Field Mobility: The Great Equalizer
Real-time mobile field service solutions help level the customer service playing field for small to mid-size organizations.
In terms of fast and accurate customer service in the field, there’s one thing that most tellingly separates the small guys from the big guys: paper. For smaller companies, perhaps the biggest obstacle to better customer service and competing with the big guys is the ability to increase productivity and streamline cash flow. It’s a big challenge when your processes are largely manual. Today’s mobile technology enables the real-time, secure exchange of information between your business systems, your field teams and your customer. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that by automating manual processes through mobile devices, companies are shredding the paper issue once and for all.
Old Pressures, New Urgency
Today’s troubled economic climate is confronting the service industry with a number of serious business pressures. “The truth is, these challenges are neither new nor unforeseen,” says John Pomerleau, director Industry Solutions Group, Field Mobility at Motorola. For the most part, they involve issues that field service businesses have been facing for some time now. “What’s changed,” continues Pomerleau, “is the urgency with which service businesses — especially local and regional businesses — must respond to and solve them.” As the economic downturn drains profitability from virtually every service business, a premium is placed on the organization’s ability to cut costs while improving service and customer relationships.
What are some of these pressures? One is having fewer people. Many service companies are being forced to cut costs through workforce reductions and now have fewer technicians to serve their customer base. Not surprisingly, another challenge is strengthening customer relationships at a time when customer expectations are ever on the rise. And as labor, materials, fuel and other costs continue to rise, how do the big guys, not to mention the small guys, ever expect to reduce their overall operational costs and maintain profitability? Then there’s the ultimate challenge—cash flow. “Field service organizations are focused on compressing the repair cycle,” Pomerleau adds. “They are trying to reduce the time it takes to close out a ticket, invoice the customer and ultimately receive payment for services rendered.”
Whether you’re providing equipment or building repairs, servicing HVAC operations or delivering pizzas, customers are more demanding than ever. First of all, they want to have their call acknowledged right away, and they don’t want to just chit-chat. They want answers. They want to know the process. They want a time line. When will it be delivered? When will the repair technician be here? And why can’t it be sooner? “Second, they want the service to be at their convenience, not yours,” Pomerleau says. “The days of ‘we’ll be there between 12 and 5’ are fast disappearing.” The customer won’t be home in the morning, so the call has to be after noon, but they have to leave at two, so could you please make that between 12:00 and 12:30, thank you very much.
In terms of the service itself, customers expect it to be fast and efficient… so they won’t be wracking up extra charges as the clock ticks away. They expect the technician to have the right parts and the right equipment and the right capabilities to take care of the problem the first time out. Long-term customers also want the technician to have access to their own account information, including details on their service plans, warrantees and service history to make sure they are billed appropriately — while at the same time, the company also needs to ensure the capture of all billable charges. In short, in order to survive and prosper, field service organizations must be able to do more with less. That’s a tall order, but, as Pomerleau notes, “it’s not only possible to accomplish, it’s relatively simple to accomplish.”
Caught in the Paper Chase
Manual, paper-based processes are perhaps the biggest obstacle to field service efficiency and productivity. Even relatively small service companies can process half a million or more paper-based transactions every year. The sheer effort to handle so much paper is difficult, time consuming and costly. But that’s only half the problem. When technicians have to write everything down on paper, mistakes are made. Accuracy and productivity suffer. Deciphering handwriting is always a challenge and time and efficiency are lost. Data entry is delayed, ticket close-outs are delayed and therefore payments are too. Worst of all, preventable mistakes are made, placing customer relationships in jeopardy. Furthermore, according to a recent survey, 9 out of 10 technicians get lost at least once per month adding up to higher fuel costs and lost service opportunities.
What‘s the answer? How do field service businesses disentangle themselves and their operations from paper-based inefficiencies and increase both technician productivity and customer service? The answer is a mobile field service solution enabled by powerful, enterprise-class mobile computers with wireless wide area network (WAN) and local area network (LAN) capabilities and integrated global positioning system (GPS), data capture and event debit/credit payment capabilities. Mobility has already proven its worth for large national and international service-based enterprises and is quickly delivering the same benefits for small to mid-size organizations. The question is: Can smaller companies afford to invest in mobility?
