Lessons Learned from WBR’s 2019 Field Service Amelia Island Conference – Advancing Service Together through Innovation, Cross-Industry Best Practices & Transformation

[WBR’s annual Field Service Amelia Island conference is one of the premier Field Services event of the year – and this year was, once again, no exception! More than 350 field service professionals attended the conference from August 18 – 21, 2019.

The following is a brief excerpt from SFG℠‘s “Lessons Learned …Analysts Take report, written and distributed under the auspices of WBR. Our suggestion? Don’t read the following excerpt – go to the bottom of the page and download a complementary copy of the full report, and read up on what the key players in the field services community had to say with respect to “Advancing Service Together!“]

Since 2003, WBR has been bringing together the world’s leading services organizations to “benchmark, establish best practices, embrace new technologies and build a strong network to enhance its attendees’ services businesses and field operations.” Each successive conference over the past 16 years has provided participants with “future-facing content and a mix of interactive session formats that ensure [they can] learn and network most effectively.” As such, these annual (and mid-year) Field Service events are designed to set up its attendees “for maximum profitability and competitiveness in [their] service business.”

And this year’s Amelia Island event did not disappoint, as the nearly 400 onsite attendees would most likely attest!

“At Field Service Amelia Island I learned that Field Service professionals love to learn new ways to improve service delivery since that is often the first (and only) personal contact a customer has with their brand. They are especially eager to explore what technology can do to optimize their field service fleets to get them to job sites efficiently and safely.”

– Carol Roden, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Lytx

The main theme for WBR’s 2019 Field Service Palm Springs conference was billed as “Advancing Service Together”, similar to the Palm Springs event held earlier in the year – and the succession of speakers, presenters, moderators, panel participants and practitioners all supported that theme throughout the conference by sharing examples (i.e., mostly success stories) about how it takes a strong commitment to teamwork to have any chance of meeting, let alone exceeding, management goals for improving employee and customer satisfaction – while at the same time, driving increased services revenue streams and making a profit by doing so.

“After attending the Field Service Conference on Amelia Island, the importance of disruptive service, and understanding that what got our businesses to their current level of success will not take them to the next level of success is evident. In an XAAS world, those organizations that embrace these transformations with technology and culture will win!”

– Mary Flake, General Manager – Coastal Southeast Service, Comfort Systems USA

The ”Lessons Learned” at the conference were many, and we have attempted to summarize the main sessions (and lessons learned) in the text that follows. Please note that not all of the sessions are highlighted and summarized in this document; however, there are many others that are available through WBR directly. Also, if you missed the chance to have one of your “lesson learned” quotes included in this paper, … well, there’s always next year in Palm Springs or, again, at Amelia Island!

Each of the three Main Days of the conference had a particular focus, beginning with Day One setting its sights on “Technology and Process Innovation for Efficiency”; Day Two focusing on “Disruptive Service & Customer Value; and Day Three focusing on “Leadership & Service Revenue Generation.”

Overall, WBR’s 2019 Field Service Amelia Island conference gave every attendee the opportunity to learn, question, network, buy/sell and interact with vendors, practitioners, editors, writers, industry experts, consultants, research analysts, peers and competitors and every other important person or company in the field services business.

The temperature was not as hot as in Palm Springs, earlier in the year – but the topics covered at the conference were still “red hot”. One of the key learnings from this year’s event is that “the main benefit of this conference is that it represents a middle ground between what we all learned last year, and what we will expect to learn next year.” As such, this year’s conference represented another key milestone in the Journey that we, as an industry, are taking along with our customers.

At the risk of repeating myself from the “Lessons Learned …” Analyst Take paper distributed following this year’s Palm Springs conference, I believe the following quote still stands true:

“As Bob Dylan once wrote and sang, ‘The times, they are a’changin’.    He must have been singing about the field services industry!”

– Bill Pollock, President & Principal Consulting Analyst
Strategies For Growth℠

Here’s looking forward to seeing you all at Palm Springs and Amelia Island again next year!

[To download a complementary copy of the full “Lessons Learned …” report, simply click here: @@@ 2019 Field Service Amelia Island Analysts Take Report (Final Draft – 19-09-17).]

Maintaining Satisfactory Customer Service in an Outsourced Environment

[This article was originally published in Field Service News on January 22, 2019]

As customers become more sophisticated, the market more complicated, the economy more volatile, and the services community more demanding, it is also becoming more difficult to manage all customer service-related activities in-house. As a result, many businesses have turned to outsourcing in order to ensure that they have the required staffing and resources to get the total job done.

