Written by 6:00 pm Service Leadership, Service Operations

The power of the field service engineer… (if he’s allowed to think for himself)

The field service engineer fulfils a unique role in an organisation – directly interacting with customers more than most people within the company. However, the need to reduce overheads is a driver impacting organisations. Reducing the cost of service technicians, by recruiting less trained individuals for example, can enable the business to provide service at a lower price.

Over the last few years this approach has been adopted by many after sales support organisations, but as a result questions have been raised over the quality of service provision. For example, a recent study reveals that just 42 per cent of service organisations have consistent SLA processes in place[1]. One concern being raised against the quality of service provision is the lack of business intelligence being in the field. A recent report found that just 33 per cent of organisations have a business intelligence initiative which has been in place for more than two years[2].

One track mind in the field

Martin Rulton, technical operations director at Centrex Services explains the disparity shown when it comes to intelligence being demonstrated in the field, “When a system goes wrong, often the fix will go as it should. Problems arise however when the issue is non standard, such as an unpredictable error that an engineer is unfamiliar with.

“When faced with these types of problems some field service engineers refuse to present a fix. Sometimes they just don’t have the skills to provide a solution, so shirk the responsibility.”

Some commentators suggest that a throw-away culture, so prevalent in the years leading up to the economic crash, meant that skills to repair electronic items were not in high demand, and so began to diminish.

Martin comments, “One of the major causes of current SLA failure is a result of an environment that did not call for highly skilled engineers and technicians.

“Many industries have de-skilled their workforces as a result and this is hampering the service efficiency of organisations and their ability to provide a differentiated experience, which is crucial to meeting increasing customer expectations from SLAs.”

Action is the measure of intelligence

Recent research suggests that one of the biggest complaints against service companies is the length of time it can take to fix issues from a field service standpoint[3].

Martin explains, “The length of time repairs can take is a serious industry problem. It can be related to an engineer’s lack of technical know how, or unscrupulous after-sales support companies looking to milk issues for additional revenue, when they could be fixed much more quickly.

“This is the crux of the service failure mentality that blights the industry; for too long businesses have been content to under-perform within an SLA, because they’re maximising the bottom line through this failure. However it’s a short-sighted approach.

“If an organisation cannot deliver upon its service expectations it impacts upon the end customer. For example, if all the tills in one supermarket are out of order, most customers will take their weekly shop elsewhere, and may never return.

“If a problem isn’t fixed quickly by the field service engineers the company can potentially suffer long-term consequences, including lost revenue, custom and reputational damage. In the worst case scenario, it may even put an organisation out of business.

“On the other side of the coin, if a repair firm takes too long to find a fix, and I’ve seen cases where organisations take up to five trips just to get the right part, they may gain a reputation for poor service.

“Multiple repeat visits for a problem that could be fixed first time is unacceptable, and I believe this will lead to more companies taking their business elsewhere, potentially placing repair organisations in a similarly perilous situation.

“The industry needs a wake up call before it’s too late; firms must act to change the perception of service SLAs, or risk commercial underperformance and the real threat of losing customers.”

Intelligence is a solution that didn’t exist before

Successful companies arm their field service professionals with the technology to demonstrate effective intelligence in the field, and are able to perform tasks more quickly, serving customers more proficiently as a result[4].

Martin believes the need for field-based business intelligence is greater than ever. He comments, “To change the current service mentality within the industry organisations must put more power into field service engineers’ hands. Out of the box thinking is critical for simplifying the complexities of after sales product services. This is key to laying the foundation for long-term business success.”

Paul Barr, a senior engineer at Centrex Services, provides some examples of how intelligence in the field is being applied, “A fast food retailer had problems with its point of sale system. Staff would lean on the screens, causing them to snap off. Rather than simply fix this issue each time at cost to our customer, we produced our own metal bracket, which added support to the screen. Now they no longer break and the retailer has benefited from some major cost savings.

“In another example, a major retailer had some serious problems with the performance of its tills. We recommended a system-wide fix that improved memory. This solution made a huge difference to the business; with its systems operating at full capacity it was able to reduce valuable seconds from each transaction, enabling it to make more sales.

“We also worked with a supermarket chain which had ten damaged point of sale screens because staff were using the wrong wipes to clean them. Rather than fix each unit individually, which would have been costly to the business, we sourced and manufactured our own, which could be inserted into the system at a fraction of the price. In this case, intelligence by field engineers meant that the supermarket was able to save thousands of pounds.”

Thinking ahead to get ahead

Business intelligence appears to be an essential ingredient for the industry if its wishes to continue meeting customer expectations. Martin concludes, “The old rules are changing, customers demands on quality, efficient service, and value are increasing; they will not put up with poor service or quick-fix answers that don’t hold up over time.

“We must move our focus away from short-term gains and analyse where strategic value can be added. This is essential to building long-term relationships with customers.

“Our partners require tailor-made solutions; if one organisation cannot fulfil customer requirements, it is very likely that they’ll turn to one that will. There is an urgent need for a highly skilled workforce with the ability to provide out of the box approaches to problems.

“Organisations must allow their engineers to adopt a business intelligence approach; it can have a profound impact on service level delivery, which is crucial for the long-term prosperity of our industry.”

[1] Aberdeen Group research paper: Best Practices in Return, Refurbishment and Repair 2012, (April 2012).
[2] Aberdeen Group research paper: ERP’s Impact on Field Service,  (September 2012).
[3] Aberdeen Group research paper:  ERP’s Impact on Field Service, (September 2012).
[4] Aberdeen Group research paper:  ERP’s Impact on Field Service, (September 2012).