Selling Services – How to Recognize Customer Buying Signals

Understanding your customers’ needs, and knowing what is available for sale, complete one key equation; however, there is still one other key unanswered question: How can you tell when your customer is ready to buy?

Recognizing a customer’s buying signals is one of the most difficult things there is to teach. In fact, many will argue that this is an innate trait that only “true” salespersons are born with. Whether this is true or not is really only a side issue. The main issue is that every one of your customers and prospects sends out signals that you can rally around with respect to determining when they are ready to buy. Some will be “hard” signals that you can practically take right to the bank; although most will be “soft” signals that will vary from customer-to-customer, person-to-person, and situation-to-situation. Let me explain.

The various types of buying signals “transmitted” by your customers may typically be classified into the following categories:

  • Overt
  • Passive
  • Observed

Overt Buying Signals

An overt buying signal is the closest thing to a gift that you may ever receive from your customers. This is when the customer calls you, or comes right up to you, and says something like, “Our copier is pretty much shot, and it simply won’t handle all of our volume anymore. Don’t you guys have a newer machine that you think can do the job for us?” Or, “You know, our machine will be coming off warranty soon. Don’t you guys offer some kind of extended warranty contract? If you do, we’d really be interested.” While these opportunities may seem just like manna fallen from the heavens, the problem is, if you do not take immediate advantage of them, the opportunities themselves may either fade over time, or go away altogether.

For example, given an opportunity like one of these, it may simply be a matter of speaking briefly with your customer, showing him or her a new brochure or directing them to your company’s web site, and casually discussing the enhanced features of a new system or service offering on a face-to-face basis. However, if your response is more like, “I have a few ideas. Why don’t I get back to you in a week or two when I’m not so busy, and maybe we can work out something.” By the time a couple of weeks go by, the thought of acquiring a new piece of equipment or service offering may have moved from your customer’s top-of-mind to their back-of-mind – and once there, it may involve much more work on your part to get it back up front.

Overt buying signals do not happen all the time; but when they do, you pretty much have to take advantage of them as they occur, rather than run the risk of having the customer push it far back into the recesses of his or her mind – or even worse, allowing them to have the same conversation with a competitive vendor’s sales or services person.

Passive Buying Signals

Passive buying signals may not be as obvious; however, they are still fairly easy to identify, and even easier to take advantage of. The tell-tale clues that your customers may give to you typically manifest themselves in comments or questions such as, “Man, this old machine keeps breaking down, and breaking down, and breaking down. I don’t know what I’m going to do if it shuts down during one of our big production runs”; “Ever since this machine came off of warranty, whenever we call for service, we end up paying you guys on a time and materials basis. There’s got to be a better way”; or “I don’t know. It just seems like our other division on the next floor gets their copy work done a heck of a lot faster than we do. I think they have a new machine up there, and they just keep making us look bad in comparison”.

Any of these comments or questions represent just as valid a selling opportunity as any of the overt buying signals we just talked about earlier. The only real difference is that, in these cases, you will typically need to be the one who initiates the conversation about replacement units, new machines, and/or enhanced service level agreements – and not the customer.

Even so, you may still be surprised as to how receptive your customers will be in having such a conversation. What’s more, since you already understand your customers’ needs and requirements for business imaging systems and equipment, and you know what your company has available for sale, you can probably step right in, provide some specific suggestions or recommendations, and convert a potential customer problem into a potential company sale.

Observed Buying Signals

Sometimes the customer does not even have to say a word. Since you already visit the customer’s site, on average, about once a month or so, you are probably in an excellent position to observe how one or more of their machines are routinely being overused, misused, or otherwise used improperly. You have probably also seen some of your customers reach new levels of frustration in dealing with machines that simply cannot ratchet up to their increased levels of volume or throughput, or effectively deal with emerging areas of business imaging applications.

We have all heard the expression that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. In both the overt and passive buying signal situations, it will primarily be the words that are either conveyed to you, or conveyed by you to the customer, that will ultimately lead to the potential sale. However, in an observed buying signal situation, it is the “picture” you observe at the customer site that will ultimately tell you the “story” that you will need to focus on in order to ultimately make the sale.

At the end of the day, it really does not matter whether the buying signal you get is overt, passive, or simply observed – what does matter though, is that you get the signal, you know what to do with it, you take advantage of it, and you serve effectively in your role as an intermediary between what your customer needs, and what your company offers.

Real Time May Not Be Enough When Augmented Reality Can Make It Even More Real!

