How many people have waited in for the gas engineer only for no-one to turn up? Or waited for the BT technician to fix a problem only to find that he was missing the right equipment? Or stayed at home for the parcel delivery that’s lost in the system?
In this time-poor era, those wasted appointments mount up. But the service companies themselves are hit in two ways themselves.
First, there’s the difficulty in scheduling appointments - one non-show one day could well mean two non-shows the next as carefully worked-out schedules fly out of the window.
Second, there’s the hit to customer satisfaction - no company wants masses of unhappy punters, particularly when those people have recourse to social media.
Consequently, field service companies are looking at ways in which technology can improve the process. Panelists (which included diginomica’s own Phil Wainewright) at a roundtable discussion in London on this topic looked at the current state of play in this market and how the future is shaping up.
The panel chairman Paul Miller summed up the problem succinctly:
In a lot of cases, a customer's only engagement with the company is after they’ve bought or experienced field service, for example, washing machines and tumble dryers. The product can last five, 10 or 20 years and after that time, you want them to buy another one from you. The thing that makes them feel good about you as an organisation is how you interact with them.”
This is where technology is set to improve the process and cloud is seen as a big part of that. For Wainewright, the cloud is a game changer. He argued that:
If you weren’t using robots in the 1980s, then you were nowhere as a car manufacturer. They were certainly connected, but not taking advantage of the cloud and the Internet that's brought digital connectedness meaning there are more computers in the world than there are people.
You’ve got all of that coming in cheaply into devices right into the hands of individuals, and with the ability to be connected up to each other and to computing power in the cloud. You then have the ability to pool it into a vast cauldron of big data and pop out analytics and information that allows you to have more efficient processes.
Click Software’s Tim Faulkner agrees with this analysis. He sees cloud as a leveller, enabling small businesses to have many of the advantages as large corporates, but also empowering business units in these enterprises to act in a more agile way:
It's an enabler for large corporations that look to deploy different methods. Maybe not the big waterfall approach, but a more agile incremental way in shorter timeframes.
But it’s one thing to have the technology in place to make game-changing decisions, it’s another challenge to implement those changes. As the London School of Economics Carsten Sorensen points out, all of the technology innovation in the world isn’t going to help companies that can’t adapt to the changing circumstances. And too many organizations, he said, aren’t geared to compete in this world:
Technology needs to be used as an aid to decision making, but we don’t know how to do this yet.
And this is where businesses are falling down. Sorensen thinks that the fear factor is holding people back:
In a traditional organization that thinks in a traditional hierarchical manner, there’s a fear that people will make bad decisions. We can draw a curve where the top 5% or 10% just have to be meek robots, to do what the procedure tells them. The biggest problem is the 80% in the middle who have some discretion but can’t act entirely on their own.
The key questions for businesses in the future is not, then, about adopting cloud and the whole range of new technologies, but it’s about redesigning the business so there’s an infrastructure that allows rapid decisions to be made. Sorenson asked:
How do you redesign the process so it becomes more effective? It requires you to have technology in the hands of individuals.Only then are we going to see progress.
This is going to be a big challenge however. Speaking after the event, Faulkner pointed out that the way that companies are structured now has taken away a lot of the human interaction:
Field service used to be organised in depots where engineers could chat with colleagues about the problems they’ve been seeing. But working patterns have changed and there’s been a shift with engineers going to jobs straight from home and not seeing depots – this has taken away a lot of the informal service that was going on. Engineers could help one another for another by describing a quick fix or by saying they had a missing spare part.
According to Click Software’s Katelyn Burrill, it’s not enough to introduce changes to field workers, they have to be explained. You have to manage the change that field workers go through when a new technology is implemented:
If they don’t understand the benefits and just see it as Big Brother managing their day all of a sudden, they won't manage the technology to the best of its ability. That’s how projects fail, when organisations don’t sell it to them in a strategic manner. They need to be part of the process to organise how you'll go about changing and what's acceptable to change.
This is going back to the engineers in the depot phase: the idea that people on the ground knew what was going on more than the people in head office did. There’s a need to tap into that potential, to introduce the human element once again.
This won’t be an easy process: businesses have spent the last 20 years or so removing the human element from the process and automating everything that could be automated. There needs to be change and there are two elements to this. One is that the underlying technology must be made more flexible, moving away from the siloed, monolithic world of expensive, unmoving infrastructures. The second element is a change in business culture, empowering individuals again and introducing a more human touch.
The first part of this process is well under way. As Wainewright points out:
The backend will eventually become part of the cloud. Companies have to chip away constantly at what it's done in those big monolithic systems and move functions across in a managed way into this continuous development environment. The business is changing to a much more continuous delivery form of putting new processes in place. The technology can't support that if it's stuck in the old process. It needs to evolve.
The second part is much harder to do and requires a business rethink. Some organisations are doing this. Sorensen points out that one area where this has been done is in the police:
Instead of having a very localised arrangement where somebody calls a police station and they dispatch officers on a two-way radio system they now operate in principle like like Uber. Ordinary officers have a queue of incidents and they choose one like a customer in a taxi rank.”
He says that this has introduced more autonomy into the process and it’s something other organisations could follow.
The human touch sounds like marketing jargon but it could make a real difference to organisations. In a world where everything has been automated to death, where we use self-service checkouts at supermarkets and enter our gas meter readings ourselves, there’s a real opportunity for change. Sorensen sees this as a real way to make a difference:
For a lot of companies, their competitive advantage will be to have a civilised human being to talk to you. It requires that you change how the company operates and you depoliticise it. Promotions are based on performance and how well you treat your customers.
All this technology can only go so far as Faulkner explains:
We provide support for decision making – it’s up the human being to analyse that and run the business.
That requires a reverse in much of current thinking. Introducing a level of automation and cutting people out of the equation has cut the bottom line but it can only go so far. The arrival of cloud has meant an opportunity to rethink business philosophy, how many businesses are are going to have the nerve to do this?