractors usually requires a chain of calls, and slows the service process.  And they may not have a mobile workforce management solution of their own, which slows down the process even more. Because of this disconnect in communication, it’s a long, inefficient process just to track down a contracted tech. If there’s a problem with the service, you likely won’t hear about it until the customer complains. By then you might have already damaged the customer relationship—even if it wasn’t one of your employees causing the problem.

The service organization that owns the customer relationship must ensure that the third-party contractors, in addition to internal employees, are providing optimal customer experiences. It’s a lot more difficult to manage a workforce that isn’t yours, but effective contractor management is possible.

Benefits of a Mobile Workforce Management Solution

With a flexible mobile workforce management system, both internal and external employees can be managed on one application. This adds a layer of control and communication, and improves visibility over contractors.

Streamlined Processes

The right workforce management system will allow you to manage performance and capacity of internal and outsourced employees on the same platform. Both parties’ schedules can sync to allow last minute scheduling changes and improve capacity planning. Likewise, you can give contractors access to real-time scheduling, work orders, and customer information on the go, so they have everything they need to deliver an exceptional customer experience.

This streamlined solution creates a more consistent process when it comes to communication. It eliminates the need for a chain of calls to get to the root of the problem because contracted techs can communicate directly with the service organization. For example, contractors can check in and out of a job site and notify the rest of the team. And if there’s a problem during the service call, contractors can send a picture back to the service company for more support.

Tracking Capabilities

Being able to locate a tech is crucial, especially if a problem occurs or an emergency job comes up. Whether it’s assigned to an employee or contractor, you can track the number of work orders completed, and know which are at risk. You’ll also know where your contractors are, which makes it easier to answer “where’s my tech?” calls, which as research gathered from our customers shows, amounts to almost a quarter of calls to a call center.

By providing customers with automated notifications via the channel of their choice, you can inform them of the contractor’s location and estimated arrival time so they can go about their day. And you can gain operational efficiency with fewer “where’s my technician?” calls coming into the call center. You could even provide the tech’s name and picture so customers know who exactly to expect.

Tracking contractor data will also help you continually improve the management process. You can track contractor adherence to SLA compliance to make decisions regarding continued partnership. Or you can leverage weekly work order performance data to uncover potential problems before they have a lasting effect on customers.

Challenges Ahead

No solution is foolproof. There are some factors you’ll need to consider before implementation. Keep in mind that you’ll be working with a company that uses different technology and has a varying culture and processes. Not everyone will be quick to jump on board to install a whole new system with a partner they aren’t working with exclusively. Here’s what you should consider:

Mismatched Technology

There’s no guarantee your contractors are using the same technology you are. While you’re using smart phones and an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, the contracted company might be using flip phones and an Excel spreadsheet for business operations. To use your solution, the contractors will need smart mobile devices.

This isn’t necessarily a monetary investment for the contractors. Most people these days have smart phones, so workers could use their own devices. But it might take some adjustment from a change management perspective. If the contractors are used to using older flip phones, where they don’t have to remember to check in or out of a job site, it will probably take time to adjust to a new process.

Asynchronous Schedules

Just as companies use different technology, they also have differing internal practices. It’s important that when it comes to using this technology, and working together, everyone is speaking a common language.

It’s also important to ensure everyone’s schedules are synced up. Each party is running a different business, so it’s important that when you do work together, you’re on the same page. This means monitoring everything in real-time to get the most accurate and up to date schedules and job status information.

Resistance from Contractors

The contractors you work with might not be on board with you setting a technology requirement for them. They might see it as something they’ll have to invest time in just to work with your team. They’ll have to learn how to use the product, and adapt to a new service process.

However, this solution offers benefits to both parties. It allows for more consistent scheduling, cost savings, and better resource utilization. It also speeds up the payment process for contractors by making the job completion and customer signature process digital and real time. If they’re fully aware of the benefits, they might be more willing to adapt how they work.

Outsourcing work doesn’t mean you have to lose visibility of work orders. The right mobile workforce management solution can seamlessly manage both parties on one solution, with real-time visibility. More consistent service delivery will improve customer service, no matter who is delivering it.

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Field Service Trends: Boomers & Millennials are The Perfect Pair

When you hear the word millennial, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Lazy? Entitled? Socially awkward? Tech savvy?

No matter your opinion, there’s undoubtedly been an avalanche of news about millennials in the workplace lately. Some of it is glowing with positivity, other pieces are downright hostile. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this coverage has been anything but helpful, when it comes to hiring and motivating millennials to do quality work.

According to Pew Research, millennials surpassed boomers as the largest chunk in the US workforce back in 2015, and now make up a full 30%. News flash: It’s time to stop talking about millennials like they’re a rare species appearing on Animal Planet, and time to start figuring out how millennials and boomers can work together.

In field service management, we’re facing one of the toughest, and highly opportune times in history. Our success or failure in the face of these challenges will be determined by one thing; whether or not we can get millennials and boomers working together efficiently.

The first challenge is our aging workforce. According to The Service Council, 70% of service organizations report they’ll be facing a pinch as they lose workers to retirement in the coming years. Second is technology. According to recent ClickSoftware research, customers have come to expect lightning-fast resolution, Uber-like experiences, and simpler appointment booking.