[This is the full, unedited, version of our Feature Article published in the April 21, 2016 edition of Field Technologies Online. The Blog version includes portions that did not make the publication’s final cut.]

Augmented reality may just be the “next big thing” in field service.

It hasn’t really been all that long since the field services community was introduced to the concept of “real time”. Prior to the introduction of real-time data collection, analysis and dissemination, most Field Services Organizations (FSOs) typically relied on batch-collected and -processed data; generally obtained from multiple sources, over an extended period of time; with data often read and input by hand into numerous paper templates; and having to wait for the proper review and approval before the processed data could be distributed to relevant parties.

Fortunately, those days are long-gone!

The proliferation of the application of the Internet; the advent of machine-to-machine (m2m) communications and the Internet of Things (IoT); and the exponentially growing degree of connectivity between not only machines and machines, but between machines and people – and people and people – has resulted in a real-time environment that has propelled the global services community to its current technological positioning.

However, real time may no longer be good enough for the global community of FSOs and their respective field technicians! As traditional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), such as Mean-Time Between-Failure (MTBF), have steadily shifted from measurements reported in numbers of days, weeks or months just a couple of decades ago, to practically “never” today for many products, this particular metric finds itself diminishing in importance, and is no longer being measured by a growing number of services organizations. And even when equipment is about to fail, the easy availability of predictive diagnostics, remote diagnostics and real-time communications have made this formerly important KPI nothing more than an afterthought for many FSOs.

This is where Augmented Reality, or AR, comes into play.

According to whatis.techtarget.com, “Augmented reality is the integration of digital information with the user’s environment in real time. Unlike virtual reality, which creates a totally artificial environment, augmented reality uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it.” Think of the “yellow first down line” that magically appears when you’re watching a football game; that’s AR, in that it doesn’t create a “new” virtual reality, but, rather, it enhances the perceptual reality that you, the viewer, is able to visualize while watching the next down take place. It’s not a new creation; it’s an enhanced reality that makes it easier to process what’s going on, and what needs to be done next.

This is exactly how AR is able to assist in a field services environment; that is, to provide the field technician (who may not ever have been called upon to service a piece of equipment with such a long MTBF) to actually perform the repair by “overlaying” an enhanced reality – in 3D motion – over and above what he or she would otherwise be able to visualize, in order to make a quick, clean and complete fix.

Think of it this way: When field technicians are called on for service, they may be facing either a piece of equipment that they have rarely seen in the past; a device that is inherently complex and difficult to disassemble and/or reassemble; or a system that is so business- or mission-critical, that a single delay or misstep could bring a factory’s total production line to a screaming halt – or any combination thereof!

The ability to “see” this Augmented Reality – in 3D motion – with accompanying instructive text, metrics and repair parameters overlaid and easily articulated will undoubtedly provide, at the very least, an extra measure of comfort to the technician, as well as access to a readily available tutorial for performing the repair as quickly, accurately and safely as possible. As such, another historically important KPI, first-time-fix-rate, may also go quickly into the twilight, same as MTBF! And all it takes is the appropriate pair of special glasses for the technician to “see” what needs to be seen!

However, talking about Augmented Reality – rather than actually seeing it in action – is like trying to tell a Southerner how cold the Northern Winters are – in words. It’s just not possible. That’s why AR is best understood by actually seeing a demonstration of it in action.

At a recent field services conference, I was asked to cite what I believe would be the “next big thing” in field service. I suggested “Augmented Reality”. Why? Because we really can’t do things any quicker than real time; and we can’t make repair tutorials any smaller, more compact and/or transportable than they already are. What we can do, however, is make it easier for the field technician to “see” what needs to be done, in real time, and with an “augmented” view of what reality alone cannot, and does not, necessarily provide.

AR has already made it easier to follow – and understand – football games. Isn’t time that it was also used to make it easier to perform field service activities? The answer is resoundingly “Yes”!

Smarter Decision-Making to Improve Field Service Management: The Implications of Analytics on Field Service Business Models

[A brief summary of the discussions that took place in a series of five Astea-sponsored “Blitz” sessions conducted at Copperberg’s Field Service Summit 2016 held at Oxford University, UK on 12 April, 2016.]

The attendees at Copperberg’s inaugural Field Service Summit 2016 Conference earlier this year in Oxford, UK represented a microcosm of the greater UK/Europe and global Field Service Management (FSM) communities. Although comprised of more than 100 major and niche Field Services Organisations (FSOs), from a variety of vertical industry segments, and offering oftentimes disparate services portfolios, the discussion participants shared a number of common thoughts regarding the key aspects of managing a services business – especially with regard to data analytics!

