In an age of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, when smart devices are able to receive instructions remotely and provide regular updates on their status, customer service needs to be proactive, not reactive.
In other words, it’s no longer the job of the customer to tell a manufacturer that a particular product isn’t working as expected. The first they should know about any malfunction is when the manufacturer contacts them to say that they’re sending out a field engineer.
That, at least, is the thinking at Enphase Energy, which designs, develops and sells microinverters that convert the direct current (DC) generated by solar panels into usable alternating current (AC).
Since it was established back in 2006, Enphase has shipped over 8 million microinverters and, today, it knows how every single one currently installed is performing, because of the M2M data the microinverters send back, every five minutes, to the company’s back-end monitoring platform. Says Enphase energy service product manager Michael Majerus:
On the individual microinverter level, we know exactly its status and its health. We know if it’s experiencing any problems - an irregularity in performance or an electrical anomaly. In some cases, we can remotely fix it with a software patch or firmware update. In others, we’ll need to send a technician out. But we’re always one step ahead of the customer in knowing there’s a problem and taking action to get it resolved.
Proactive, not reactive
Enphase is able to be that proactive thanks to an integration of field service management applications from ServiceMax with its back-end monitoring platform.When an issue with a microinverter is detected by that platform - and has been validated by an Enphase employee - a work order is automatically generated in ServiceMax and despatched to field technicians. They call the customer, who most of the time has no idea they’ve got a problem, and a technician arranges to pay them a visit.
That’s great for the customer, says Majerus, but it’s also great for technicians, too. Each morning, the ServiceMax app on their iPad lists the customer visits they’ve got planned for the day, shows them the relevant work orders and also provides a diagnosis and recommended fix for each issue that’s been detected. According to Maidment:
They can plan their routes, arrange their calls accordingly and fix their own schedules. They can plan a route around, say, Northern California, hitting customer after customer, because they have the freedom to work in a way that makes sense to them. We’re giving them a lot of independence in that respect, but we feel good about that, because we know they have the information they need to be as productive as possible.
Most engineers now get 30 to 50 work orders in advance and are able to make three or four calls per day - sometimes more - and, because they come pre-armed with information about each problem, the vast majority of calls are completed in well under two hours. Necessary replacements of end-of-life microinverters can be scheduled months in advance.
Nor do they find the app difficult to use, Majerus adds:
We have one technician, he’s like our ‘problem child’ because he doesn’t tend to use computers at all. But even he’s getting it, because the ServiceMax app really concentrates the information he needs in the field and makes it easy to navigate. So, in the browser version, you have a ton of modules, lots of features and functions, but in the iPad app, it’s all about ease-of-use.
The ServiceMax iPad app was introduced at Enphase about six months ago, but the company is poised to roll it out over the next two months to a whole new team of field technicians, who’ve joined Enphase as a result of its recent acquisition of California-based Next Phase Solar.
The company’s iPads have cellular connectivity, so that engineers don’t need to rely on customers’ Wi-Fi networks and can remain connected if they’re working in remote locations. And when they’re really remote, and left without even a cellular signal, they can use them offline, too.
Using ServiceMax back at headquarters, meanwhile, gives Enphase’s customer service team deep insight into how responsive it is to customer issues, says Majerus, and areas where there might be room for improvement:
In ServiceMax, we can see timings for every part of the field service process, from work order creation and despatch to a technician accepting that work order, visiting the customer and completing the work. We know where a technician is at any time of day, what their calendar looks like and when they’ve arrived at a customer. All this information helps us to optimise the service that we provide our customers.
But the biggest impact, he says, is on customers:
They’re amazed when we call them and say, ‘It looks like one of your microinverters isn’t performing how we’d like. Mind if we take a look? When would be convenient?’ That’s hugely valuable to them. But while they may be amazed today, we truly think this is the future of customer service. In time, they’ll come to expect it.