What skill set will a successful service engineer or technician need to have in this post-pandemic world?

What skill set will a successful service engineer or technician need to have in this post-pandemic world?

In the second of four exclusive essays for service leaders authored by Field Service News, Editor-in-Chief, Kris Oldland, we reflect on the skill-sets of our future field service technicians and engineers… 

 

The skill-sets of our engineers have been changing for some time, however, will the way we approach service in this post-pandemic era see even greater changes in the core attributes we are looking for in our engineers and technicians?

 

To address this question, we should first reflect on our response to the first question in this collection of essays – namely, we need to understand better how we establish a firm understanding of how our organisations will adapt to the sudden acceptance of remote service in our industry.

 

Indeed, when we stop to consider what the core skill-sets of our engineers in the future should be, a lot of this discussion will stem from how you set up the balance between remote service engineers and on-site service engineers.

 

As I touched on in the first essay in this collection, the technology for effectively delivering service remotely is much more mature than many might think. However, technology is only one of three key pillars of successful service operations, and we face far greater uncertainty within the other two pillars, namely process and people. How we approach developing robust strategies in each of these other pillars will shape what we are looking for from our future field service engineers and technicians.

 

In terms of remote engineers and on-site engineers, there are arguments for both roles being more senior, and a strong case can be argued in either direction. However, defining these roles and their interplay is a crucial first step in identifying the skill-sets you will need for remote and on-site service engineers.

 

For example, suppose an organisation is moving towards an approach to service that is mainly remote-as-a-default. In that case, moving our most experienced technicians and engineers to a central location or potentially even from home may be more pertinent.

 

The thinking here is that without the need to travel to the customers’ site, but instead providing their experience to their colleagues working on site, a third-party service technician or even the customer themselves, the experienced engineer will have the ability to drive first-time fixes by being ‘dialled in’ when the less experienced engineer on site is facing a challenging scenario that they do not have the deep knowledge base and experience to resolve on their own.

 

In such a scenario, we see many benefits and a clear understanding of what skills we may need from both our on-site and remote engineers.

 

From a knowledge perspective, – those working in the field need to have a broad yet shallow knowledge set. They should be capable of working on and resolving the common issues on a wide range of assets. Those working as remote service engineers should have a deeper knowledge base, although potentially narrower – so they become true subject matter experts in their particular field.

 

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"An important point I have raised in several articles is that as we increasingly move towards a world of digital interactions, the physical in-person presence of an on-site engineer or technician becomes a hugely important customer touchpoint..."

An important benefit of adopting such an approach is that this allows for a path of progression for those engineers nearing retirement while also reducing the time it takes to get new engineers trained to a point where they become a productive part of the team.

 

However, other factors must be considered when exploring the skill sets required for on-site and remote roles in such a set-up.

 

From a soft-skills perspective, the remote service engineer must be a strong communicator and a patient tutor. This is important to consider as not all experienced engineers with the depth of knowledge will naturally have these skills, so further coaching, training and development in readiness for the role may be required. When we look to the field technician, good customer-facing skills are an absolute must.

 

Over the last decade, across a considerable number of studies both authored by ourselves via Field Service News Research and by other key industry analysts such as IDC, Gartner and Aberdeen, we have consistently seen the importance of customer service as an indicator of a successful service operation, now, rightly seen as necessary as technical metrics such as mean-time-to-repair, technician-utilisation and first-time-fix-rates.

 

However, an important point I have raised in several articles is that as we increasingly move towards a world of digital interactions, the physical in-person presence of an on-site engineer or technician becomes a hugely important customer touchpoint. Therefore, it is critical that our field service engineers and technicians have strong interpersonal skills.

 

There is a consistent train of thought amongst many service leaders that it is easier to train those with natural strengths in personal skills with technical knowledge than to train those with the requisite technical skills to become strong in the soft skills that are at the heart of excellent customer service. While, of course, there are those fantastic engineers that are natural people pleasers and have excellent technical knowledge, the reality is that the pragmatic approach of hiring for soft skills and training technical skills is perhaps the most optimal route forwards and also one that sits well with the introduction of remote service support.