Mobility For All
The answer is more: “Can they afford not to?” “Historically,” Pomerleau explains, “the most significant barriers to smaller field services operations deploying mobile solutions have been cost-related.” In the past, only larger service organizations with 500 and more field personnel have been able to afford the price of entry to mobility, normally involving the purchase of a mobile platform and the development of custom applications. The cost of entry to mobility, however, is shrinking rapidly.
The economics of mobility have evolved into what the industry calls the “software-to-service” model. Today, companies with as few as 30 to 50 field technicians can utilize today’s mobile technology platforms and powerful off-the-shelf software solutions for a fraction of yesterday’s investment requirements. What they get is a powerful mobile service application that helps end the paper chase by providing reliable, secure mobile connectivity to every field technician and representative on efficient, easy-to-use, ruggedized mobile devices. (As many organizations have discovered, the use of laptop computers and two-way radios cannot come close to matching the functionality, efficiency or ease-of-use of today’s mobile enterprise-class handheld devices.) And with the convergence of voice and data on a single device, and new management and security software, companies can reduce costs, protect enterprise data and ensure productivity across the entire operation.
Mobility Changes Everything
Mobility is the great equalizer. Now even smaller companies can take advantage of the extraordinary service, CRM and ROI benefits of full mobility.
Access to Information. Field technicians now have instant access to a wealth of information from back room operations, allowing them to be prepared for virtually any customer service situation. On an enterprise-class mobile computer, field workers can call up the customer’s service agreement, account and service history. They can also view schematics of equipment to be repaired, with the ability to zoom in on specific components in great detail, helping them work faster and more effectively.
Real-Time Communication. Real-time always-on high-speed connectivity enables faster, more accurate dispatch operations, reducing response time and enhancing customer satisfaction. It also enables more efficient and more effective field force and asset tracking. Through GPS location functionality, management can tell exactly where each vehicle is at any given time. Is it in or outside the service area? Has it been parked in one spot too long? Might the technician be having a problem? Which vehicle is closest to an emergency call from an important customer?
Enhanced Data Capture. By capturing data electronically and transmitting it to operations in real-time, advanced bar code scanning functionalities can dramatically improve on manual processes by increasing accuracy, efficiency and timeliness. Image capture technology even allows the technician to photograph and document the condition of a particular piece of equipment which can be transmitted in real-time to update the customer’s records.
Point-of-Sale Services. In a difficult economy, virtually nothing is more important that cash flow. Mobile field service solutions facilitate full-feature point-of-sale solutions that result in faster, more accurate billing and faster payment. Peripheral devices such as credit/debit card readers allow on-site payment (and real-time payment authorization) and the capture of the customers’ signatures while mobile printing devices can generate an on-the-spot invoice where payment can’t be collected on site, dramatically reducing days sales outstanding (DSO).
Upselling. Service organizations recognize that every customer contact, even service calls, is an opportunity to increase sales. A mobile field service solution empowers technicians and representatives with access to upsell and cross-sell information. Based on first-hand observation, a cable television technician might sell a customer an enhanced cable package, or other services offered by the cable company. They can also offer special discounts or service bundles, even print out coupons for discounts on other products or services. And they can verify the sale with a customer’s signature, and even accept payment by credit card.
“In the future,” says Pomerleau, “technology advances will allow mobile field service solutions to take advantage of capabilities such as streaming video to enable on-the-go sales/service training with how-to-guides including schematics for both common and uncommon repair and service challenges.” It will also allow the correlation and coordination of communications including video, voice, photography and e-mail from a single device. “Mobility is absolutely a great equalizer, especially for field-based operations,” sums up Pomerleau, “Mobile solutions are helping local and regional service companies compete more effectively—and more profitably— against their competitors large or small.”