At the inaugural Field Service News Think Tank Session the focus of the conversation was focused on the increasing value of the field service engineer and what field service companies can do to ensure they are employing, developing and retaining the finest talent available...
One of the most interesting things about the field service sector is that whilst as a discipline it sits across a huge variety of wide and highly disparate industries there remains overwhelmingly the same fundamental challenges, pain points and goals for every organisation operating a field service division.
Whether you operate in the print/copy market or heavy manufacturing, whether your engineers and technicians fix vending machines or jumbo jet engines, you will invariably find more common ground with other service leaders from different industries to your own than you will find differences.
In many ways the same is true whether you have 10 engineers in your territory or 10,000.
Yes, some of the challenges of running a larger field service operation are more complicated, as are some of the tools you may use to do so - but the fundamental elements of what is great service and its growing role within industry remains in organisations of all sizes.
Given the focus of companies across all industries on Digital Transformation has the importance of field service calls become even more important in terms of Customer Satisfaction and Customer Experience - as increasingly, the field service visit is now the sole (or at least most frequent) face-to-face interaction between an organisation and their customer base?
Has the role of the field service engineer become more important in this age of automation where digital customer interaction touch points are now heavily outweighing personal face to face human interactions?
Opening the conversation on this topic Steve Smith, CTO with Astro Communications, explained that for him and the team at Astro, the importance of great service and the field engineers role in delivering a good customer experience is something that has always just been part and parcel of the job.
“I’m not sure it’s more important, I think it is has always been important, especially if you’re in a customer service business,” he began.
“The only thing we have to compete against anybody else is our standard of customer service.”
“For us I think on that front it’s all about the diversity of people we employ which has been an important factor. We even taken people from a hospitality background and then teach them the technical side of the business, putting them through training or apprenticeship. We have also taken on ex-military people as they have the right mind-set, although again not necessarily a technical background per se, but we find that they have the personal organisational skills, the self-management skills that are important for a technician.”
“Ultimately, it really does stand out when you have good customer service...” Steve Smith, Astro Communications
It is an interesting opening point and one that is increasingly being echoed in a number of different service organisations. There are far more skills to being a good field service engineer than just the technical - and often it is easier to train the technical skills than it is to train softer skills such as communications and organisational skills.
“Ultimately, it really does stand out when you have good customer service,” Smith continues.
“For example, the MD of one of our own clients, TGI Fridays, always says that when you get great customer service, you feel it’ and that sums up our ethos as well. I think that for us, that approach has always been important, but perhaps with increasing competition more of a spotlight is being placed on service as a differentiator today.”
For Darren Thomas, Head of Service in Northern Europe for Waters Corporation, the growing levels of automation and remote maintenance driven by the fundamental economics of field service means that the importance of the field service engineer has indeed increased dramatically.
“It’s costs a lot to send an engineer to repair a broken system so we are investing a lot in what we are calling an ‘Expert Centre,” he explains.
The idea is one that many organisations have also adopted, a central destination where customers can discuss the issue at hand and go through some diagnostic tests with an expert which in an ideal world could help the customer get back up and running faster, whilst avoiding the need for an expensive truck roll for Waters. One nice element of the Waters’ approach is that many of their experts split their time between the expert centre and out in the field - so the field and repair skills of the expert centre staff are kept as high as possible.
"If one of our engineers comes across an issue that they haven’t faced before they are then tasked with writing up the resolution to that problem..." - Darren Thomas, Waters
However, whilst in theory it is a good solution that offers a potential win-win for customers dealing with simple issues, the flip side is in a situation where the resolution isn’t so straight forward, it can result in the customer having to perhaps feel like they are having to jump through a few hoops before they can get an engineer sent out to fix their problem.
“The negative feedback that we get from our customers when they contact the knowledge centre is that we ask them to carry out a lot of tests before we can dispatch an engineer and that can be frustrating when we are asking an experienced person have you done x,y and z?” Thomas explains.
“However, the point is that for our organisation it is the primary interaction that is important. So if a customer calls the Expert Centre then we can affect a good diagnostic or even a remote fix - so we are investing in tools to do that where possible. We are currently implementing a global initiative which we are calling ‘Knowledge Centre Support’, where we are pooling all of the first-time- fix reports - whether it be via an engineer in China , Europe or the USA.”
“Essentially, if one of our engineers comes across an issue that they haven’t faced before they are then tasked with writing up the resolution to that problem - which is then made available to all of our engineers and the Expert Centre, further helping us identify issues quickly.”
“We really are dedicating ourselves to that first-time-fix via remote support.” He adds.
At first glance, this may appear to be driving less importance to the field service engineer role, yet whilst it may potentially reduce the number of service calls Waters needs to make, the flip side of the same coin is that when an engineer is actually dispatched it means that all other routes have been exhausted. In which case by the time the engineer arrives on site the issue has become even more important in the eyes of the customer.
It is therefore vital the Field Service Engineer is able to deliver in this scenario.
This is something that Thomas firmly agrees with.
“At the end of the day once the engineer is sent out to our clients he or she then becomes the ambassador for our company. They become really important in terms of ensuring the customer is fully satisfied,” he comments.
“I think their role is absolutely evolving in that sense.” He adds.
It is an interesting point for discussion and Keith Wilkinson, VP of Sales for ClickSoftware picks it up and carries the point further.
"We have that one brief moment of truth where the engineer is sent out into the home or work place to not only just solve a problem, but also to make an impression on the customer...” Keith Wilkinson, ClickSoftware
“We are all consumers of services whether it be from your bank, utilities providers , telco or media provider – we are all seeing this rise in automation and self-service, so you could look at it and ask – ultimately is that human touch point still important?”
“But what inevitably happens is that automation, that self-service aspect will ultimately go wrong at some point and when it does go wrong we then we have that one brief moment of truth where the engineer is sent out into the home or work place to not only just solve a problem, but also to make an impression on the customer.”
“The customer will likely have tried some levels of self-service or even to self-fix the device because they just want to get it back operational again so they can get on with their own job – so now the engineer has all their trust and faith in your company riding on their shoulders.”
“So that engineer, from a digitisation perspective, needs to have all the tools, all the knowledge and information possible at his disposal so he can be empowered - so he can become that brand ambassador. I think those scenarios it can make a huge impact on whether or not, when the time comes to renew that specific contract you actually do so or whether you think ‘I had an important issue that wasn’t really resolved effectively’ in which case your advocacy of renewing that service may be less assured.”
In attendance in this edition of the Field Service Think Tank Sessions were:
Steve Smith, CTO, Astro Communications
Darren Thomas, Head of Service, Northern Europe, Waters Corporation
Keith Wilkinson, VP Sales, ClickSoftware
Vasu Guruswarmy, Former VP Global Service, Schlumberger
Robin Bryant, Service Director, Scot JCB
Wilhelm Nehring, CEO, Thysenkrupp
Kris Oldland, Editor-in-Chief, Field Service News
Want to know more? Read our full executive briefing report from this edition of the Field Service News Think Tank Sessions now and get the full insight from the senior field service executives taking part within the conversation.