Zero-touch Dispatch with Artificial Intelligence

As early as 1968, we’ve been warned of the potential dangers of intelligent computers and artificial intelligence (AI). In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a spaceship’s sentient computer, HAL, evolves from helpful servant to obstinate hindrance and dangerous foe. Such scenarios may be more far-fetched than the fears that haunt most humans. But they do reveal concerns about humans losing control to technology.

The reality is that automation is already reshaping the service landscape, with many predicting that numerous tasks will be supplanted by software, robots, autonomous vehicles, and more. Rather than fear being replaced by automation, technicians and dispatchers should see this technology as liberating. While automation handles repetitive, time-consuming tasks, people are free to focus on work requiring a human touch, like interacting with customers and making non-routine decisions.

What is Zero-touch Dispatch?

First let’s define “zero-touch”: 100% automation without human intervention. When it comes to zero-touch dispatch, this means fully computerized AI software manages the schedules and dispatching of field technicians. The only human involvement needed would be the oversight of a select few dispatch professionals. These designated dispatchers could optimize service schedules by giving the software basic voice commands such as, “Implement the emergency weather dispatch model for all Topeka, Kansas facilities engineers.”

How Artificial Intelligence Powers Automation

Automation of this sort cannot happen without artificial intelligence, which processes massive volumes of data and makes predictions in milliseconds to automatically make optimal routine scheduling decisions. Behind the scenes, models, machine learning libraries, and predictive software all play a part:

  • Models are the mathematical and algorithmic models that power the logic behind AI software.
  • Machine learning is a type of AI that enables computers to learn from historic data and improve the quality of decision making without being explicitly programmed. Machine learning libraries are the code bases that teams “plug in” and customize to suit their needs.
  • Predictive software encompasses a variety of statistical techniques—including predictive modeling, machine learning, and data mining—that analyze current and historical facts to make predictions about future or otherwise unknown events.

Examples of all this in action include:

  • Scheduling software that accesses historical data about a location’s weather patterns and adjusts technician schedules to accommodate for typical patterns (e.g., hurricane season), while prioritizing highly urgent service jobs.
  • A dispatch feature that determines—based on historical performance data—that technicians with less than three years of experience will require 20% more time on job sites. The software could then send more experienced technicians to priority jobs.
  • Dispatch software that accounts for factors such as customer demographics, service history averages, and task type to predict the likelihood of appointment cancellation. It could then automatically send appointment reminders to customers at high risk of cancelling.

What is the Potential Field Service Payoff?

While all this may sound good in theory, at the end of the day, organizations want to know how much they stand to gain through more efficient scheduling.

Consider this scenario. A large telecommunications company operates a fleet of 200 vehicles. Each of these vehicles is dispatched to two jobs a day at $200 per job:

200 x 2 = 400 x $200 = $80,000 per day in service fees

If the company applied AI software to improve the efficiency of its dispatch by 5%, it would realize a significant amount in additional profits. A 5% improvement equates to 2.1 jobs a day per vehicle:

200 x 2.1 = 420 x $200 per job = $84,000 per day

Multiply this by a conservative 300 days, and the organization would generate an extra 1.2 million dollars in earnings.

And that’s the impact with just a 5% efficiency gain. It’s no wonder many executives are so excited about applying AI to dispatch software. It may be the technology that makes it possible to run a revenue-optimized services business.

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Using AI to Match Skills in a Mixed-Skill Workforce

More businesses are turning to artificial intelligence to optimize assigning service professionals to the work best suited to their skills and experience without increasing the cost of service delivery or sacrificing customer satisfaction.

Finding the right person for the job is essential when you want to get it done the first time—and absolutely critical in an emergency. In industries from home healthcare to utilities to manufacturing, organizations manage mixed-skill workforces who need to be appropriately scheduled and dispatched to make their time productive and ensure availability exactly where they’re needed.

A wide variety of potential jobs and skill sets brings a lot of complexity to the equation of managing your workforce. More businesses are turning to artificial intelligence to optimize assigning service professionals to the work best suited to their skills and experience without increasing the cost of service delivery or sacrificing customer satisfaction.

The wrong skills bring heavy consequences

Most field service providers strive for a first-time fix every time. Not only does it make for a more productive workforce, but it shows customers you value their time. Keep in mind your customers might be taking off work or missing out on something else to be there for a service call. They’re depending on you to solve their problems that day, so you don’t want to let them down.

Without the right person or skills for the job, there won’t be a first-time fix and your customers will be understandably upset. Below, we illustrate the importance of matching the right skills to the right job across verticals.

Capital Equipment Manufacturing

Why the right person matters:

Capital equipment manufacturers build and maintain mission-critical assets for their customers, who rely heavily on the product uptime. Any downtime could be detrimental to the customer’s business, so problems must be solved immediately.

Example scenario:

The ATMs stop working at a busy bank branch, and customers lose their transactions. People are furious because they can’t access their funds, and long lines form at the teller windows. The chaos slows productivity and upsets even more customers. If the ATMs aren’t fixed soon, the bank could lose customers to a more functional competitor.

Utilities

Why the right person matters:

Utilities companies maintain living essentials that people rely on – water, electricity, oil, and gas. Any downtime interferes with people’s daily lives. More so, many utilities manage the infrastructure of entire buildings and cities, meaning several people could be affected by an outage.

Likewise, the utilities workforce is truly mixed, with skills ranging from infrastructure fixes to meter installs. It’s important to know who has what skills so you can dispatch more strategically. For instance if someone is not normally dispatched to a specific job type, but is closer to the job site and can read a meter, they could be sent over instead of someone further away whose skills could be used elsewhere.

