Field service technicians need real-time access to expertise - and they won't get it from enterprise software vendors

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 25, 2018
Organizations say they need real-time collaboration for field service, but then don't put a strategy in place. Zinc CEO Stacey Epstein explains why this needs to change.

Stacey Epstein CEO Zinc 370px by @philww
Stacey Epstein, Zinc

When I first spoke to communications platform provider Zinc back in the summer of 2016, the recently-appointed CEO Stacey Epstein cited a prevailing pain point that the firm set out to address, which was the use within enterprise business of consumer messaging apps, like WhatsApp.

Flash forward to 2018 and nothing much has changed it seems. A recent study of 100 field service leaders in organizations employing 50 or more field technicians found that 40% of respondents are using such consumer apps for field communications.

Why does this matter? To quote the study, Effective Enterprise Communication: The Foundation Of Strategic Field Service:

This is alarming because these types of consumer applications don’t provide trusted levels of security, privacy, or central administration – characteristics essential for most businesses. When field teams need to communicate among peers or with corporate-based teams, having a mishmash of apps wreaks havoc on efficiency and user acceptance because you’re asking your field workers to bounce around from application to application to be able to do their jobs.

Moreover, these apps are only as good as the network of the individual technician using them – if they don’t have a particular expert’s number in their phone, they don’t have access to the answer. When asked what the primary form of communication is between the field workforce and the back office (i.e. management, dispatch, field support, etc.), 44 percent of respondents use email and 45 percent use phone. If these numbers don’t shock you, they should.

What is also notable in the study report is that a whopping 90% of respondents claim that they regard real-time comms as either mission-critical (50%) or very important (40%) to their field workers being able to do their jobs, while 70% of field service organizations surveyed admit that their visibility into field operations could use improvement.

Lack of action

When I caught up with Epstein this week in San Francisco, it was this seeming double-standard that surprised her most about the study, which Zinc supported:

If you ask, 'Does real-time collaboration matter to you?', they’ll say yes, but they haven’t put in place a strategy to address it. No-one will deny the value of real-time comms, but…

While most of the respondents had invested in some form of field service management software, that’s not enough, argues Epstein:

That sort of tech gets the technician to the door, but once he or she rings the doorbell, that’s that enterprise software vendor done. They’re great for scheduling and rostering and getting someone out to the right place, but not when the technician needs immediate real-time access to an expert.

Epstein cites a rather alarming exemplar to illustrate her thesis, pointing to a utility company in a storm-ravaged part of the US where a field technician discovered a leaking transformer. He’d never seen anything like it before and needed to get advice before he started to try and fix it. So he took a video of the problem and shared it, which resulted in the stark instruction from more informed colleagues:

Do not try to patch it! Shut it down!! Run like hell!!!

In that (extreme) instance, being able to tap in the wisdom of the (informed) crowd potentially saved the technician’s life. But there are plenty of less-dramatic examples that can be pointed to of the benefits of being to collaborate in such a way. One of Zinc’s citable customers is DISH, the US leading direct-broadcast satellite service provider, which has thousands of field technicians who install, maintain and fix equipment and services for customers nationwide.

As well as delivering its satellite TV service, DISH is now offering customer service in the home that covers partner firms, such as BestBuy, Amazon and Samsung. That, of course, means that the technicians who visit are dealing not only with their own products, but need to have knowledge of - or be able to access knowledge of - third party offerings.

So DISH deployed Zinc’s All Mode Communication Platform to 5000 technicians (in a two week roll out!) who now share information, send alerts, and get real-time answers from remote product specialists. That enables technicians to offer third party maintenance and support services that would otherwise be potentially challenging to execute on. As Epstein observes:

You just can’t train these people for every situation…[such third party support] makes the technician’s job even harder as it’s virtually impossible for a technician to have every answer to hand.

Too much noise?

The risk of a ‘wisdom of the crowds’ approach is too much ‘noise’, drowning out the correct answer to questions. To address this, Zinc has introduced a Hotline Groups offering which enables organizations to create more dedicated teams of experts built around a particular topic or technology, such as Samsung Services. Epstein explains:

You don’t want everyone asking questions to thousands of people. You want to have a group of people who can provide expertise and knowledge and for the technicians to be able to get their questions to the right person who can assist. That’s where Hotline Groups comes in. None of the desktop collaboration tools can do this. You can’t do it in Slack or in Microsoft Teams.

Of those firms that might be regarded as rivals, Epstein says:

We never see Slack, never. We do see Microsoft Teams a lot. Often it comes down to preferences. You get a CIO who’ll say that the entire organization, not just field service, is going to run Teams because the CIO says he or she doesn’t want to adopt lots of different tools.

That doesn’t mean that such a standardization move is going to meet the needs of the field service function. Epstein alludes to one organization where just such a scenario occurred, with Zinc up against Microsoft for a contract. The CIO’s preference won out and Zinc didn’t get the logo. One year later she met the Head of Field Service at a conference and asked how things had developed, only to be told that adoption among field service technicians was zero. Cold comfort, but very telling.

A question that springs to mind is why enterprise software vendors aren’t providing such Zinc-style functionality themselves? Epstein posits:

A lot of enterprise software firms just don’t understand the life of a service worker. They’re good for delivering schedules, getting work orders and so on. The product leadership from those vendors are so focused on process. It’s about, ‘How do we schedule technicians faster?’ Or ‘How do we track parts better?’.

These days it’s all about the Internet of Things and predicting when things are going to break down and getting technicians there on time. That’s important, yes, but what happens once they get to the door and need assistance? That’s when it becomes them using their phones to text their friends for help. The guy who saw the leaking transformer, he might have sent a text to his buddies, but would he have gotten to the right person who knew what needed to be done?

My take

Zinc remains an interesting company to track, with a clearly-articulated differentiator that addresses a genuine business issue and operational need. The 'CIO wants to standardize' point is well-made and is clearly one of the challenges that a smaller firm faces when running up against the likes of Microsoft. As I've said time and again, use cases, such as DISH, are the proof-points that are needed to be David to Redmond's Goliath.


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