How to Make Your Field Service Management (FSM) Solution Rock!

[With a Little Help from My Friends in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame]

[Reprinted from Field Service News. Enjoy!]

Whenever one of your service customers hollers “Help”, you not only need to respond quickly, you also need to Get It Right the First Time – because you certainly won’t want to waste the time and expense of having one of your field technicians Truckin’ to the customer site unnecessarily – and you also won’t want to have to Do It Again later! If you’re not careful, it will all be Wasted Time!

By the way, this is why many of the leading services organisations are incorporating Augmented Reality (AR) into their Field Service Management (FSM) solutions – because Every Picture Tells a Story, don’t it? With all of this “new” technology being integrated into FSM solutions supporting the global field services community, The Times They Are a Changin’, for sure!

For a majority of users, the decision as to which type and brand of equipment to acquire is based more on the quality of service that will be provided after the purchase, rather than on the acquisition of the piece of equipment itself. Plus, it’s not only based on Money, Money, Money –  it’s more often than not based on things including Promises, Honesty and A Matter of Trust!

However, once selected, after the services provider asks the user to “Take a Chance on Me”, it will need to, first, make sure that its new customer has a Peaceful Easy Feeling, and that it hasn’t spent a whole lot of Money for Nothing (or you could end up in Dire Straights)!

Further, whether the customer’s equipment is located in Allentown, or Katmandu, the services provider must be sure that there Ain’t No Mountain High Enough to keep it away from delivering the services that have been promised. If you cannot cover all of the geographic areas where your customers’ (and prospects’) equipment is located, you may end up with an unhappy customer in Massachusetts, requiring your field techs to work weekends on Tulsa Time, finding a suitable contractor in Sweet Home Alabama, being stuck in Lodi (again), authorizing a costly flight to Kokomo, Going to California yourself – or even worse – having to deal with a Panic in Detroit! One way or the other, you’ll never want to hear one of your Colorado customers tell you to “Get Out of Denver”!

Communications is also a critical component of any services relationship – and the last thing you will ever need to experience with your customers is a Communications Breakdown! Customers will want you to be their “Nights in White Satin”, consistently being able to provide them with what they want, “Any Way You Want It”, so they will always feel Glad All Over.

Customers hate it when they call their services provider and get No Reply! There’s a Fine Line between being only casually responsive and treating your customers with a full measure of Respect – and you don’t want to cross that line the wrong way, otherwise your customer will feel like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and end up in Misery!

If you get your communications right with your customers, you’ll find that The Winner Takes It All (i.e., your services organization); but if you Try Too Hard, you might end up just Livin’ on a Prayer, waiting for another opportunity to make it up to them – and they may simply tell you, “Not a Second Time”! It’s also important to remember that even if your customers have already asked you 65 or 66 questions, you will still need to be prepared to answer Questions 67 and 68!

So, … if you consistently deliver the expected – and desired – levels of service to your customers, and your field technicians remain Cool, Calm and Collected with respect to managing their customer relationships, then you may be in it for The Long Run! If so, then Long May You Run (that is, in circles around your competitors)!

However, for every services organization that actually “gets it”, there are probably a dozen or so more that don’t! That’s why it is so important to make sure you properly train – and arm – your field techs (i.e., with mobile tools and accompany technology, etc.) with everything they need All Down the Line, so they can satisfy their customers consistently, and go home every day after their last call feeling Free as a Bird and ready to Rock and Roll All Nite!

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The Benefits of Service Lifecycle Management (SLM) Are Likely to Be Transformative For Your Services Organization!

Managing today’s service enterprise means planning and coordinating service on a global scale. It means delighting your customers – and your shareholders. And it calls for new technologies and business practices designed specifically to solve the Service Lifecycle Management (SLM) challenge. Based on these reasons, we believe that any services organization that strives to provide “best-in-class” field service in support of its customers must first implement a robust SLM solution in order to achieve its objectives.

While at first glance, it may appear that there are many alternative SLM solutions available; however, not all of them are designed with the same levels of functionality, applications, and comprehensiveness that the SLM market requires – i.e., the key ingredients for success. Simply listing and describing the potential benefits of SLM constitutes only half of the battle – prospectiveusers will still need to “sell” the concept of SLM to management in order to gain their “buy-in”.

The benefits of implementing an SLM solution are many – and are fairly universal (that is, applicable for virtually every services organization, regardless of type, size, or geography served). Users typically identify the following five areas of benefits as the most compelling talking points in selling the concept to management;

  1. Reduced Service Costs
  2. Streamlined Workflow
  3. Improved Service Levels
  4. Enhanced Quality and Growth
  5. Increased Customer Satisfaction
1.    Reduced Service Costs

Simply citing generic data regarding potential cost reductions does not generally entice management to look any further. In order to truly gain their attention, it must be specified exactly where the cost savings will be coming from – and to what extent (i.e., provide them with hard numbers). The good news is that a robust SLM solution can manifest quantifiable cost savings from several specific areas including:

  • Improved technician productivity
  • Improved Inventory/parts management
  • Optimized service delivery
  • Reduced time in the “service-to-cash” cycle