Example Scenario:

A university campus loses power. Professors must cancel classes, dining halls shut down, and students can’t complete their assignments without a charge or access to internet. As long as the power’s out, the entire campus is non-functional. Many students who live on campus are far from home and have no where else to go. They feel frustrated because they’re trapped on campus with nothing to do, and limited by darkness when night falls. Not to mention they feel helpless, because as soon as their phone dies, they’ll no longer have easy communication with the outside world. Meanwhile, parents are furious because they’re paying thousands for amenities and education their kids aren’t receiving.

Home Healthcare

Why the right person matters:

Caregivers are responsible for the lives and well-being of their patients. It could literally mean life or death if a caregiver doesn’t have the right skill set to treat their patients.

Example Scenario:

A patient with a heart condition takes several different medications throughout the day. Each require different doses, and must be administered at a specific time. The patient also has difficulty swallowing pills, so the caregiver must crush the medication and mix it into the patient’s food. It’s important that the caregiver knows exactly when and how to administer the medication, and that they are highly detail-oriented. Otherwise they could give the wrong medication, or miss a dose, and the patient’s health could be at risk.

AI can help avoid mistakes

Field service organizations are made up of varying but complementary skill sets to handle all sorts of customer problems. It’s easy to send the wrong person to the wrong job—especially when you’re only human. Fortunately, with the right data and the help of artificial intelligence, it’s possible to optimize scheduling by mapping the right skills to the right job automatically.

You might already have a system where you keep track of employee information such as their name, job title, and address. To keep track of varying degrees of experience, log employee skill sets into the same system. As their skills will likely develop, make this an ongoing process so the system is constantly updated. You should also track the skills needed for each job type so you know who to assign.

Artificial intelligence can learn from this data and alert you if you’re missing the right skills to complete a job. Let’s say a team has to replace a utility pole, but there’s no one that can operate the excavator needed for the job. The AI will see that there’s a skills gap and flag that the job is in jeopardy. Likewise, data on individual performance can help service organizations determine who is the most adept at a certain skill. That way, if there is a high priority job they can assign a tech with more expertise, who will likely be more effective under pressure than someone who is just competent enough. And if your scheduling solution is AI-driven, it can automatically assign the appropriate techs for you.

In an industry with so much variation in skills and job complexity, mapping the right field service technicians to the right job can be overwhelming. But with the right technology and data, this process can be automated with greater accuracy.

For more on artificial intelligence and technology trends subscribe to the Field Service Matters blog.

Engage Your Employees Part 4: Technology to Foster Engagement

If you’ve been keeping up with our Engage Your Employees series, you know by now that employee engagement is critical for workplace productivity and customer satisfaction. But no two employees are the same. We all have our own ideas about engagement and company culture. So how do you accommodate for all your employees?

Well, despite our differences, author and behavioral science expert Daniel Pink believes most humans are driven by the same internal motivations—purpose, autonomy, and mastery. In other words, people work harder when they believe their work matters, and they have the freedom to deliver something important. Likewise, humans are (for the most part) social creatures, so relationships and good leadership have an important impact on their well-being and success. So even though we’re all different, by understanding and nurturing these basic human desires, we can improve engagement.

Fortunately, today there’s an app for almost anything. With the right technology at your disposal, employee engagement doesn’t have to be hard. In the following sections, we’ll discuss different drivers for employee motivation and show how technology can help with each.

Purpose

People are much more willing to work towards a goal if it’s something they believe will have a positive impact. So if you want your employees to work for you, it’s important they are in alignment with your organization’s goals and values. For instance, field service is about solving customer problems and making lives easier. Your service techs should feel as if they’re doing just that. They aren’t just fixing things, they’re acting as trusted advisors your customers can depend on.

It’s important that your company’s values are clear and that you establish a connection with your employees’ goals. Most companies have their mission statement or values stated on their website, but don’t make it part of the onboarding process.  Ideally this should be the first thing you should instill, before even training employees. And it’s important that these goals are visible and clearly defined.

Below are some tools that help organizations communicate company values, keep track of goals, and ensure transparency.

OKR Software

OKR, or Objectives and Key Results, is a management methodology that connects the employees’ work to the company’s overall goals. This software allows employees to set individual goals and align them with company goals. They can post updates to managers, give feedback to coworkers, and monitor their progress on a dashboard. Examples include BetterWorks and 7Geese.

Onboarding Technology

Onboarding is more than new hire paperwork and training. It’s about acclimating to the company’s culture, getting to know coworkers, and understanding workload. Instead of settling for a basic onboarding tool, invest in a tool that will help employees get through their first 90 days. For example, Namely includes a social news feed and organization chart so new employees know what’s going on in the company and who their coworkers are.

Autonomy

Most people don’t like being micromanaged, and feel better when they can accomplish tasks on their own. But to get to the point of independence, it’s important that employees have their managers’ support. Traditionally companies have an annual performance review, but that doesn’t leave lot of opportunity for improvement. Weekly check-ins with a manager are much more efficient. That way employees will know how they’re performing and they can work towards improvement or ask for guidance.

It can be tough to meet up in person every week, especially when techs are constantly on the go. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools to help employers communicate more frequently with employees about their performance. Here are two types of solutions to consider:

Frequent Feedback

Tools like 15Five and Engagedly allow for continuous feedback from managers. Employees can either post comments to their managers or answer short surveys to give managers insight into things like personal productivity or team morale. And managers can respond in minutes.

