By Steve Smith
July 6, 2016
You’ve likely heard a thousand times how social, mobile, the cloud, IoT and M2M are completely changing the field service management industry. And like us, you’ve grown accustomed to letting out a long sigh, and asking for some specific examples. That’s not to say these new technologies aren’t game-changing. They most certainly are. With predicting the field service sector will balloon from around $2 Billion to $5 Billion by 2020, there’s no doubt technology will play a huge role in the success or failure of seasonal field service operations.
But the truth is many technological changes will take years to penetrate all aspects of the field service economy. And with or without future technologies, there are some fundamental ways field service pros in the HVAC, AC repair, construction, electrical and other utilities industries can deal with seasonal demands to remain profitable. Because all technology aside, we’re facing an even bigger disruption in field service; a sheer lack of qualified field technicians.
The State of Seasonal Utilities
Without major changes, we will struggle in the coming years to find skilled seasonal workers, fulfill jobs on time, and keep customers happy. Take the HVAC industry as an example. There are roughly 450,000 heating and air-conditioning professionals working in the US today, according to IBIS World. Additional reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a projected 21% rise in HVAC industry jobs through 2022. With half of the current technicians poised to retire in the next 10 years, we will soon be facing a major workforce shortage. Simply put, we need to run our businesses more efficiently if we’re going to face this talent shortage head on. As talent thins out in the coming years, the following three planning tips will help you succeed amidst all the peaks and valleys.
1. Forecast More Accurately
Forecasting demand is a big challenge for seasonal businesses. After all, who can predict when the next heat wave or snowstorm will hit? But, some simple math can quickly solve seasonal fluctuations. By tracking basic account-level information month-over-month and year-over-year, utilities pros can forecast business-based patterns that will help them better plan for their highs and lows.
Naive forecasts, otherwise known as time series forecasts, are the simplest method for tracking and forecasting seasonal demands. This includes logging (at first, in Excel) fiscal data like contract value, date and duration for each job performed. Then, map one fiscal period to the next assuming things will be roughly the same. As you compare each fiscal period, you can begin to treat the calendar year in broader strokes, instead of months.
Depending on your high and low seasons, consider adjusting your fiscal year to reflect your business model. Pay as much of your annual expenses during busy season to alleviate offseason financial burden.
Of course, if you simply don’t have time to forecast, consider trying out some basic financial software.
2. Train, Retain, Attain
As discussed above, a primary challenge the field service industry will face in the coming years is sheer lack of talented workers. Which means an already complicated staffing game is about to get worse. Putting all technology aside, there are three basic human resources hacks that can help you remain profitable, and keep your business running smoothly, whether you’re installing AC units, or repairing a short circuit.
Many small companies fail to develop and document best practices. Sure, there are certifications for specific industries, but that’s not the same thing as training. You likely have a specific way of talking to customers and unique skills that have made you successful. If you can replicate yourself, your business will grow.
Take the time to document your way of doing business—whether on paper, via video, or via mentoring. The more you get this training out of your head and onto paper means the more your new hires can learn without you there to constantly coach them. This will ultimately speed up the training process, and get you back to running the business.
Whether it’s a summer landscaping operation, or snow removal business, the more returning talent you can rely on, all the better. Keep in touch with your staff while they are away. Send cards. Treat them to a meal. Most of all, find a way to reward your most talented workers. If you can afford to offer a pay increase for returning each season, you should most certainly do this. Especially if you want to reduce training time, and scale up the business quickly. For more on keeping field service employees motivated and engaged, click here.
Never get so busy that you don’t have line of sight on every aspect of the business. It’s crucial that you attain knowledge on employee performance, profit, time each job takes, and other profit makers and breakers. If you’re collecting this knowledge during busy season, you can use down time in the offseason to evaluate performance. Come up with a plan to optimize the business, and kick butt in the following rush.
3. Optimize Communication
No matter the size of your team and customer base, communication is key to overcoming seasonal field service demand. Track email, phone and face-to-face communication as much as possible, looking for ways to improve both customer and internal communication. Time is money, and communication takes up a lot of time.
Start by developing scripts for your field force. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, but even a basic script for how to deal with customers can help new workers stay consistent and reflect your business positively.
Next, make sure you follow up with customers. Sounds pretty basic, right? You’d be surprised how few field service techs and employees think to double check with the customer that they received adequate time and attention.
Finally, develop a feedback loop. Find a way to improve your communication incrementally. Use your downtime in between busy days and weeks to come up with improved communication. Use customer insights, employee feedback, and good old-fashioned common sense. Implementing even a few small changes each year will reap long-term rewards. And if you get to the point where your organization is too big for small small communication tweaks, it’s time to explore software options.
By Steve Smith
Steve Smith, senior vice president of strategic industries at ClickSoftware, has more than 15 years of experience defining and delivering mobile workforce management solutions for a range of vertical markets including telecommunications, utilities, insurance, home services, medical equipment, capital equipment, and oil and gas operations. He is also co-author of the book "Service Is Hard" along with Mike Karlskind and Alec Berry.
You’ve likely heard a thousand times how social, mobile, the cloud, IoT and M2M are completely changing the field service management industry. And like us, you’ve grown accustomed to letting out a long sigh, and asking for some specific examples...