 

Such an approach to balancing remote and field engineers certainly offers many potential benefits, not least addressing a growing recruitment challenge across our industry.

"Such an approach to balancing remote and field engineers certainly offers many potential benefits, not least addressing a growing recruitment challenge across our industry... “

However, let us explore another scenario that could see different criteria for those working in the field and those working in remote support.

 

Let us consider an instance where the service required to get an asset up and running quickly is more complex. Perhaps, an initial remote triage has failed to bring a resolution, and even with the support of a remote expert guiding them, the less experienced engineer on-site is unable to find the solution. The dreaded ‘no-fault-found’ scenario.

 

In such an instance, this is where perhaps the optimal solution is to get the most experienced engineer in this area within your business on-site with the customer to resolve their issue as quickly and effectively as possible.

 

However, if an organisation has transitioned to placing all of their most experienced engineers into remote support roles, how easy is it to mobilise the experienced engineer so they can return on-site to resolve this issue?

 

How easy will it be to cover the capacity they offer in the remote support team while they return to the field?

 

Will the engineer themselves be happy to return to the field, having transitioned to a remote support role?

 

Of course, none of these issues is insurmountable, and for many organisations, where the service and maintenance provided are less technical, and of lower value, then the situation may never arise.

 

For example, in the white goods sector, there is unlikely to be an issue as complex and causing a significant cost impact to the customer that might require such an intervention. However, in other sectors such as oil and gas, mining and aggregates, or aviation, such a situation is far more easily imagined.

 

One idea that I have been teasing out and trying to extrapolate in some of my work in recent months has been the concept of having a senior engineer spending time on-site with a customer not just to provide service or maintenance on-site, but also to provide the customer with the benefit of having a genuine subject matter expert on hand.

 

Perhaps the engineer could offer an on-site audit of all of the customer’s assets within his sphere of expertise?

 

This could provide the service organisation with an opportunity to offer genuine value in their interaction with the customer while opening up the doors for cross-selling and up-selling in a non-confrontational way, genuinely playing to the field service engineers role of a trusted advisor.

 

Reflecting on the emerging structures of service operations, with the balance between a remote support team made up of more experienced engineers and a field service team with that broader yet shallower skill-set we discussed earlier in this essay, then perhaps this additional role of lead engineer offering a form of consultancy-led service approach, could be embedded within the remote support team on something of a rotation basis.

 

The benefit of this is that it would also allow the capacity for having a senior engineer with deep layers of experience to be sent to a customer site in the more complex service scenarios, such as I outlined earlier.

 

Of course, there are multiple scenarios for each organisation. As I’ve mentioned, the complexity of the assets being maintained in your sector will also impact how you approach the structure of service operations as we adopt remote service more broadly.

 

The purpose of this essay, as it is with each of the essays in this series, is to prompt you, as a service leader reading this, to reflect on how the coming changes in our industry that we are seeing may impact service delivery in your organisation, and how best you adapt to such changes to allow your service operations to flourish in the new normal of this post-pandemic world.

 

One thing is certain, however, that engineers are more customer-facing than ever, and this is true across both the remote and on-site service domains.

 

Further questions for consideration for you on this topic:

 

  • A layer of technological knowledge, of course, remains important – but is a broader yet shallower skill set preferable or do deep-level, niche subject matter specialists suit your organisation more?
  • Perhaps a blend of both types of technical knowledge will sit in your organisation – in which case, what are the technologies and processes required for quick and immediate knowledge transfer when needed?
  • How will the complexity of the service you provide shape the skill-sets you seek in your service technicians and engineers?
  • What value does your organisation place on the direct, face-to-face interactions that a field service visit provides?
  • Is it easier for you to train technical skills or interpersonal skills? How is this reflected in your training, development and recruitment processes?

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