Coaching Tools

If you’re unsure of how to engage specific employees or have conversations with them about their performance, there are apps and software to help. For example, Awesome Boss provides employee profiles with information from their work anniversary to favorite snack. It even has coaching cue cards to help you have meaningful conversations with your employees.

Mastery

We all want to get better at things—it gives us a sense of pride. It’s also easy to give up on things that are too difficult or frustrating. But when we’re able to make progress on something, it becomes more enjoyable to do.

This is not to say that you should make sure work is easy for your employees. That tends to get boring. Rather, you should let them do the things they’re good at, but leave them room to develop their skills and aim higher. You’ll find that given the opportunity to grow, your employees will work hard to better themselves.

There are tons of learning management and gamification tools to help your employees improve their skills and learn new ones.  Examples include Workday and SuccessFactors, which have videos, quizzes, instructor-led training, and more.

Relationships

You’ve probably had someone say to you “keep your work life separate from your personal life.” In many ways, this makes sense—you want to be able to enjoy hobbies and time with family or friends. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make friends at work. In fact, having friends at work can increase productivity and retention.

LinkedIn’s Relationships @ Work study found that 46% of professionals believe work friends are important to overall happiness. Happy employees are motivated employees, and they’re more likely to stick around if they have friends at work.

Being said, encouraging collaboration and comradery in the workplace is a good way to increase engagement and retention. And there are plenty of tools to help:

Collaboration Tools

Collaboration tools like Slack or Trello, allow employees to communicate with each other in real-time, no matter where they’re working from. It keeps team communication visible, and in one place, so no one is left out of the loop. Field service organizations could especially benefit from these kinds of tools since techs are mobile, and not always able to meet up in person.

Employee Recognition

According to Gallup, employees who don’t feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year. Tools like Engage2Excel help companies create their own employee recognition programs, tailored to their unique culture and business goals.

Peer-to-peer Social Tools

Peer-to peer tools such as Globoforce and Workplace allow employees to connect with each other via a social media platform. It’s a great way for employees to give each other props and recognition, and boost morale.

Leadership

An effective manager cares about their employee’s happiness and well-being. They help employees grow and develop in their profession, and are there for guidance. It’s important to keep track of your employee’s engagement levels, and ensure that your team gets the attention and support they need. Otherwise, your organization could suffer the consequences of low engagement.

You should also be constantly improving your workplace and processes for your employees. Ask them for feedback on how to improve the business, and be sure to take action.

When you have a lot of employees, they can be difficult to keep track of. Luckily there are tools like Zeal and Culture Amp to help you monitor engagement levels and allow employees to provide anonymous feedback.

While there are plenty of useful engagement technologies out there, it’s important to remember that they are just tools. They exist to make it easier to manage your employee’s well-being and progress. They’re not meant to take the place of the human touch. Your employees should still feel connected to you as a person, and comfortable coming to you with concerns or for guidance.

For more on all things field service, subscribe to the Field Service Matters blog.

Engage Your Employees Part 3: Managing Millennials

Millennials don’t always get the best reputation. Boomers often say they’re lazy, privileged, ungrateful, and glued to their phones. But they’re also tech savvy digital natives who know how to use social media to the brand’s advantage. Oftentimes they’re the driving force behind workplace changes because they introduce fresh perspectives and new strategies.

Despite how you feel about them, it’s time to accept millennials in the workforce. With 70% of service organizations reporting that they will face a talent shortage in the next five to ten years due to a retiring workforce, it’s becoming increasingly important to hire younger talent. Unfortunately, millennials have the lowest percentage of employee engagement in the workplace, which means keeping them around is a lot more challenging.

In last week’s Engage Your Employees installment, we discussed the severe costs of low employee engagement. This week we’ll discuss the challenges of engaging the largest, and least engaged employee population. Let’s begin with why they’re so difficult to retain.

Millennials seek development

Despite the negative things people say about millennials, most are eager to learn and determined to advance in their careers. Per Gallup, 87% of millennials rate professional or career development opportunities as important to them in a job. One of the top reasons they leave their jobs is because they were dissatisfied with their career advancement.

For older generations of workers, this typically isn’t as important. They’re closer to retirement and may have already achieved their career goals. But millennials are the newest college graduates and are eager to get started in their careers. Most aren’t willing to spend their entire career at a single company because they’re always looking for the next step in development.

Millennials desire work-life balance

Just as millennials are embarking on new careers, many are embarking on new life adventures. Many are buying homes, getting married, and having children. As much as they care about career development, they also want to enjoy life, whether it be by starting a family, traveling the world, or just spending time with family, friends, and hobbies. With so much going on in life outside of work, this generation cares deeply about schedule flexibility. More than other generations, they want a job that will sync up with their lifestyles and allow them some free time.

Millennials desire meaning

One of the biggest challenges in the way of engaging millennial employees is their emotional need to fulfill a higher purpose. It’s extremely important for them to feel that their job has a higher purpose, and they’re not just wasting their time. Per Gallup, feeling like their job has meaning is one of the strongest drivers of retention for millennials. This might be because they’re fresh out of college and want to use their talents and strengths to do what they do best. Or it could be that they’re too young to waste time on a job that feels meaningless. Nevertheless, it’s key that this need is fulfilled if you want to keep millennial workers around.

How can you engage millennials?

At the moment millennials feel largely indifferent about their work, but there are ways to improve their experience. If you’re struggling with millennial retention, or suffering from the aging workforce crisis, try some of these strategies.

