From The Editor | March 22, 2007

Broken Service Chain

Optimizing the performance of your field force largely depends on how well you manage your spare parts inventory.

Integrated Solutions, April 2007

There's no question that effectively managing your field force is one of the most complex sets of business processes within an enterprise. However, all of those business processes are put in place to manage two basic things: People and Parts. It sounds simple.

The reality is an operational nightmare. Your company can make great strides in more efficiently managing your people in the field and maximizing their time. But, without achieving the same level of efficiency on the parts side of the equation, all of your work on personnel management will largely be for naught.

Think about it. Your back end software manages current and incoming work orders. The jobs are assigned to techs in the field based on location and expertise. Route optimization software provides techs with the quickest path to a customer site. Once on-site, your field force can access schematics, warranty information, and SLAs (service level agreements). Heck, the techs can even use mobile printers to leave documentation with customers. All of the communication between techs and headquarters is handled wirelessly and in real time via mobile computing devices. It's a picture of efficiency.

Keep that scenario in mind. Now, imagine that the techs have the wrong parts as they arrive on-site. Even more frustrating, another tech has the right parts but isn't located nearby. Or, the parts simply might not be in inventory at all. In any event, it's easy to see how all of the "people" efficiencies get washed away in a sea of parts inefficiencies.

It's easy to understand why enterprises focus more on managing people than the spare parts that these people require to perform their jobs. People, it turns out, are the biggest expense for any company. So, it makes sense that companies would maximize their biggest investment. But, how efficient is a tech without the right spare parts?

And, just how do those spare parts eventually end up in the hands of your field force personnel? Some companies simply address the problem by flooding their service chains with inventory. If every vehicle contains every SKU (stock keeping unit), then techs will also have the right parts on hand. Of course, carrying excess inventory is extremely expensive and prone to inaccuracy. Another approach is to ship parts to customer sites in advance of the field tech. This might ensure that both people and parts are in the right place, but it's a pretty expensive way to accomplish that task. This is especially clear when you consider the cost of shipping parts is often more expensive than the parts themselves.

The management of people and parts is important to any company that is looking to streamline operations and maximize resources. But, it's essential to the growing number of companies that consider their service operations to be profit centers, throwing off new revenue streams.

The good news is that there is no shortage of technology solutions — hardware, software, and infrastructure — that address the management of people and parts. Plenty of field force automation solutions offer integrated inventory management components, matching the right techs with the right parts. And, wireless carriers support real-time communication that allows this critical inventory to be managed in real time and in a lean manner.

No one ever claimed that managing your service operation was a straightforward process. With the right tools, however, you can manage your service with the same ruthless efficiency that you've applied to your supply chain.