From the series of five “Blitz” interactive discussion sessions, a clear pattern of thoughts, perceptions, preferences and intentions were presented by leading UK/Europe services organisations beginning, of course, with an acknowledgement that since traditional service models are still being used by many (i.e., too many?) UK/Europe FSOs, the Customer Experience outcomes will need to improve across the board, as customers want more insight into all assets and services that impact their operations. It is safe to say that this will require an upgrade to existing data analytics capabilities – also, across the board.

For some, cross-training for older and more experienced engineers will be required; while for others, there will be a need to integrate the “newer” engineers (i.e., new hires, etc.) with the organisation’s more experienced, older, engineers who typically have already established long-term relationships with their respective customers. One discussion participant cited that his company’s field engineers are presently being backed-up by a second line in the organisation’s back office, comprised exclusively of experienced engineers. This has been very helpful thus far – especially in support of the company’s newest hires.

It was also universally acknowledged that it typically takes about two years or so to successfully transfer knowledge to new engineers, as cited by multiple session participants – and that most companies would like to see even more information gathered and distributed directly from the customer’s devices/assets. In any event, there was a general acknowledgement that there would be much to gain by performing more repairs/fixes remotely.

Other specific activities identified as being critical to the overall well-being of the services organisation included:

  • Selling services – driven by customer procurement and, therefore, essentially predicated on the basis of price (i.e., agreed by a quorum of attendees, that price directly impacts the bottom line).
  • Performing more fixes remotely – however, requiring that customers need to become more involved in the overall service process.
  • Generating more leads from the field – directly from the field engineers.
  • Problem Management/Root Cause Analysis – targeted to improve first time fix rates.

In general, it was also acknowledged that first time fix rates need to improve, overall. To do so, the best path forward would be to, first, try to resolve the issue remotely before dispatching a field engineer. In most cases, traditionally, service calls have been assigned directly to the field engineer, resulting in “too high” service costs. Performing fixes remotely is seen as the best example for addressing high service costs.

One company has implemented a connected services model that uses data gathered from the remote monitoring of the customers’ assets to help their field engineers to provide higher levels of support for their customers. They typically use the collected data gathered via remote monitoring to prevent otherwise unnecessary service visits – and asset downtime. However, in doing so, they cite the importance of mentoring new engineers by the company’s older, more experienced, engineers.

Other individual company case studies referenced include:

  • Company A – asked engineers to return from pension in order to (1) benefit from their collective retained asset knowledge, and (2) transfer that knowledge to the company’s newer engineers.
  • Company B – as each of the company’s engineers has already established their own respective “site ownership”, they are asked to assist in the transference of this knowledge to new engineers approximately six months before retirement, using an internal Wiki system that also includes instruction videos, etc.
  • Company C – recognises the importance for their field engineers to understand each customer’s individual and unique business processes and, as such, believes that the retention of knowledge relating to their customer base’s older assets is key for them to cultivate, retain and pass on to newer engineers. They are encouraged to plan for cultivating this knowledge, and working in conjunction with their customers with respect to suggesting upgrades and/or new systems, etc.
  • Company D – recognises that it is increasingly dealing with an ageing workforce, and that engineer “churn” has grown higher over the past four years, or so; as a result, there is a growing need to establish a framework for retaining this knowledge.
  • Company E – encourages field technicians/engineers to be part of their new product design review board. By doing so, they believe they can help to prevent situations where a new material or part is causing too much labor in the field when installing the product, etc. One example was cited where a cheaper part was manufactured/fitted to a new equipment model, causing three additional days of installation work due to the complexity and incompatibilities experienced during the final installation.

The importance of using Data – but, not necessarily Big Data – in support of the Field Service organisation was also discussed as one of the key components of Field Service Management (FSM). Also discussed was the growing importance and capabilities of the Internet of Things (IoT) side of the equation, particularly in terms of how it can be used to collect and generate vast amounts of data. While all participants expressed their preference for having that capability, most believed that they would also require a strong reporting department to generate and distribute the resultant reports for them – sanctioned and managed by the Service Department, rather than the Finance Department.

In all cases, the importance of data analytics was first and foremost in the minds of each of the participants. However, how to best manage the collection, analysis and distribution of the vast amounts of data that can be generated via the IoT represented the greatest challenges that they would expect to face moving forward.

[For more information on Data Analytics and a full array of Service Lifecycle Management (SLM) solutions for the Field Services segment, please visit the Astea Website at www.Astea.com.]