How do large Field Service companies gain competitive advantage?

The ability of technology to seamlessly connect the back office and front line service personnel is now widely acknowledged and can be seen by the growing number of businesses investing in Field Service Management (FSM) systems.

While such systems have been around for a number of years, the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets/phablets and the browser-based information exchange these offer, have led to a new generation of smarter, more intuitive solutions. However, gaining competitive advantage, especially for businesses having to manage large field service teams, increasingly lies in making the best strategic use of this technology.

As with all things, achieving competitive advantage involves overcoming various challenges, one of the key challenges for companies with a large service team being timeliness and accuracy of reporting, at an individual engineer level and across the entire team. Put simply, the ability to know "What is going on out there" is essential, not just for maximising day-to-day efficiency and reacting to short-term issues, but also for reviewing and amending ongoing strategic decision making. While knowing the former may affect the cost-efficiency of individual jobs/engineers, the latter has a very real impact on the bottom line of the entire business.

The larger the service team, the more data there is to be potentially collected and analysed by more people across the business. It is here that the often overlooked area of reporting offers real competitive advantage. The company which can quickly access its information in appropriate real-time, flexible formats, from multiple points across the business (from the board room to dispatch room) and, most importantly, which can also trust that information, has a real advantage over the company reliant on inflexible reports only accessible and understandable by a limited number of people within the organisation. Not only is the former company able to be more responsive and agile at an individual job/asset level, it has the potential to be so at a strategic level by being able to analyse and spot any emerging trends and react accordingly.

This in turn is foundational to overcoming another challenge facing large service teams, specifically maximising customer facing time by intelligently scheduling the best use of each engineer. In smaller service teams, there are less engineers to manage and it is inherently easier to optimise their use. As the size of the team increases, there is the potential to treat each engineer according to more generic rules which may work better some times and less well at others. When a company has an FSM system that provides the visibility and accuracy of data described above, each engineer can be treated on an individual basis by the user utilising the knowledge and data held within the system. Not only does this potentially increase the quantity of jobs achieved over a given time period, it also potentially increases the quality of customer service as the customer will invariably get a quicker and more helpful response.

It's not just managing human resource that represents a greater challenge to the management of larger service teams, there is also the not inconsiderable challenge of minimising mobile stock levels. A company of five mobile engineers requiring fully stocked vehicles compared to a fleet of 500 vehicles represents not just a vast difference in terms of tied up stock, it also represents a greatly increased risk of stock obsolescence. It is for this reason that companies with large field service teams are beginning to gain competitive advantage by building relationships with suppliers at a local level. If successfully done, local suppliers can either work on an agile basis and replenish individual vehicles as and when required, or even arrange to deliver to a customer site to coincide with an engineer visit. In each case, not only is the need to keep large levels of stock reduced, it also has the beneficial impact of empowering individual engineers who can then manage their own stock requirements, to a degree, with preferred suppliers. This in turn can lead to improved reliability of supply because supplier/customer relationships are managed personally at a more local level while still benefitting from the buying power of a larger supplier. To this end, modern FSM systems now include local purchasing functionality as well as comprehensive Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) capabilities.

Just as smart phones and tablets enable the mobile workforce to exchange data in real-time with the back-office, companies with large service teams are beginning to gain competitive advantage by proactively encouraging customers to share what can often be mission critical data. One such example is in a service/repair context where customers can aid preliminary diagnostics by sending a picture or video of the asset/problem in question. In some cases, this is enough to enable a skilled service engineer to work remotely with the customer to resolve an issue much quicker than sending an engineer on-site. This can also be advantageous where different engineers have areas of specialist knowledge; an engineer on-site can instantly communicate with another engineer that may have more experience for advice and direction, again removing any unnecessary waiting. For some companies where downtime of an asset can be measured in thousands or tens of thousands of pounds per minute, this is an advantage offering huge potential savings. And, when supported by FSM systems that seamlessly integrate comprehensive Electronic Document Management, any such information can be stored centrally making it instantly accessible in the future.

At the heart of success for any service business, irrespective of size, are happy, satisfied customers. While technology in the form of FSM systems can bring considerable benefits, the larger the service team concerned, the greater the need to rely on the strategic use of such technology and not just the technology itself in order to gain and maintain competitive advantage.