These areas of cost savings will very likely peak management’s interest – as well as entice them to ask for more detailed cost-saving information. For example:

Improved Technician Productivity

Through SLM, improvements in technician productivity can be gained in a variety of ways including:

  • Providing field technicians with real-time, direct access to customer service history, equipment repair records, product information, and inventory and parts availability enables them to provide the best service possible in the most cost-effective manner by eliminating time-consuming paperwork and forms preparation. As a result, the technicians are able to spend virtually all of their time (i.e., billable time) providing their customers with the highest levels of service and support, rather than simply collecting information and filling out forms.
  • Providing field technicians with specific service level information for each customer they serve so that they never unknowingly provide their customers with anything less – or more – than those levels of service that are specifically covered in their respective Service Level Agreements (SLAs).
  • Reducing overhead costs through the elimination of most paperwork, delays in communications, and the use of outdated systems that had previously required manual data entry or redundant data input.

Empowered by the data and information made available through SLM, field technicians can also serve as the “eyes and ears” of the organization with respect to identifying potential cross-selling or upselling opportunities for the company’s various products and services. For example, armed with recent service call activity data, a field technician can provide customers with fresh information on new product or service offerings that would ultimately benefit their operations in the long-run – while at the same time, identify potential leads for the company’s sales team. By doing so, customers will not only look at their field technician as “the person who gets things fixed”, but also as a “trusted advisor” – or the one they can count on to both fix their equipment, and provide them with recommendations for acquiring new products and/or upgrading their service level coverage.

However, while improved technician productivity is generally an eye-opener to management, there are still far more compelling cost benefits that can also be gained through an SLM solution.

Improved Inventory/Parts Management

SLM can also result in “hard” cost savings through improved inventory/parts management, as summarized below:

  • SLM enables services organizations to enhance their Equipment Asset Management (EAM) capabilities by allowing them to track specific component/equipment relationships, and monitor their inventories for the purpose of automatic replenishment. By developing – and following – tightly integrated inventory management processes, users are able to significantly reduce inventory size and related carrying costs.
  • SLM also provides technicians with access to real-time inventory information, as well as the ability to order parts directly from the field, rather than having to wait until they return to their home base, or gain access to a telephone connection. The ability to work with real-time parts/inventory information provides both the technicians – and the customers they serve – with immediate access to parts availability, while simultaneously updating inventory levels and triggering automatic replenishments.

Some organizations may also wish to implement “vendor managed inventory”, or “just-in-time” inventory replenishment models to support their customer base, so that once a needed part is identified, it can be ordered and shipped immediately from the vendor source to the customer site. These types of fast-track inventory models can be easily implemented and supported through SLM.

However, while improved inventory/parts management ultimately benefits both the services organization and the customers it serves, there are still additional cost savings benefits that management can literally “take to the bank”.

Optimized Service Delivery

Optimized service delivery may mean different things to different people; however, the most compelling benefits of service optimization delivered through SLM are typically realized in terms of:

  • Minimized time to dispatch (i.e., quicker response time);
  • Increased first-time fix rates (i.e., fewer repeat failures and/or service calls); and
  • The ability of customers to perform self-diagnosis and problem resolution viathe Internet.

Ultimately, each of these benefits is realized through improved response time, decreased need for follow-up/repeat calls, and less equipment downtime. Even so, there are still several other types of benefits that will also be of significant interest to company management.

2.     Streamlined Workflow

Technology is the tool that assists services organizations in making their operations run more efficiently – but it is only a tool. However, SLM leverages best-of-breed service management solutions with industry best practices already built-in, thereby allowing practitioners to benefit not only from the automation of their current processes, but also by allowing them to redefine and improve their processes to deliver optimum results. These results are typically manifested in the following ways:

Integrated Processes and Technologies

Only through SLM can the practitioner benefit from a completely integrated and seamless solution that provides an instant 360-degree web-based view of the entire business. For example, when Sales or Marketing require information from Service Operations to develop targeted promotions to maximize cross-sell and up-sell opportunities, a robust SLM solution can give them exactly what they want– when they want it. Similarly, when Service needs real-time customer information from the Contact Center prior to making a call, SLM makes that information readily available.

A unified and modular approach, based on open industry standards, protects the users’ existing IT investments, lowers their Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), and paves the way for the deployment of the appropriate SLM modules – as required – as the organization grows.

Improved and Streamlined Processes

The end result of successfully integrating the organization’s processes and technologies is improved and streamlined processes – in otherwords, running the organization more efficiently. These benefits are typically manifested in the following ways:

  • Through an automated call management system based on CTI, IVR, dynamic scheduling and dispatch, and closure capabilities, services organizations can rapidly improve and streamline their call management process, thereby significantly increasing customer satisfaction and retention.
  • With the ability to apply contract templates, initiate automatic contract renewals, and build structured workflow processes, users can maximize their contract processing, resulting in more predictable revenues and improved productivity.
  • The capability to track, monitor, and automate stock based upon user-defined rules, in conjunction with the ability to support multiple warehousing strategies, also leads to improved and streamlined stock management levels at reduced inventory levels (also resulting in reduced inventory costs).
3.     Improved Service Levels

There are basically two ways to look at SLM – (1) as a tool for lowering the cost of doing business, and (2) as a means for improving existing service performance. While the cost savings may be very real, SLM can also be a significant contributor to the overall improvement in the levels of service performance for the organization. Complete charge capture, and maximizing cross-selling and up-selling opportunities are just some of the ways that play to both perspectives on SLM.