While some businesses may outsource only in non-core competency areas such as accounting and payroll, secretarial and clerical, or even telesales, others may outsource entire blocks of their core business activities to firms specialising in distinct areas such as field service, technical support, customer service, sales management, manufacturing and production, human resources, quality control, etc.

However, whether the organisation’s customer service functions are staffed by full-time company employees, part-time support personnel, outsourced agencies or personnel, or any combination thereof, one thing remains certain; the company’s customers and prospects must receive consistently high levels of customer service and support, regardless of whose personnel they happen to be dealing with at any given moment.

Most managers agree that the key ingredient for success in running a services business, whether it is run exclusively by an organisation’s own full-time employees, or supplemented in part by outside personnel, outsource agencies or other third parties, is to have all of the workers that represent the business in the marketplace put on a cohesive and consistent front when they deal with customers and prospects. It is important to remember that customers will not care what type of employee representing your company was rude to them on the telephone, or did not provide them with the desired level of customer service – all they will remember is that your business failed to get the job done.

There are many good reasons for why a services organisation might consider outsourcing; but before entering into any specific outsourcing agreement, you should first prepare yourself, and your employees, for the most effective way to manage this complementary workforce. We suggest six basic recommended guidelines:

  1. Train your outsourced personnel as if they were your own employees. Make sure they understand the products and services you sell, the markets you sell to, and the way you normally conduct business. If your business involves dealing with highly demanding customers such as hospitals, banks or aerospace, etc., make sure they share the same “sense of urgency” that your own employees have when they deal with these types of customers.
  2. Take any outsourced customer contact workers on a short “field trip” to show them how your customer support center works and, if direct customer contacts will eventually be made in the field, take them along on a few customer calls first to show them the way you normally treat your customers.
  3. Provide the manager of the outsourced operation with a fail-safe “back door” to a full-time manager at your company, even at the C-level, if necessary. Let the manager know that he/she is not in it alone when help is needed.
  4. Get daily reports in a standard reporting format (e.g., problem or exception reports) every morning to ensure that everything is in order, and that no special problems are developing.
  5. Give your outsourced employees samples of your company’s products or other items, product pictures or services marketing brochures. You may also want to give them some small gifts with your company’s logo or name on them, such as T-shirts, mugs, pens, desk calendars, a picture frame, etc. This might be especially helpful in dealing with an outsourced night crew or other off-shift workers who would otherwise have no real contact with your full-time company personnel. Some businesses arrange for an Open House lunch or reception for their outsourced personnel for the purpose of having them meet the full-time staff.
  6. Problems should be confronted immediately, head on, with the outsource manager. When your own managers are faced with a problem, they typically know exactly what to do – they have been there before. However, the same problems may be new to your outsource managers, and they may need some immediate help from your own management.

Outsourcing is basically a “partnership” designed to deliver quality equal to or greater than that which you yourself would provide. We have found that too often these agreements are handled more as a “’vendor” relationship, rather than as a partnership, even to the point where the in-house person responsible is often referred to as the “Vendor Manager.” Sometimes, simple things like this set the wrong tone right from the start – and things can easily go downhill from there. It is crucially important to create an atmosphere whereby your partners feel they are part of your company’s service delivery infrastructure, and not just an add-on.

Treating outsource vendors and their employees in the manner described through these six suggestions is the first step to creating a win/win alliance. However, it is typically the attitude of the key people that often makes the difference between success and failure in any relationship. By following these six suggestions, a services organisation can maximise its chances for cultivating an environment that would allow for the attainment of desired levels of customer service and satisfaction.

Identifying the Differences Between Customers’ Wants and Needs

In many cases, there may be great differences between a customer’s wants and a customer’s needs; but sometimes there may actually be only very little difference. It all depends on the specific customer. However, the way in which you manage each customer relationship will ultimately make the greatest difference with respect to your prospects for gaining customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Typically, the more knowledgeable customers are about the equipment they are using, the more their wants and needs are likely to be the same; however, less knowledgeable customers may not really have a clear idea of the distinction between the two.

For example, a copying machine customer may want you to clean the equipment while you are on-site if they had been noticing black marks or spots on the copies coming out of the unit; when, in fact, the main reason for the black marks may have entirely been due to a worn-out roller or other part that needs to be replaced. In a case like this, what the customer really “needed” was clean copies coming out of the machine; however, what they thought they “wanted” was simply for the machine to be cleaned.