Plenty of perks

While you might think a raise would be sufficient for millennial retention, you should instead focus on benefits you could offer. According to Gallup, millennials are more likely than any other generation to say they would change jobs for a particular benefit or perk. They especially appreciate perks that directly impact their lives and the lives of their family. It makes sense considering many millennials are starting families, have student loans, and desire a work-life balance.

Popular benefits for millennials include:

  • Paid paternal and maternity leave
  • Student loan reimbursement
  • Childcare reimbursement
  • Tuition reimbursement

Flexible scheduling

Maintaining a solid work-life balance requires flexible scheduling, both in terms of work hours and location. This could mean allowing employees to make their own schedules and work from home if needed. It’s harder to offer these perks in field service because it’s difficult to forecast demand and your techs are already remote workers. But there are still ways to implement these strategies.

If you can’t allow techs to make their own schedule, offer plenty of paid vacation time. Or sync your scheduling solution with your employees’ availability so you can plan around someone taking time off. If your tech needs to work from home, as in case of paternity or maternity leave, they could play a consultative role to techs in the field, and assist them when they get stuck.

Development opportunities

The best way to attract millennials is by leveraging two of their biggest desires—development and purpose. Focus your attraction and retention strategies on delivering learning opportunities and career development. This way millennials are assured that their jobs provide plenty of opportunities for skill development and career advancement.

Keep in mind millennials may want to pursue independent project work, attend conferences, take classes, and join professional organizations. Give them the flexibility and resources to do so, whether this means tuition reimbursement, or time off work.

Entitled or not, millennials are here to stay, and they won’t always be receptive to traditional methods. Learn how you can adapt to this new workforce, instead of waiting for them to adjust to your standards.

Keep an eye out for more installments of Engage Your Employees by subscribing to Field Service Matters.

Engage Your Employees Part 2: Costs of a Disengaged Workforce

It’s not uncommon for employees to feel their accomplishments and efforts are ignored by their company.

It’s not uncommon for employees to feel their accomplishments and efforts are ignored by their company. As a result, a mere third of the United States working population is engaged. The two-thirds of employees who are disengaged, are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year.

In last week’s Employee Engagement installment, we learned that employee engagement creates loyal, productive employees and satisfied customers. The alternative, however, can mean severe consequences for your organization. This week we’ll discuss the costs of low employee engagement, and how to avoid it.

Let’s begin by looking at different levels of engagement. Gallup defines three levels of employee engagement in their State of the American Workplace report. Where does your workplace rank?

Engaged – 33% of US Employees

Engaged employees are highly involved in their organization. They feel passionate about their work and enthusiastic in their workplace. They are less likely to miss work, bring in more profits, and understand the needs of their customers. Because they’re happy at work, they drive innovation and move the organization forward. If this sounds like your employees, you’re in a good place.

Not Engaged – 51% of US Employees

Unfortunately, disengaged employees are a lot more common. These employees feel disconnected from their work and company. They lack passion and energy because their engagement needs aren’t fully met. It’s likely they’re only there for the job stability and paycheck, so they put in their hours, but they’re essentially checked out. They work for you now, but they’re actively searching for new opportunities.

If this sounds like your employees, it’s time to up your engagement game. But all is not lost, there’s still time to improve their work lives before any real damage is done.

Actively Disengaged – 16% of US Employees

The employees you should worry about most are those who are actively disengaged. These employees aren’t just unhappy at work. They’re resentful because their needs aren’t being met, and they act out their unhappiness. They have an aggressively lower morale and are much less productive. Not only are they not getting their work done, but some will even undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.

If this sounds like your workforce, you must act fast before it affects your entire organization. You might want to let go of these employees, and you definitely need to rethink your employee engagement strategy.

What are the costs of a disengaged workforce?

While engaged workplaces result in 21% greater profitability and productivity, disengaged workplaces have the opposite effect on the organization’s prosperity and growth. They can be profit killers, drive away customers, and bring down engaged coworkers. Let’s look at what could be negatively influenced by a disengaged workforce.

Profits

According to Gallup, disengaged employees cost the US $483 billion to $605 billion each year. That’s not a number to take lightly.

Disengaged employees take more time off work because they don’t like being there. This means you might be paying them when they’re not working, or that you need to call in additional resources to fill in. These employees are also less productive because they don’t care about their work. Disengaged field service technicians might have low first-time fix rates, which could cost you customers and revenue.

Brand Reputation

Remember that your employees are your brand ambassadors. This is especially true in field service, where your techs are likely the only point of contact with your customers. If a disengaged tech is rude to customers and leaves a job unfinished, they won’t be the ones getting the blame. Your customers will blame the company as a whole. And in the digital age where news spreads fast over social media, even one unhappy customer can harm your reputation and drive future customers away.

Co-workers

Just as bad news spreads fast and far, so does bad energy. If one employee is openly and visibly unhappy, it will soon affect the attitudes of other employees. Likewise, if employees are speaking negatively about the company, it will probably spread and turn others against the organization.

Don’t underestimate the power of recognition

Imagine you’re a tech who has been asked to cover the shifts of a sick employee on top of your already scheduled tasks. You had to come in early, your day is completely booked, and you know you’ll have to work late. Still you work tirelessly, and complete every job. By the end of the day, you’re drained and ready to go home. Instead of thanking you for your hard work today, your manager tells you to come in early again tomorrow.

Thinking that your efforts aren’t appreciated, you might not feel as motivated to work as hard the next day. If no one values your hard work, why put in the extra effort? Perhaps if your manager took you aside and thanked you for taking on extra work, it would be a different story.