Complete Charge Capture of Service Delivery

SLM enables the complete capture of all parameters involved in delivering service (e.g., parts, T&M, expenses, ancillary services, extended warranties, etc.) ensuring that no billable charges are ever lost or overlooked, and ultimately improving invoicing accuracy. Through SLM, as soon as the technician closes a call and captures the customer’s electronic signature, that data can instantly be transmitted to the central billing system, thereby significantly streamlining and compressing Days Sales Outstanding (DSO).

An SLM system can also serve a useful role in assisting organizations in improving future product (and service) designs by identifying any flaws in their existing products based on both aggregate and product-specific service history. What’s more, by continually tracking product service history over time, any new or emerging design flaws can be identified as a particular product line moves through its maturity cycle, or as a new product line is introduced.

Maximized Cross-Selling and Up-Selling Opportunities

Through the capability of leveraging a Web-based customer self-service portal in conjunction with a dynamic self-learning knowledgebase, users gain the ability to offer new products/services at every customer interaction, resulting in increased revenues without increasing costs. A state-of-the-art SLM solution that embeds intelligent automation along with a robust product information management repository can arm all of the employees in the field with first-rate cross-selling and up-selling capabilities by prompting/alerting them of any potential sales opportunities (e.g., contract/warranty expirations, aging equipment, ancillary accessories, add-ons, etc.) at the specific time of interaction with the customer. Past Strategies For GrowthSM studies have shown that there is no better place to cross-sell or up-sell than at the specific point of customer interaction – and SLM is the only solution that provides field personnel with all of the tools they need to make it possible.

Ability to Leverage Service as a Competitive Advantage

Through SLM’s Business Intelligence (BI) capabilities, users can identify, monitor, and track opportunities to offer customized and global service agreements based upon each customer’s unique usage levels. By doing so, the customer benefits from having its service needs and requirements fully met, and the services organization can maximize its total revenues in the field. SLM also supports the services organization’s ability to deliver proactiverather than reactivepersonalized service – at an affordable price – empowering it to exceed customer expectations and generate repeat sales.

4.     Enhanced Quality and Growth

While most of the benefits described thus far focus primarily on transitioning from the past to the present, enhanced quality and growth clearly looks to the future of the organization – and this is where SLM excels. The three main components of these forward-thinking benefits may best be summarized as follows:

Ability to Deliver Consistent Service Globally

The most effective SLM solution is one that is truly global, able to support customers using all types of equipment, in all applications, and in all geographies by using the same database. As such, the SLM solution must be designed to implement common business processes on a single system worldwide with support for multiple currencies, operation centers, and price books – and be able to support global, regional, and local views of the service operation.Even if your organization does not presently operate on a global basis, your SLM solution must be ready to step up to the opportunity if it arises.

Modularity for Supporting Growth

An SLM solution must also be able to grow with the organization. Few services organizations actively plan to reduce their operations over time; however, with today’s economic and competitive pressures continually limiting available growth opportunities, services managers have to take advantage of every real opportunity that comes their way – and the best way to do this is through system modularity. For example, few systems today can support a global deployment through a single application.

As the service business grows, it will also likely require additional solutions to support that growth. A robust SLM solution will be able to support the business through the availability of specific modules that can be easily – and seamlessly – added as it undergoes growth, or change. Only a scalable SLM solution can offer the precise configuration and functionality that can enable a services organization to continue to support a growing number of users as it, itself, grows in size and capability.

Improved Quality and Reduced Costs

Through SLM, users are also able toidentify defective, outdated, or unnecessary parts, resulting in both enhanced quality of service delivery and reduced costs. More importantly, the most cost-effective spare parts can be easily identified and stocked, and any individual line items that may be adding unnecessary costs to operations can also be identified and flagged.

5.     Increased Customer Satisfaction

Historically, for some operations managers, customer satisfaction has been nothing more than an inexact science that defies accurate reporting, consumes a great deal of time and resources, and is immeasurable in terms of actual results. However, the vast majority of services managers in today’s marketplace recognize customer satisfaction for exactly what it is – an essential building block for long-term, profitable relationships that ultimately leads to customer loyalty and repeat business.

Numerous studies have also shown that acquiring a customer is a great deal more expensive than retaining an existing one. What’s more, the level of service a company offers may ultimately be the principal deciding factor between whether a customer becomes loyal to its vendor, or decides to switch to a competitive vendor, platform, or service. By utilizing SLM to anticipate customers’ needs and requirements, improve responsiveness, and deliver consistent service, services organizations can improve the way in which their customers perceive the quality of their service offerings – and this will go a long way in their ability to transform customer satisfaction into true customer loyalty.

