A huge change is sweeping across the field service workforce, not only transforming how they work, but also elevating the profile of their role as a key touchpoint with customers. For a long time, the outbound nature of their work had insulated these workers from the impact of digital technology, which was largely focused on office-based processes. But in recent years, the rise of smart connected devices and the spread of cloud computing have plugged them into the digital realm. Now the race is on to equip them with the right technology to make the most of their unique role as someone who represents a business or brand in person at the customer site. This has several ingredients, as Taksina Eammano, EVP & GM Field Service at Salesforce, explains:
What does technology enable for the field technician? Technicians are still going out there and it's incredibly valuable. They create the kind of insight that you still can't get somebody to do remotely or through AI visualization.
Having said that, how do you create automation so that they are more productive? How do they find that time when they're on site to be most valuable, where they're customer-facing, providing information, providing knowledge, so that all of the other things they're doing — entering data, finding out the latest warranty on this, re-ordering a new part — can happen very quickly? That speed of delivery for them, so that they can continue to be that trusted adviser on site, is really important.
She points out that this is a broad set of workers that not only includes technicians who service equipment and facilities, but extends to anyone whose work takes them to the customer's premises, such as an insurance claims adjuster, or a home healthcare professional. With the rise in on-site delivery of goods and services, it's a growing category, but one that is central to the customer experience. She comments:
Think about home healthcare. You are in the place where your customers need you, your patients need you. [It is] the people in the field who really make a difference — the frontline who have that opportunity to build trust and experience. They are out there, and ... we really have an opportunity to change how the frontline workers get to be productive and engaged in this.
While technology is the enabler of this transformation, it also demands additional skills and new ways of working. She adds:
The majority of field technicians out there in the mobile workforce, I think they've always had that trust. It's actually about building on the skills they need, for the trust to do more in the field ...
When I turn up on site, I need to know more than just, 'I'm fixing one device.' You should know about all the other machinery that's around — something that might come up for renewal, something that is not as energy efficient, that you should replace.
That's building on the knowledge and expertise that they have always had for repair, but evolving to be really about customer value ... In a world where uptime has value, it really requires us to actually have that knowledge. This is why IoT is coming back, the diagnostic can tell us a lot more, and we should be leveraging it in far greater ways.
Trend to servitization
There's also a wider business context that is shaping these changes. Digital connection allows for greater ongoing engagement with customers, leading many businesses to introduce new offerings that package up products and services into a subscription contract. This trend towards servitization, or Everything-as-a-Service (XaaS), changes the relationship from one that's purely transactional into a more collaborative effort to realize value for the customer. In this context, the field technician's role is not just to fix or maintain something, it broadens out into ensuring the customer is achieving a successful outcome. Eammano elaborates:
There is the traditional break-fix servicing of technicians, but there is a lot of routine maintenance and operations. This role here has not been customer-centric in that same way. But that role is evolving a lot more because they are on site, and because they are that trusted advisor.
As they move into this world of servitization, ... the technician is there just to provide value, and to really drive that customer experience of why you have that longevity of a relationship together. That is very different, I think, to where traditionally many of these roles have been.
Alongside the technology, therefore, the business itself has to change the way that it operates to accommodate this new approach. She adds:
If I am still measured purely on how quickly I get on and off the phone, how quickly I get in and out of the site, I am not measured and incentivized correctly as a field technician. My first-time-fix rate is very different if I am incentivized to deliver customer success and customer value, and I'm tied to that customer in a different way. We've seen that already being changed a lot in the contact center, in the call centre, but I think that also in the field has started to change around the metrics of success.
Organizations also have to unravel many of the old silos of operation that get in the way of offering a joined-up customer experience, whether that's silos between product lines, or field service operating separately from the business unit. A unified customer record brings together information about all the assets and equipment the customer has on site, along with the associated warranties and SLAs. This arms the field technician with all the relevant information, and they then need the skills, training and incentives to be able to have the appropriate conversation with the customer. She says:
The person in the field is also taking your contracts, they're incentivized to actually deliver customer success. I think these are organizational metrics and processes that they are empowered to do — they have the data, they have the tools, they're skilled and they're trained in that way — and ultimately have the right incentives in place to talk about performance in the way that customers are expecting it.
Role of technology
Technology enables this transformation by giving the field technician a real-time connection to all the information they need to service the customer. The mobile application must also take into account the difficulty the worker may have in selecting items or entering data on a touch screen, and minimize the burden on them by using features such as geofencing to automatically record information that shouldn't need keying in. Eammano explains:
You've got to be able to get the work done. You're generally wearing gloves, you're out in the heat, there's glare on devices, there's a battery life to be concerned about, and offline access. But the ability for you to know what to do next and be armed with that, and then have a dialog with the customer, whether it is to upsell them, to replace, to reorder something that is consumable — having that information at hand, so that it's real-time, is important.
While organizations are learning to make better use of the field technician's time on site, technology is also helping to reduce the number of times an on-site visit is needed. Remote assistance, where a technician advises the customer over a video link and helps them fix the issue themselves, has become increasingly prevalent since the pandemic curtailed or prevented on-site visits. Eammano cites the example of security company ADT, which has switched 40% of its service volume to virtual channels, avoiding one million truck rolls per year. In other cases, customers can find their own solutions by searching an on-line knowledgebase, or by messaging with a chatbot.
Salesforce has coined the term Shift to Scale to describe this pattern of replacing high-touch on-site calls with low-touch remote service or no-touch self-service interactions. Introducing more channels that customers can use to resolve their issues leads to greater efficiency and lower cost, but it requires a technology platform that brings together all the relevant information and conversations. The system needs to be capable of transferring a conversation along with all the related information if the issue turns out to be too complex for the no-touch chatbot to handle it and has to transfer the case to an agent, or if the remote assistance video call encounters a problem that requires a high-touch site visit. Automation has to be paired with AI, too, to keep on top of the volume and speed of data analysis. Eamanno comments:
I keep telling customers, just because you increase the channels, you may actually not decrease the noise. You see this increase, you get more data points. This is where you need AI to aggregate across those, because the signals become louder. [This] is one of the challenges we had with IoT. The signals were so loud, how do I find the anomalies quickly? That's where a lot of organizations have been spending time, sifting through the data.
In this new world of field service, the technician or healthcare assistant who once turned up with just the tools of their trade is now accompanied by a wealth of information. This can include status data from on-site equipment or health monitoring devices, asset data and the history of past visits and incidents, commercial data about contracts and SLAs, and location data recording their arrival on site. They can quickly add extra information by taking pictures, videos or voice recordings, which are automatically processed to yield more data. These former digital outcasts on the fringes of the enterprise have now become its frontline ambassadors, endowed with a more all-encompassing digital user experience than many of their deskbound colleagues.