If you had listened only to the customer, you might have embarked on a faulty corrective action with respect to satisfying their needs. Remember, when it comes to repairing the machine, you are the expert – not the customer!

Similarly, a customer may want you to take the machine apart and put it back together again, or replace a part that is not really defective, simply as an exercise to ensure that the copier continues to run “smoothly”. However, what the customer may really need is a more effective preventive maintenance schedule for the equipment that would otherwise negate the need to actually have to take the machine apart or perform a parts swap, etc.

In this case, what the customer “wanted” was for you to take the machine apart and put it back together again; however, what they really “needed” was a machine that would not break down in the near future as they were preparing for a major copy run. Properly scheduled preventive maintenance would have accomplished this, making any further corrective actions entirely unnecessary.

The best way for you to understand the differences between customers’ wants and needs is to help them to understand the differences in the first place. It all goes back to the “Listen, Observe, Think, Speak”, or LOTS, approach. By listening to the symptoms that the customer is describing once you arrive on-site, and the problems that they tell you they have been experiencing until you got there, you will probably already be in a good position to surmise what is needed. However, upon further observation with respect to the machine, you will undoubtedly have an even clearer picture. In fact, by this time, you should probably already have a good idea of exactly what the customer “needs”.

This would also be a good time to explain to the customer what the initial diagnosis is, what you plan to do about it, and the anticipated amount of time it will take for you to repair it. By providing this information early, you can avoid running into situations where the customer is telling you they “want” one thing and being forced to tell them they really “need” another.

In other words, the best way to avoid a “debate” about what is “wanted” vs. what is “needed” is to identify the problem and appropriate course of action as soon as possible, keep the customer informed on an as-needed (or as-requested) basis, and let them know what they “need” upfront, before they feel compelled to tell you what they “want”.

Of course, it may not always be this easy. There will always be situations where what you feel the customer needs is not what the customer wants. This is where an ongoing educational process between you and your customers needs to take place. This does not mean to say that the two of you need to sit down, read the equipment manuals together, compare notes, and enter into “philosophical” discussions about equipment maintenance; but, rather, that a series of ongoing, brief discussions should take place every time you are on-site to repair the equipment to ensure that the customer understands why the machine failed, what they could do to lessen the chances for failures in the future, what the recommended “fix” is, and why your way of addressing the situation is better than their way. Sometimes, the solution may be as simple as upgrading to a newer unit.

Basically, what the customer really wants is a piece of equipment that is always up and running, ready to use, unlikely to fail, easy to repair, easy to manage, and easy to use. The details with respect to how each of these is accomplished should really be of no consequence to the customer – although they usually are!

Your role, over time, will be to make sure that you always communicate to the customer about what is “needed” to the point where they have full faith in your knowledge and experience, and are willing to defer to your judgment. The more communications there are between you and your customers, the quicker they will get to the point where they will defer to your recommendations, and the quicker the distinction between their “wants” and their “needs” will disappear.

There Is an Alternative to Staffing Your Field Technician Force Yourself – the Case for Utilizing an Onsite Freelancer Platform

“The world of work has changed,” according to Jeffrey Leventhal, CEO and co-founder of Work Market, a leading platform and marketplace for finding and managing freelance labor. And this may be especially true for the services industry, where simply doing things the same way they’ve always been done just doesn’t cut it anymore.

However, Leventhal also warns that, “finding the right talent is one of the primary challenges in building an on-demand workforce. Especially for companies who use freelancers at scale, it’s imperative to find a reliable place where you can routinely tap into top-tier freelancers.” For the services industry, top tier typically means highly trained – and in many cases, certified – field technicians that may be confidently dispatched shortly after being recruited and vetted by the organization. Oh, yeah – and they must also be conveniently located proximate to a wide distribution of customer sites.

How can this be done? And what are the potential pitfalls of not having a well thought out plan for action, or not employing the proper tools to support an expanding market demand? Well, … unfortunately, there are many potential stumbling blocks – unless the plan is built on a foundation structured upon an effective onsite freelancer platform.

According to Diego Lomanto, vice president of marketing for Work Market, “there are six tools, or processes, that a services organization requires in order to effectively manage its field technician freelancers. They are find, verify, engage, manage, pay and rate.” Each of these tools may be described as follows:

Find

Identifying and finding the right freelancers for the job at hand represents the best place to start. For many businesses, it is relatively easy to screen lists of potential freelancers in easily defined industry segments, such as accountants, home healthcare aides, plumbers and electricians, etc., by relying on any one of a number of widely used list sources such as Craigslist, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), LinkedIn or Google, etc. However, in the services community, most of these list sources will often come up short.