The principal benefits of facilitating the transition from customer satisfaction to loyalty are summarized below:

Ability to Anticipate Customer Service Requirements

SLM provides users with easy-to-use functionality, an intelligent knowledgebase, and a comprehensive customer repository to track problems and potentially identify many other problems before they occur. With this valuable information at their fingertips, users can offer more efficient scheduling for preventive maintenance (or implement an IoT-powered Remote Diagnostics / Remote Monitoring platform), and minimize the need for on-site visits and repeat service calls, wherever possible. As a result, customer satisfaction is increased, and costly unscheduled service visits can be minimized.

By having real-time, anytime, anywhere access to customer information, repair histories, parts availability, and technical product specifications, field technicians will always be properly prepared and empowered to complete all of their work during the first visit to the customer site, thereby saving both the service provider and the customer time and money.

Improved Responsiveness to Customer Calls and Service Delivery

SLM empowers Contact Center and field personnel with visual alerts, automatic escalation, scripting, and question trees, so they are able to respond to customers’ inquiries quicker and more completely. Through SLM, they will also have a full range of corporate knowledge stores readily available to optimize the customer interaction process. In addition, the integrated, multi-channel inbound/outbound capabilities facilitated by SLM provide for unparalleled customer support in all areas, including placing and tracking an order, updating records, making payments, receiving remote support, and scheduling a service call. As a result, there will be significant improvements realized with respect to first call resolution, decreased call center times and costs, and the ability to deliver consistent – and consistently high – levels of service.

Making It Easier to Do Business – Making It More Profitable

In today’s increasingly fast-paced business environment, customers have very high expectations, and they will take no excuses for poor customer service. They expect fast, relevant, and accurate information from the companies they do business with, and they will accept nothing less. The self-service capabilities offered through SLM provide customers with all of the information they need – when they want it, anytime, anywhere. This, in turn, ultimately results in improved customer satisfaction and strengthened loyalty throughout the user’s customer base.

By implementing a state-of-the-art SLM solution, services organizations can positively impact all aspects of their business through improved invoicing accuracy, automated contract renewals, and the ability to offer customized service agreements – all of which are geared to improving their relationships with customers while simultaneously increasing revenues and reducing costs.

Best Practices FSOs Operate Differently to Maintain Their Best-in-Class Status

What Makes Best Practices FSOs Different from All Others? And How Do You Get There in the First Place?

[A Weblink for downloading the archived Webinar plus the companion Analysts Take paper is provided at the end of this Blog.]

Each year, Strategies For Growth (SFG) conducts a series of Benchmark Surveys among its outreach community of more than 29,000 global services professionals. Total responses for the 2017 Field Service Management Benchmark Survey were 419, of which 43, or just over 10%, are classified as Best Practices Field Service Organizations (FSOs) (i.e., those attaining 90% or higher customer satisfaction ratings, and 30% or greater services profitability).

Overall, survey respondents identify the following as the top factors, or challenges, that are currently driving their ability to optimize field service performance:

  • 53% Need to improve workforce utilization and productivity
  • 42% Customer demand for quicker response time
  • 42% Need to improve service process efficiencies

Based on the special Best Practices data cut from SFG’s 2017 Field Service Management Benchmark Survey, the key takeaways are:

  • Best Practices FSOs are driven to improve workforce utilization, productivity and efficiencies; meet customer demand for quicker response and improved asset availability, and increase service revenues
  • Nearly half of Best Practices FSOs are adding, expanding and/or refining the metrics, or KPIs, they use to measure service performance
  • Over the next 12 months, more than three-quarters (81%) of Best Practices FSOs will have invested in mobile tools to support their field technicians, and 61% will have integrated new technologies into existing field service operations
  • Field technicians are increasingly being provided with enhanced access to real-time data and information to support them in the field, as are customers through Web-enabled self-help capabilities (i.e., to order parts or initiate service calls, track the status of open calls, etc.)
  • All FSOs face myriad challenges; however, Best Practices FSOs are better equipped to deal with them

[To learn more about this topic, we invite you to download our September 12, 2018 Webinar on the same topic, hosted by global FSM Solution provider, Astea International (www.astea.com). To download an archived copy of the full Webinar, plus the companion Analysts Take paper, simply click on the following Weblink: Webinar Registration]

Using Service Lifecycle Management (SLM) to Support Your Customers While You’re Servicing Their Equipment

Every day you deal with a multitude of customers who vary by type, size, installed base, usage, personality and everything else that ultimately differentiates one customer from another. However, one thing always remains constant – their business systems and equipment are critically Important to their day-to-day business operations. Despite this common thread that runs through virtually all of the customers you support, it is still important to recognize that each customer account will likely be different in terms of:

  • The various types, brands, models and numbers of units they have installed at their respective sites;
  • The ages of the individual units that are covered under their various Service Level Agreements (SLAs), or supported viaa Time & Materials (T&M) basis;
  • The usage patterns of the equipment at their individual locations (i.e., continuous intermittent use; single vs.multiple shifts; simple vs.complex multifunctional peripheral applications; and so on);
  • The volume, capacity or throughput they regularly execute; and
  • Many other unique and/or specific differentiators.