Workplace recognition motivates employees and gives them a sense of accomplishment. It’s also been found to increase productivity, loyalty to the company, and higher retention rates. Not to mention, it’s a very easy way of improving employee engagement. It’s not difficult or time consuming to say a simple thank you. And it doesn’t have to be costly. Believe it or not, money is not the top form of recognition. These methods also work:

  • Public recognition – Give employees awards or certificates for their achievements, or even praise them in front of the team.
  • Private recognition – Take your employees aside and personally let them know you’re proud of their achievements. It’s valuable, especially coming from a boss or upper level management.
  • Customer Evaluations – Give your customers an opportunity to review the technician, and be sure to share any praise given.
  • Promotion – Award your employees by allowing them to grow in your organization. If a promotion is not an option, give them more responsibility to show you trust them.

Just as swiftly as employee engagement can grow your business, a disengaged workforce could poison it. If you want your business to thrive, focus on employee happiness, and show appreciation for their hard work.

Keep an eye out for more employee engagement posts by subscribing to Field Service Matters.

Engage Your Employees Part 1: How Are Engaged Employees and Customer Experience Connected?

Can you remember your last bad retail experience? Maybe you were making a large purchase, like a computer, and wanted to find the best one to fit your needs. You don’t know much about computers, so you expected guidance on which model to choose. Perhaps your experience was sub-par because you walked away with nothing. But more likely it was a rude or poorly trained salesperson who you were counting on for advice that left you leaving frustrated. There’s a reason the salesperson had such a big impact on your experience.

Research overwhelmingly confirms that there’s a strong positive correlation between employee engagement and happy customers. According to Gallup, the most engaged workplaces are 56% more likely to have higher than average customer loyalty. They’re also 38% more likely to have above average productivity. Why? Because engaged employees care about their job and customers, and are motivated to perform well.

Remember that computer salesperson who made you unhappy? He hates his job because he feels undervalued and underpaid. He’s been on his feet for hours without a break. So why should he be helpful to the customers? If he felt like his company cared about him, he might have done his job better.

If you’re in the service industry, you already know that customer experience is important, and you’re probably investing a lot in it. But to be truly successful with customer experience, you first need to invest in your employees. In field service, your technicians are probably going to be the only point of direct contact with the customer. This means your brand reputation is in their hands.

What does an engaged employee look like?

If you still don’t see the connection between employee engagement and customer experience, consider the characteristics of an engaged employee:

Contented

It’s no secret that if you treat someone right, they will be in a better mood. If you praise your employees and treat them fairly, they’ll be happy to work with you and help customers. If you refuse to listen to an employee’s case for a raise, they probably won’t be in the best mood when interacting with a customer that day.

Motivated

If you recognize your employees for their achievements and reward them for accomplishments, they’ll have a better reason to work hard and invest in your company’s success. This motivation translates to productivity, which means more customers satisfied by their service.

Confident

If you tell your employees when they’re performing well, they’ll likely feel more confident in their work. This confidence will make it easier to handle more difficult situations. An employee who feels dragged down might feel discouraged and question their ability to manage high-pressure situations.

Genuinely care about customers and quality

Customers can usually tell when you’re just using your “customer service voice,” or doing the bare minimum to help them out. The experiences that stand out are the ones where employees are willing to share their knowledge and remain with the customer until they are satisfied. Engaged employees take pride in solving customer problems and ensure they always leave happy and helped.

How to improve the day in the life of a technician

Hopefully by now you’re seeing the connection between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. The next step is to foster engagement for your technicians. Encourage them and recognize them for their achievements. Ensure them their opinions matter and give them plenty of opportunities to grow. It also helps to make their daily lives as enjoyable as possible.

According to the Service Council, these are the three worst parts of a tech’s day. Let’s talk about making them better:

1.      Paperwork & Administrative Tasks

Nearly half of technicians said administrative tasks are the worst part of the day. That’s because they’d rather be doing what they do best—solving customer problems. They have specialized skill sets and want to use them. Unfortunately, paperwork is part of the job, but you can make it easier for them. For instance, you can make the paperwork digital so they can easily complete it onsite via their mobile device.

2.      Time Spent Looking for Information

Your techs have multiple jobs to get through each day, and strive to complete them as efficiently as possible. It’s frustrating when obstacles get in the way, such as spending time looking for information. Keep a knowledge management center, or a collection of manuals, training videos, and customer information, accessible on the tech’s mobile device. This way they can easily access information without spending too much time looking for answers.

3.      Feeling Isolated

It’s easy for mobile field workers to feel isolated from the rest of the team. Most of the day, they’re on their own, traveling to customer sites. Sometimes they need backup but there’s no one around to help. Mobile devices can also give techs easy access and communication to the home base. Live video support and augmented reality wearables can also be a way for techs to connect remotely with an expert.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to stress the importance of employee engagement. We’ll discuss different aspects of employee engagement and offer advice on how to improve it. Here’s a look at what’s on the way:

  • June 13: The impact of a disengaged workforce
  • June 20: Employee engagement for millennials
  • June 27: Technology’s role in improving employee engagement

Keep an eye out for more Engage Your Employees posts by subscribing to Field Service Matters.

How the Internet of Things Is Reshaping Field Service Delivery

Service has traditionally been a reactive practice. Something breaks, a technician is dispatched to fix it, and sometimes the repair is successful the first time. The Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication are transforming customer expectations around service delivery, forcing providers to rethink how they do business. IoT-enabled devices provide ongoing visibility into the status of a piece of equipment, as well as a richer view of the severity and source of any issues, and the ability to make predictions based on this information.