Are we keeping up? Not even close.

The good news is with their powers combined, boomers and millennials should prove an unstoppable force in service. Just like bacon and eggs, Starsky and Hutch, Han Solo and Chewbacca, we believe each bring something unique to service that the other doesn’t.

Here are five character traits of boomers and millennials that when combined will yield exponential gains in field service.

1. Technically Brilliant & Customer-centric

Brilliant may be an overstatement, but millennials are most certainly more technically gifted than their boomer counterparts. This is the generation that considers computer programming code as much of a language as Spanish, or French. This is also the generation that pioneered nearly all of the apps that are digitally disrupting business as we know it (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Facebook).

Boomers, on the other hand, have a customer-centric mindset and bedside manner that is seemingly lacking in their millennial counterparts. Boomers brought us the satisfaction guarantee, and were taught if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Boomers are also not afraid to roll up their sleeves, and get the job done right. All of these traits mean their face-to-face service skills are top notch.

If your organization was able to combine the technical aptitude of millennials, and the customer-first mindset of boomers, could anyone possibly compete with you? Unlikely.

2. Driven by Purpose & Fueled By Getting the Job Done

In 2016, Gallup released a study on what drives millennials; in this study they found that millennials who feel connected to a purpose in their workplace are highly satisfied, and likely to stay. Millennials are a passionate bunch. They want to feel connected to something more than a paycheck. They are taking longer to have kids, redefining what college means, and calling many social norms into question. When motivated by purpose, millennials are quite capable of achieving huge big things.

Boomers, on the other hand, are fueled by getting the job done. At large, work has been the center of most baby boomers’ lives. Getting the right job, being promoted, working hard, providing for a growing family are common themes among boomers. They brought the world Six Sigma, corporate efficiency, and working overtime.

That’s not to say boomers aren’t purpose-driven. Quite the opposite. But on the whole they don’t need their work lives to support a social, religious, or deeper purpose in the same way millennials often demand.

If these differences can be embraced, both groups will improve their service organizations exponentially. It’s time for millennials to roll up their sleeves, and boomers to embrace deeper meaning in their everyday work lives. In an age of personalized service, the need for both are self-evident.

3. Unconventional Curiosity & Decades of Experience

Many millennials have grown up learning to ask one question; why?

As the world has become increasingly complex across religion, economics, politics, and even media—a great many millennials who were raised amidst this chaos want answers. They don’t trust traditional news, and some don’t trust superiors in the workplace. While their unconventional curiosity is often demonized, we believe it can be harnessed as a secret weapon. Artificial intelligence, wearables, the Internet of Things (IoT), and big data are all reshaping our industry. We’ll need people asking tough questions, if these new technologies will work in our favor.

Baby boomers are the backbone of service, and bring decades of field-based knowledge. Which can act as a perfect counterbalance to a new generation of service professionals asking tough questions. As we explore new ways of reaching customers and technologies to optimize service, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

4. Social Online & Social In the Real World

In 2012, Business Insider claimed millennials would lose much of their face-to-face social candor, and all of their deep-thinking skills by 2020 due to the constant distraction from smartphones and social media. While we most certainly are living through an age of digital media over-consumption, the truth of the matter is much less severe than business insider predicted.

Millennials are incredibly savvy with social media, and this is a key advantage for service teams. Many customers now demand instant answers, socialized service, and online attention that only millennials can provide in real-time.

On the flip side, baby boomers have superior real-world social skills. In an increasingly digital world, speaking ability, and social candor are also proving a key differentiator in service. As more and more customers get fed up with call centers, being put on hold, and waiting six hours for a service technician to show up, these real-world social skills are more important than ever.

Service organizations willing to embrace and leverage both the social media-savvy millennials, and the real-world socialite boomers will win big in the coming years.

Increasingly, customers want omni-channel service, and each generation stands to give deliver service at unique stages of the customer journey.

5. Wants Training & Has Knowledge to Train

According to a KPCB Internet Trends report, among all the potential workplace benefits valued among millennials, “Training & Development” rank highest. Compared to many other generations, millennials accept that the world is changing, and likewise understand their skill set must evolve too. In service, we are facing the potential for a massive brain drain as aging workers retire. Why not leap at the opportunity to better train and develop a whole new generation of workers who have professed eagerness in the opportunity?

Baby boomers, on the other hand, have deep knowledge gained from years of on-the-job learning. Often times in field service, these technicians are the busiest because of their proficiency. Which means, their knowledge and skills are rarely passed down.

Sure, there will be communication challenges. Of course, pairing up millennials and boomers for training comes with the risk that they don’t understand or even respect one another. But, ask yourself—do we really have another option?

Whether or not you believe all the bogus news painting boomers and millennials as fundamentally irreconcilable, keep this fact in mind: millennials are now the largest group in our collective workforce.

If boomers don’t find a way to motivate, inspire, and work alongside millennials, the risks for field service are high. We can tap millennials to help us disrupt the service industry from the inside, or we can wait for them to come up with the next big app, platform, or digital disruptor from the outside.

It is the opinion of this publication that we’d all be better off with the first option.

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