For some of your customers, their equipment is an integral component of what they do on a day-to-day basis. Customers in all industry segments, whether it be legal, financial, medical, real estate, government, or other highly-demanding markets, will tell you that their systems and equipment are essential to their business operations, and that when their equipment is down, their production is severely affected. For some, even a small piece of connected equipment may be the only means they have for providing their customers with a receipt, order confirmation, or other important transaction-generated documents. In fact, for many in the latter category, their reliance on the equipment you support may be even more critical to them (at least on a relative basis).

Regardless of the specific industry market segment or type of customer, there will always be a basic level of reliance on the business systems and equipment they have installed at their facility. In addition, you will find that your customers will also be relying heavily on your organization to ensure that their equipment is always up and running as required – and as expected. As such, it is important to recognize that in the customer’s mind, if the equipment is not working optimally – regardless of the technology that may have been built into it – it is worthless.

Since there is just so much that the customer is either inclined or permitted to do in order to get the equipment back in working order following a failure, in most cases, your field technicians will be the sole entities that they can count on to make that happen (that is, aside from remote monitoring and diagnostics, etc.). Accordingly, they will need to approach the servicing and support of the equipment with a great deal of professionalism and responsibility. Customers usually do not care whether the cause of an equipment problem is due to a hardware or software failure; a paper jam; or whether it was the unit’s fault, their fault, or nobody’s fault in particular. All they know is that when they needed to use the equipment, it simply did not work.

This is typically where the organization’s field technicians come into the picture. In many cases, they represent the only “real” physical manifestation of the service and support that keeps their equipment up and running – or at the very least, they may represent their first line of service and support defense. Your customers may rely heavily on the equipment itself to support their day-to-day business operations; but they rely even more on your organization and your field technicians to ensure that the equipment can continually do what it is supposed to do.

This is a unique area where most services organizations – and their dealers and distributors – can use some help! The good news is that there is a Service Lifecycle Management (SLM) software solution available for users in every industry, size and geographic coverage segment. The implementation of anSLM solution can provide a comprehensive set of integrated business solutions that empower strategic initiatives while driving tactical execution.

Companies that install, repair, and maintain business systems and equipment can increase their competitive advantage, grow top-line revenue, and bolster bottom-line profitability through the use of an effective SLM solution. Among the basic features and benefits of SLM functionality for a typical Field Services Organization (FSO) may best be summarized as follows:

  • Comprehensive Contract and Service Level Management
  • Service and Sales Integration
  • Increased Help Desk/Contact Center Effectiveness
  • Field Service Efficiencies

Comprehensive Contract and Service Level Management

Through SLM, customer contracts and Service Level Agreements (SLAs) can be structured in ways that best fit the business, as well as the businesses of their respective customers. Key items such as maintenance and repair service; preventative (or predictive) maintenance; remote monitoring, diagnostics and repair; and draw-down contracts can all be easily established and managed. As such, the organization’s services management can be assured that all of the obligations of its customers’ SLAs are well-planned for – and met – and that all of its mission-critical commitments to the customer are being honored.

In this way, services revenues are maximized, and there is little risk of experiencing lost revenues. Company representatives can quickly and easily verify both the customer and vendor entitlements, thereby eliminating any costs that might otherwise be associated with providing customers with parts, consumables or services they are not entitled to under the terms and conditions of any existing warranties or contracts. This also ensures that any and all dealer claims will be quickly processed.

Service and Sales Integration

The Service and Sales Integration functionality of an SLM software suite can be relied on to enable the manufacturer’s and dealer organizations’ field service technicians and contact center personnel to more thoroughly service the company’s accounts, while also driving increased revenue in the process. By placing intuitive, easy-to-use sales tools into the hands of the appropriate service employees, the number of new opportunities to up-sell and cross-sell equipment, parts and consumables to existing customers will increase multifold.

The organization’s service technicians are out in the field every day talking to, and interfacing with, its customers; why not also provide them with the tools and resources they can use to close – or at least open –additional sales opportunities within this virtually captive customer base!

Increased Help Desk/Contact Center Effectiveness

SLM can also allow the organization to increase its call handling efficiencies, especially in the areas of first-call resolution and call avoidance rates. This will ultimately result in the lowering of internal service costs, and commensurate improvements in existing levels of customer satisfaction and retention. In many ways, business systems and equipment services have been somewhat commoditized over the years, and the only way that one services organization (or its dealers) can establishment a competitive advantage over another is to differentiate (i.e., improve) the way in which they support the customer base after the initial sale.

The best way to do this is to provide superior levels of help desk and call center support empowered by a robust SLM capability. By arming your call center personnel with accurate and up-to-date customer and installed equipment base information – be it entitlement, configuration, or marketing campaign data – the organization will be able to greatly increase its ability to sell, cross-sell, and upsell its entire portfolio of products, services, parts and consumables.

Field Service Efficiencies

Leveraging the field service automation tools inherent in the SLM software allows the organization to optimize its field force capacity utilization, resulting in significant operational efficiencies as field technicians quickly become empowered to increase revenue generation and recovery. By streamlining and managing the invoice process, billing cycles will be lowered, as will other key areas, such as Day Sales Outstanding (DSO), etc.

These improvements will almost immediately go directly to the bottom line as you will be able to manage your cash flow and receivables much more effectively. Similarly, by streamlining and managing your service inventories (such as trunk stock) more effectively, you will also be able to realize significant inventory cost reductions.