However, an onsite freelancer platform, such as that offered by Work Market, can handle things much more efficiently by providing a tool that:

  • Allows the user to build assignments quickly, based on previous work,
  • Identifies candidates that best meet the required skill sets, and
  • Provides a mechanism for generating and tracking community ratings for each selected candidate (i.e., to assure a consistent level of freelancer quality)

Verify

The verification of the required skill sets represents another major obstacle for most services organizations in terms of their ability to check out the candidate’s background and capabilities, as they relate specifically to field service. In other words, do they have the right stuff – stuff meaning skills, experience and certifications, among others?

The use of an effective onsite freelancer platform takes nearly all of the burden out of the verification process by allowing the user to:

  • Verify the candidate’s credentials via an integrated verification process; and
  • Identify limit functions which, in turn, will automatically off-board the independent contractor when compliance thresholds are reached, or if certain details change, (i.e., such as expiring insurance coverage or certifications, etc.).

Engage

The engagement process is typically where too many organization begin the process, as it is typically far less painstaking for some to start with the recruitment of “warm bodies”, rather than mounting a concerted effort upfront to find the most qualified candidates – and be able to verify that they are, in fact, eminently qualified for the job.

This is where an onsite freelancer platform provides, perhaps, one of its greatest value propositions to its users, by allowing them to:

  • Organize their field technician workforce into groups for easy assignment en masse; and
  • Eliminate the need for having to deal with only one contractor at a time, or conversely, having to rely on group e-mails that make it impossible to manage responses quickly or effectively.

Manage

Managing the freelancer field force should require the greatest levels of attention and oversight by the organization; however, many managers find themselves too overwhelmed and/or understaffed to effectively handle the situation. Nonetheless, this is often the single process that ultimately defines the direction – and the success – of the organization in terms of its ability to send the best qualified people to each site, and track their performance and progress over time. Many services organizations utilize fully functioning mobile applications to communicate with their mobile field force in real time – but this may not be enough!

By utilizing an onsite freelancer platform, users benefit from a variety of tools that allow for:

  • All field communications and management tools to be resident in a single system,
  • The use of geo-location tools to identify the exact locations of their freelance contractors in real time, and
  • The ability of workers to upload and complete all tasks directly through their mobile devices.

Pay

Paying the organization’s mobile field force freelancers should be one of the easiest jobs to do – but any HR or accounts payable professional will likely tell you different. What should typically only involve the tracking of hours, and cutting checks to the appropriate individuals is generally anything but easy – and PayPal simply doesn’t cut it!

What can make this process as easy as it gets is the ability of the onsite freelancer platform to empower the organization to:

  • Allow for Application Programming Interface (API) integration into existing payment platforms so they can continue to manage their respective accounting processes all in one place, and on a business-as-usual basis; and
  • Create a robust mechanism for reporting key financial and compliance data to HR, Accounting – and the CFO – as necessary.

Rate

However, the series of processes does not end once the freelancer is paid, and the transaction is reported. In fact, the process is never-ending – and cyclical – in that the performance of each and every freelancer is rated, tracked and ranked to identify top talent for future projects, and measure the performance of the onsite freelancer model as a whole, over time. It can also be well argued that the organization will likely have greater confidence in the ratings provided directly by their customers (and/or, their territory managers) rather than by an outside third party, such as Angie’s List or the Better Business Bureau (BBB), etc.

Therefore, the principal benefits of an onsite freelancer platform are that it provides users with:

  • An online capability for rating, and viewing ratings, on a much broader scale, and
  • The ability to determine the “height of the bar” with regard to the desired, or expected, quality of the worker’s performance.

Coordinating all of these individual tools into a single set of processes may be daunting for many organizations – but not so much when they have the power of an effective onsite freelancer platform such as that offered by Work Market, at their disposal. It is difficult enough to run a services organization (or any business, for that matter) in general – but it is far more difficult to attempt to do so without the support of the proper technology, tools and processes.

[To download a complimentary whitepaper on “Finding & Managing Onsite Freelancers” for businesses and field service organizations, please visit the Work Market website at Work Market Guide to Finding & Managing Onsite Freelancers.]