The service organization no longer waits for a panicked phone call from a customer. They can proactively maintain equipment, replace components before they break, and use an understanding of asset lifecycle and usage patterns to inform future product design. Customers increasingly expect to pay for uptime instead of equipment, and define SLAs based on their business targets. Eventually, all service organizations will have to live up the expectation of seamless service and minimized disruptions.

Shifting IoT from Novel to Practical

Although IoT in field service is still relatively new, early adopters like manufacturers of capital equipment are approaching greater maturity. They’re leapfrogging other industries in terms of first-time fix rates and overall operational efficiency. Other industries are beginning to recognize the potential benefits, and we’re seeing conversations around IoT shift from wide-eyed wonder to practical next steps.

Utility and telecommunications providers are well positioned to benefit by making the infrastructure they maintain smarter and better connected. Consumer-facing organizations can better empower customers to participate in diagnosing and repairing problems. The Smart Meter initiative in the UK is a perfect example where mass adoption by consumers will force manufacturers to advance. A couple years ago IoT in service was largely seen as tomorrow’s problem. Today, service providers are eager to take action.

When considering your IoT strategy, consider not only the potential operational gains, but also how increased efficiency and uptime can be leveraged for improved customer experience and retention.

Getting Started with IoT

One of the biggest challenges of marrying IoT and field service is developing the technological infrastructure to capture, process, and respond to the data collected by IoT-enabled assets. Turning voluminous data into business intelligence will require service organizations to completely rethink their operations. If a machine can tell you an uncomplicated part needs replacement, will you be able to dispatch a junior (and therefore less expensive) resource to provide maintenance; or simply deliver the part to the customer by drone? Will you be able to do so without human intervention?

Will you be able to use IoT data to optimize scheduling preventive maintenance while reserving capacity for emergency work? In order to fully realize the benefits of IoT, field service organizations will need to incorporate artificial intelligence driven service automation solutions that integrate with their other systems. IT support will be increasingly important, as well as expertise in data science.

The Advantages of IoT Adoption

Many technologies hold transformative potential for field service suppliers, but it’s short-sighted to either hail any emerging tech as a panacea or wholesale dismiss it as a bad fit. With IoT, as with any technology, the key to getting real value is understanding which problems need solving, then finding the solution to match. All technologies evolve, and some fall out of fashion, but business challenges remain frustratingly consistent.

At a high level, here are some meaningful ways IoT can play a role in improving your service organization:

  • Reducing the cost of travel and labor by enabling remote diagnosis and fixes of equipment
  • Mitigating risk and preventing critical failures with ongoing monitoring and proactive service
  • Providing insight into usage patterns to better serve customers and inform future iterations of a product

The urgency around IoT adoption varies from one vertical industry to the next, but the cost of service delivery and need for greater visibility are universal concerns. The old business adage “you manage what you measure” certainly applies. If your competitors have a level of insight that enables them to increase the number of jobs per technician per day or reduce critical failures by 90% thanks to preventative measure, the business benefits are powerful and quantifiable.

Investing in the appropriate framework, infrastructure, and processes is essential to fully leverage the potential of IoT. It will require a massive rethinking of your operations and the role service technicians play, but will deliver measurable ROI.

Increased efficiency and productivity, and slashing the cost of missed SLA penalties, that has direct impact on customer satisfaction and profitability. IoT can deliver exactly these types of insights and business outcomes, and only service organizations that invest in IoT capabilities will reap these rewards.

Distributed Field Service: Marrying the Gig-Economy and the Enterprise

When college and high school graduates were trying to enter the job market in 2008 and 2009, many found themselves struggling to find steady employment due to financial crisis. The term “gig-economy” was coined in 2009 to describe how a labor force in short supply of real jobs would have to make do with multiple short term gigs in order to make money. What began as a clever euphemism for persistent underemployment has more recently become a concept that propelled companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, and Fiverr to great success.

Those who value the flexibility of being part of an ad-hoc workforce or never knew a steady job market (mostly millennials) are very comfortable with the model of connecting work and workers as needed. There is growing opportunity for the field service industry to benefit.

Using a Blended Workforce

An increasing number of service organizations are using a blended workforce to manage variable demand, special projects, or expansion into new geographic areas. The Service Council reported that 76% of service organizations have used a third party for service delivery and to augment their regular workforce.

A blended workforce enables service elasticity, expanded skillsets, targeted growth, and other benefits for service organizations. A utility company helping to connect a new housing development will need a crew for a fixed length of time and in a limited set of locations. A major snowfall leading to power outages will require a reassignment of resources, as well as reinforcements. Any industry that suffers from highly variable demand for service or covers a large region with few resources also wrestles with appropriate staffing levels at any given time.

The blended workforce is an essential addition to the service toolkit, but also introduces its own challenges.

Service “Crowdsourcing” Challenges

Subcontracting or outsourcing service work is not a new idea. It has been helping businesses expand and scale for a long time. But contracted labor in field service is typically skilled labor that either matches or complements the skills of the permanent workforce.

Is crowdsourcing the new frontier in field service? By 2020, The Gartner predicts 40% of service work will be delivered by contractors. To maximize the productivity and efficiency of a workforce—whatever its makeup—service suppliers will have to consider every option. If increasing the number of contractors and possibly free agents for service delivery is a possibility for your business, consider the following while developing your plans, and how each challenge can be addressed through technology, policies, or process.