What many OEMs and dealer organizations seek is an end-to-end, enterprise-wide SLM solution that addresses the complete equipment/service lifecycle, from lead generation and sales quotation, to service and billing, through asset retirement. They are looking for a solution that both integrates and optimizes the critical business processes that all services organizations have to face with respect to providing their customers with the levels of service and support they require.

Services organizations that provide their customers with any combination of products, parts, services and consumables must be able to not only fix the customers’ equipment, but to fix the customer as well; however, the ability to do so may vary greatly from one organization to another. However, the most successful organizations will ultimately be the ones that have the right mix of management, personnel, tools, resources and solutions (i.e., Service Lifecycle Management), all working together to provide their customers with the levels of service and support they require – and expect!

Why Knowledge Discovery? Your Organization May Be Sitting on a Goldmine of Data!

These days, more than ever, businesses are operating in data rich environments. Data emanating from every-day business operations, sales and customer account activities, service call activity, financial and economic transactions, regulatory reporting and all the other business-related events of the world are routinely captured and stored in databases. Existing global databases are adding terabytes of new information daily. Every moment of every day bank transactions and electronic funds transfers, point-of-sale systems, hospital tests and procedures, factory production lines, airline reservations, service calls and even electric meters and gasoline pumps are creating digital records that are stored somewhere in a database.

The vast majority of these data, however, will never see the light of day. More often than not, these data will be stored for a specified period of time, in some cases as required by law, and then “purged” to make room for more current data of the same kind. This process is likely to repeat ad infinitum, each time replacing the “old” data with “new” data until the “new” data itself becomes “old” and must once again be replaced. Yet in many cases these data can represent a “rich ore” of valuable information and knowledge about the domain from which it has been taken.

What better source is there to learn about patterns of customers’ preferences and buying habits than from the customers themselves; not just what they tell you they need or like in a Customer Needs and Requirements/Satisfaction Survey, but what they actually buy. What better source is there to learn about equipment failures and service requirements than from the equipment itself; not just from what your field technicians tell you, but directly from the equipment. What better source is there to learn about the risk in lending or extending credit than from your business’s own financial successes and failures; not just from what your banks or creditors tell you, but from your own financial experiences, both good and bad. The list goes on and on.

Organizations are always searching for knowledge that can advance their cause and keep them abreast of the market, anticipated trends and the competition. Marketing managers would love to know what makes their customers “tick”. Manufacturing managers would do anything to find out how they could improve the quality of their products, even by just a fraction of a percentage. Not to mention the securities traders who would “sell their corporate souls” just to keep a half-step ahead of the pack in being able to detect a change in trends or receive an “early warning signal”.

Oftentimes the answers to these questions are contained in the data that businesses routinely collect, store and discard from their ever-growing databases. Many companies have already recognized the potential of this source of knowledge and have invested substantial effort and significant amounts of resources to uncover the precious knowledge “hidden” in their data. Among the various emerging technologies being utilized, some employ a combination of both the traditional and newer, more “exotic” paradigms in a field known as knowledge discovery, or database mining.

Credit card issuers are using advanced knowledge discovery methods to identify usage patterns that indicate fraud in an attempt to execute more effective fraud avoidance systems and, ultimately, minimizing their exposure to losses. Warranty management organizations are using similar methods to detect fraud in an attempt to reduce their traditional losses in this area.

Digital marketing companies use related methods to create more targeted and effective lists for the products and services they are promoting to improve their overall effectiveness. Automotive companies use the same techniques to discover patterns of failures and corresponding information to incorporate into the proprietary knowledge bases that they distribute to their authorized dealers and licensed mechanics. Many more applications of a similar nature span across businesses and industry segments of all types under the banner “Let The Data Work for You”.

The analogy of database mining to quarry mining is very appropriate too. In ore mining the process goes through tons and tons of dirt in order to extract one precious gram of gold. Similarly, in database mining, one may also need to go through very large quantities of data just to get to the “one piece of information that makes it all worthwhile”.

However, it is typically at this point where traditional analytical methods and approaches have failed, and the businesses that have historically used them have pretty much “given up”. Going through a large “mine” of raw data only to transform it into a somewhat smaller pile of statistics or summary tables is of very little use and often quite discouraging, and questions like; “What do the data mean?”, “How can we make use of it?”, and “How does it relate to our bottom line?” are all hard to tell.

Traditional statistical methods make assumptions about the data used and require a model in the form of an hypothesis that one can then either accept or reject. Quite often the data do not conform with the assumptions and there is no model. In addition statistics excludes from its realm many forms of data that are quite common in the expression and representation of some of the phenomena that are around us. To overcome these drawbacks, the process of extracting knowledge from data has turned to machine learning techniques.

Machine learning techniques, developed under the umbrella of Artificial Intelligence (AI), were originally patterned after a unique human intelligence trait – the ability to acquire and create new knowledge. From this basis, new and highly sophisticated AI techniques have been developed using a broad array of disciplines and strategies, and reflecting various levels of success.

In later stages of research some of these techniques have been incorporated into a knowledge acquisition process which represents a critical step in the process of building and maintaining knowledge-based systems. Prior to the development of such a process, this was typically the area that represented the largest “bottleneck” in terms of actually having the capability of building and using knowledge-based systems in practical business applications. Moving from this point forward (i.e., to expanding the use of learning mechanisms to database mining knowledge discovery), the distance is very short.

Today, knowledge discovery tools and methods employ a broad range of technologies and methodologies. Neural networks are probably the best known and most widely used approach to machine learning. The technology is quite versatile, relatively mature and has been used very successfully in a broad array of applications ranging from the screening of credit card applications, to placing geographically-based advertisements in national magazines, to reading handwritten addresses and routing the mail. Other discovery methods are based on technologies such as information theory, fuzzy set theory, rough set theory, nearest neighbor metrics and others.

Finally, with respect to the question “Why knowledge discovery?”, the answer should be more apparent by now. Your organization may be sitting on a “goldmine” of data which could be converted into useful knowledge – knowledge that can be used to help you focus your strategic and marketing planning efforts; monitor and improve the quality of your production and service delivery processes; and explain your customers’ sensitivity to your competitive pricing structure, customer service performance, brand name recognition, advertising and promotional campaigns or anything else you would like to learn about the markets in which you operate.

Many organizations have already recognized the potential benefits of these new technology applications and are utilizing these tools to lead them to smarter, more efficient and more productive operations. The list of such companies is growing every day – and your organization should also leverage the knowledge to join them.

An SFG℠ Analysts Take: There’s Nothing Artificial About Artificial Intelligence

[After you read our latest Blog, below, please be sure to take the time to participate in our 2018 Field Service Management Survey Update. We’ve already sent out our “Last Reminder” and will be closing the survey shortly. However, we don’t want to miss out on receiving your responses and insight! Simply click on the following link to access the survey questionnaire: https://t.co/wbTKMLWdpP.] 

The global field services community is always looking for “the next big thing” to impact Field Service Management (FSM), and many research analysts (including myself) are far too willing to debate whether something like 3-D printing, wearable technology or Augmented Reality (AR) are merely new technology “fads” or, rather, transformative technologies that will ultimately (and quickly) change the face of field service forever. [Note: I believe they’re transformative!]

Whenever a new technology (or a new application for existing technology) is introduced, the initial discussions may range from “It will be the best thing since sliced bread” to “it will never be accepted by the marketplace”. Most, fortunately, find their way into the ability to support the increasingly expansive functionalities of today’s (and tomorrow’s) FSM solutions. Technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) have already established a strong foothold in field service, both as a standalone platform or, integrated with Virtual Reality (VR) into a Mixed Reality (MR) platform.

However, the one “new” technology for which there is virtually no debate, even among the industry’s diverse research analysts, is Artificial Intelligence (AI). For that matter, you can also include Machine Learning (ML) in this category.

What makes AI and ML so different from most of the “new” technologies we have seen talked about in the past is that, first and foremost, neither one is really a “new” technology. The term “Artificial Intelligence” was first introduced in 1956 at an academic conference. However, it was not until 1961 when mathematician Alan Turing (the lead character in the movie, “A Beautiful Mind”) wrote a paper on the application of machines to “simulate” human beings and their ability to perform intelligent tasks – initially to play chess (and to win at it!). [Even I co-authored a published article on neural networks and artificial intelligence applications for field service back in 1993!]

Fast forwarding to today, we see just about every services analyst writing about AI and ML. For example, analyst firm, Gartner, included both AI and ML among its “Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2017”, stating that, “AI and machine learning have reached a critical tipping point and will increasingly augment and extend virtually every technology enabled service, thing or application. Creating intelligent systems that learn, adapt and potentially act autonomously rather than simply execute predefined instructions is primary battleground for technology vendors through at least 2020.”

Further, Gartner “advises CIOs to look at areas of the company that have large data sets but lack analytics. AI can provide augmented intelligence with respect to discovery, predictions, recommendations and automation at scale” – a perfect fit for field service!

However, research firm, Forrester, believes that “there is still a lot of AI progress to be made before machines can truly understand and guide next best actions” and that “Robots, AI will replace 7% of US jobs by 2025 (i.e., “16% of US jobs will be replaced, while the equivalent of 9% jobs will be created – a net loss of 7% of US jobs by 2025.”)

UK-based firm, iTouchVision cites the following four areas where it believes AI will likely have the greatest impact on the field service segment in the coming years:

  • Customer Experience – Primarily through the use of chatbots, “it will be possible to help customers with more speed and accuracy. These bots containing the customer and their equipment information can find out the problem and suggest a quick fix”.
  • Work Productivity – AI overcomes the hurdles faced by manual dispatchers. In the near future, we may also see the replacement of human dispatchers with an AI virtual assistant that considers all the service event parameters including unexpected events. It increases the job completion rate in the first visit by ensuring the worker has right tools and skills.
  • Predictive Maintenance – Predictive, rather than Preventive, maintenance is “the way to increase asset life and quality. The machine-to-machine interaction and the connected devices drive predictive maintenance. It eliminates the unnecessary technician visits to check machine condition”.
  • Data-Driven Decisions – “AI is all about data. With AI in use, it is possible to take more strategic decisions. Reduced repetitive administrative work allows human operatives to focus on predictive analysis. It governs end-to-end work and data flows with automation. Continuous data evaluation and processing presents a clear picture with analytics.