Going from Skilled to Low-skilled Labor

Unlike pizza delivery, field service work is usually highly skilled work that should only be done by a professional. There is a reason when your satellite dish appears to stop working you call the provider to summon a technician instead of calling your neighbor. For businesses that want to distribute the work to a larger number of candidates, the quality and reliability of service can drop off a cliff if the wrong person is sent to do the job—and will take customer satisfaction with it. Of course not every job requires your best technician, and in such cases it’s unnecessarily expensive to send your top service pro to do something anyone, maybe even the customer, could do with just a little coaching.

In some instances, it makes perfect sense to assign lower skill work to lower skill resources, but the service supplier still needs to define and enforce the minimum skill requirements. Websites like Fiverr provide access to a network of professionals organized by skill sets or work type who are not affiliated with a single organization. “Crowdsourced” service marketplaces could become a safe and standardized way for companies to find and dispatch ad-hoc workers, to supply certifications and verify abilities, and to match skills to the job that needs doing. But until an independent solution is available, each service organization must become both the gatekeeper and manager for such a network.

Service Consistency

Does everybody do the same job the same way? It might not matter whether you put the peanut butter on your sandwich first or the jelly, but when things are broken and need fixing the stakes are a little higher, and you want predictable outcomes.

When large service organizations manage the transfer of knowledge from experienced to new technicians, they rely on training and coaching, and increasingly on remote assistance via augmented reality. A distributed workforce needs access to information beyond just the job site and basic information, but also regarding how to communicate with a customer, any standard policies and procedures, and definitions of success and completion for each job.

Visibility in the Field

In order to contain service delivery costs and remain nimble, every service organization needs the ability to locate the worker, track the status and progress of the job, and send other relevant information back and forth. Even companies that use their own field workforce still struggle with getting visibility and lose opportunities to become more efficient, effective, and profitable.

Mobility seems like a non-negotiable component of field service operations, but some organizations still rely on dumb phones, spreadsheets, and paperwork to get the job done. In order to benefit from the responsiveness and reach of a distributed workforce, service organizations need to invest in mobility to take full advantage of available solutions for workforce management. They also need to ensure their extended workforce has adequate device specs and underlying infrastructure (like mobile data coverage), or offline capabilities to take advantage of these solutions.

Brand Reputation

There’s a real cost to someone deciding to never do business with your company in the future. While Uber has recently been suffering from bad PR due to sexist leadership and political alignment, any bad news about the company used to involve a driver who had done something egregious. Even though Uber doesn’t consider drivers employees (something still hotly debated in regards to employment benefits and liability), the face of the driver summoned to your door via app becomes the face of the company for the duration of the ride, and sometimes beyond. Extending your workforce to include individuals presents both a risk to your brand and a greater responsibility to vet them for the satisfaction and safety of your customers. Any damage done to your brand by an ad-hoc worker could not only be irreparable, but also illegal.

Customer Privacy and Satisfaction

Leveraging a workforce made up of free agents increases the level of responsibility placed on the service organization to protect customer information and prevent access to customer data outside of the specific job assignment and completion window. Providing customers with the tools to share feedback or concerns will also be critical to make the experience a safe and seamless one.

Resource Availability

Outsourcing work is a way to extend geographic coverage for your service, but it will require ensuring that the coverage is adequate. Getting a car from a ridesharing service in a city takes a matter of minutes, but wait times can grow longer as you move further into the suburbs. This will force service organizations to consider which areas might be less likely to be served and set appropriate response time and availability expectations with local customers.

Managing Your Distributed Workforce

Like every aspect of running a business, managing a workforce continues to evolve as economic tides and attitudes to work shift, partly enabled by new technologies. Mobility and speedy networks have been fantastic enablers for the evolution of employment, especially in developing countries with limited internet infrastructure where mobile adoption is high.

All of this presents a tremendous opportunity for service organizations to redefine where and how they operate, and discover new ways to deliver great customer experiences along with revenue growth.

Look, no hands! How autonomous vehicles free up engineers to do more in field service

May 31 is “National Autonomous Vehicles Day,” a chance for the world to show some love to the cars of the future. Autonomous vehicles are increasingly present in our day to day lives and workplaces, and will only have a further part to play in the years to come. According to the Brooking Institute, a quarter of all cars will be autonomous by 2040. And when it comes to dealing with the current “Uberized” consumer environment, machine to machine (M2M) communication gives field service firms a great chance to stay competitive.

Autonomous cars’ inevitable—and eagerly anticipated—wide-scale adoption is undoubtedly going to transform the field service industry in the years to come. Here are just three improvements both providers and consumers will see:

Faster Service

In the field service industry, businesses can save time and money, and boost productivity with optimal route guidance for their engineers out on call. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and a proliferation of devices connected to the internet, cars can benefit from connectivity-enabled data streams. Essentially, the car will know the quickest way to get to a customer, or even let the customer know that there’s an unavoidable delay. In field service, when an engineer is late knowing the reason softens the blow, improving customer satisfaction. In addition, rather than being told to wait in across an eight hour period, customers will be able to know to the minute when their car (with or without engineer) is going to arrive.

Better Service

Repetitive and time-consuming tasks are often delegated to automation, allowing humans to put their skills to better use. In the field service industry, autonomous cars will contribute here too. If field service providers send cars with the necessary equipment direct to customers for a job they can do themselves, engineers get freed up to attend issues that really require human attention. Large and challenging issues that arise will therefore get solved faster and more efficiently, optimizing the engineers’ time.