Overall, AI (and ML) are certainly not “artificial” – nor are they simply current fads or trends that will eventually bite the dust. They are real – not artificial; and, as such, should be carefully – and quickly – considered for incorporation into the field services management solution your organization uses to run its services operations.

Best-in-Class, Best Practices, or Benchmarking? Which Way Should You Go?

“Best-in-class” customer service and support is what all services organizations strive to achieve. However, many experts suggest that attaining “best-in-class” status in all aspects of customer service is – well – impossible! Even the very best customer service-focused organizations typically have one – or more – areas where they are not able to provide “best-in-class” customer support. However, whether a “best-in-class” organization really does – or can – exist, one thing remains absolutely clear: your organization must do everything it can to be perceived by its customers as being as close to “best-in-class” as possible.

In order to effectively move toward attaining “best-in-class” status, services organizations need to rely heavily on the formulation, development, and implementation of what is commonly referred to as “best practices” to support their customer service operations. The United States Government, General Accounting Office (GAO), defines “best practices” as “the processes, practices, or systems identified in public and private organizations that perform exceptionally well and are widely recognized as improving an organization’s performance and efficiency in specific areas”. The agency goes on to say that, “successfully identifying and applying best practices can reduce business expenses and improve organizational efficiency.”

However, in order to actually know whether your organization is currently performing at – or near – a “best-in-class” level, it will first need to “benchmark” exactly where it stands with respect to the customer service performance of other organizations – both in and outside of its field. This, of course, is commonly known as “benchmarking”. The American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) defines “benchmarking” as “the process of improving performance by continuously identifying, understanding, and adapting outstanding practices and processes found inside and outside the organization.”

We like to define “best-in-class” primarily as “customer service performance that successfully addresses the gap between the organization’s performance and the customers’ needs and requirements, and taking the necessary steps to close that performance gap.” While this may not take you all the way to a “best-in-class” level compared against all industries and all other services vendors, it will at least take you to where you are providing the highest levels of customer service and support you possibly can.

The GAO suggests the following guidelines as to what “best-in-class” is all about, based on the results of the benchmarking research it has conducted in the private sector:

1.  Make it easy for your customers to voice their concerns, and your customers will make it easy for you to improve.

Nobody likes to receive constructive criticism or have someone complain about their customer service performance to a supervisor. However, you should accept every customer-voiced concern or complaint as just another one of your “marching orders” to improve – or fine-tune – your organization’s customer service and support skills.

2.  Listen to the voice of the customer.

Customer service leaders demonstrate their commitment to resolving customer concerns by listening directly to the voice of the customer. By investing your time in communications with your customers, the payoff will be an easier path to get the job done – regardless of whether it is a service call, responding to a customer request or inquiry, or anything else that the customer feels is important.

3.  Respond to customer concerns quickly and courteously with common sense, and you will improve customer loyalty.

Customers tend to “reward” vendors who can quickly – and repeatedly – resolve their problems by remaining loyal customers. Quick problem resolution can add greatly to the foundation that you are trying to build in support of customer loyalty – and repeated quick problem resolution will all but certainly “close the deal”.

4.  Resolve problems on the initial contact – build customer confidence, and save money.

A customer callback that requires two or more company personnel to follow-up will typically cost much more than a call that was handled right the first time. Resolving a customer problem on the initial contact can also significantly build the level of confidence your customer has in your organization’s ability to get the job done. And once you earn this level of trust, it will be difficult to lose it.

5.  Technology utilization is critical in problem resolution.

Your company probably already uses a number of technology-based tools to support its field engineers’ ability to quickly resolve customer problems – but they need to use them! These tools should be used – as a matter of course –as support in providing customers with quick and effective solutions.

6.  Continue to train your employees in customer service and support.

Regardless of what customer service training you may have provided to your employees in the past, chances are they already need more training in order to remain effective. There are always new technologies and tools being developed to support their ability to provide “best-in-class” customer support.

7.  Focus on getting the job done; not just dealing with the symptoms.

If routine equipment and/or customer problems are effectively being resolved initially at the front-line, company management can focus more on improving the core processes, policies, and guidelines that drive customer service performance and customer satisfaction throughout the organization. “Best-in-class” companies use formal processes to, first, identify the problems and; then, to empower their employees to resolve them as quickly as possible.

The main lessons to be learned from approaching customer service from a “best-in-class” perspective are as follows:

  • Satisfying the customer must be your top priority.
  • View customer concerns and criticisms as opportunities for improvement – not just as problems.
  • Make it easier for customers to voice their concerns; this will make it easier for your service engineers to resolve their problems.
  • Effective customer service and support relies heavily on two-way communications
  • Well-managed customer service and support processes make everybody’s job easier – and customers more satisfied.

All of the tools you need to become a “best-in-class” provider are already in your hands; but, you have to make them available to all of your employees – along with the empowerment to use them!