Stronger Service

Imagine an engineer leaves a vital part back at base when heading out to a job. Frustrating, right? The result will be an exasperated customer, a loss of productivity, and more time spent travelling. However, autonomous vehicles can allay many of these issues and make for a stronger end user experience. A fleet of autonomous vehicles provides fantastic backup in case of human error, ensuring that engineers can carry out a first-time fix.

Tackling customer expectation in the field service industry is no mean feat, especially with the continued increase in demand for great customer service. There are various issues to overcome before the rollout of autonomous vehicles across the board, namely addressing concerns over security and precedent. This is new territory, and providers are wary of failures propagating a lack of customer confidence.

However, with recent news announcing that autonomous vehicles are being tested on public roads, autonomous vehicles aren’t going to disappear. The benefits are exciting for everyone in the industry, as well as customers. Faster, better, and stronger experiences will come in the wake of driverless vehicles, so hands-free cars will ultimately allow for a more hands-on field service offering for consumers.

For more field service management trends and tips, visit the Field Service Matters blog.

Hidden Figures and Automation Anxiety

With today’s technology resembling a scene out of ‘The Jetsons’ and innovation happening at the speed of light, there is concern that automation will eliminate jobs, or even supplant the human race. While the opportunity provided by innovation is boundless, let’s step back for a moment and consider the current situation.

The concern about the impact technology will have on jobs is as old as technology itself—if you’ve seen the new Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, then you know that in 1957 people worried that computers posed a threat to their jobs. If you haven’t caught the film, it tells the true story of three extraordinary African American women—NASA’s human “computers”—whose brilliant calculations helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit. So when NASA adopts technology in the form of the newest IBM mainframe, an underlying but not-so-subtle theme is the threat that the human computers would be replaced by machines. But even then, it was clear that computers were not worth much without human programming skills.

While debated back and forth regularly, there’s no simple answer; we’d need a crystal ball to determine what the future holds but to date, innovation has not led to a rising trend in unemployment. Sure, online banking and ATMs have reduced the need for tellers in banks, but other factors have resulted in an increase in staff needed to sell and support financial services products. And that’s just one example of the grey area.

The topic of automation, jobs and the future of work was discussed by a panel facilitated byMcKinsey Global Institute. Reid Hoffman, cofounder and former executive chairman at LinkedIn explains, “If you look at most of the automation, it comes down to man–machine combinations. And all productivity means is that when you have productivity increases, each person is doing more. And therefore, the unit—the number of people to do this amount of work—goes down, right? But that then creates resources for doing other work.” And the ‘other work’ means that people might need to shift skills and remain open to the possibility that their jobs may change.

But one fact remains the same: thanks to innovation and changing consumer demands, transactionality is dead and there exists one critical differentiator between success and failure – customer experience. Is great customer experience even possible in a fully automated society?

Not anytime soon, according to government insights. In 2016, The Administration’s Report on the Future of Artificial Intelligence that appeared on the White House blog reported, “Although it is very unlikely that machines will exhibit broadly-applicable intelligence comparable to or exceeding that of humans in the next 20 years, experts forecast that rapid progress in the field of specialized AI will continue, with machines reaching and exceeding human performance on an increasing number of tasks.” Twenty years gives us an entire generation to determine and adapt to the inevitable new world order.

There’s no doubt that technology is becoming faster, smarter, better – but to-date there’s no technology that is not powered, at least initially, by a human mind. The promise of self-driving cars is all the rage, but experts maintain that fully-autonomous cars won’t be ready for 15 to 20 years and even then its potential is unknown. While it sounds transformational, for example, for companies with delivery services, the question that remains is who will walk the item to the door? This is just one example of where technology without human intervention is not yet a panacea.

Keeping up with innovation in the workplace

Recent reports allege that Amazon is developing grocery stores that will be operated by robots and have a maximum of 10 human employees at each location. While the grocery industry is not untouched by automation—self-checkout allows shoppers to avoid cashiers— its future is grim, and some major retailers have removed the machines from their stores. How Amazon will fare is anyone’s guess—but what Amazon relies on for its successful business model is the expectation that it will deliver great customer experience to its audience. Interacting with robots might be cool at first, but people relate to people, especially when making purchases in retail or understanding the justification for the price when the HVAC technician fixes your furnace.

There are varying ways to think about the impact of automation on jobs. If you’re worried, let’s consider a few ways to work with it:

  • New tech requires new skills. The protagonists in Hidden Figures found ways to prove their value by shifting their skills and developing new ones. People in 2017 should do the same. Be aware of your environment and strive to keep up with all new tech introduced in your workplace. Continuously hone and develop your skills; become as indispensable as possible.
  • Technology has no feelings. Many jobs, by their very nature, require human emotion, which cannot be programmed into a machine. From doctors and nurses to artists and writers; the world will always have a need for compassion, empathy, trust and personality. Social skills cannot be emulated by machines, and will always be necessary for many jobs.
  • Embrace technology, don’t fear it. While it may seem intimidating when new technology is introduced in the workplace, the best way to approach it is to be curious about it. What is its use? Do people need training? Can you learn everything there is to know about it and position yourself as the go-to person for the tool or solution?

It’s safe to say that innovation is going to continue to mature in ways we can’t predict and some jobs will change and be eliminated as a result. But the individual susceptibility of any job to being replaced will vary. Even as innovation continues to accelerate, it’s highly unlikely that our society will ever seek to automate the entire human workforce. People continue to mature alongside their technology, and some of what we bring to the table will always remain just out of a machine’s reach.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on CustomerThink.