Magazine Article | February 21, 2008

Field Service Management Improves Customer Service

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

The latest field service management solutions go far beyond scheduling and dispatching technicians.


Integrated Solutions, March 2008

By now, if you manage a cadre of field service technicians, you most likely have deployed some sort of devices that allow you to communicate with your technicians electronically. Undoubtedly, these are helping you address some of the challenges involved with getting your employees to the right places at the right times with the right parts on hand. However, if you don't have a service management solution to manage your field service-related resources — or you're still using the same one you deployed a few years ago — you are probably not maximizing your field service operation. Today's field service management solutions go far beyond simply scheduling and dispatching your service technicians more efficiently. The added features and functionality can help you dramatically improve your customer service and cut your field service costs, giving you an advantage over your competition.

Traditional dispatch and scheduling solutions can provide your technicians with up-to-date access to customer histories, product data, and parts availabilities. Newer, advanced solutions provide end-to-end field service solutions in an integrated package, including the ability to manage in-house and third-party technicians, SLAs (service level agreements) and contracts, logistics operations, call centers, depot repairs, invoicing and billing, customer and technician Web access, wireless communications, and GPS tracking. Many vendors offer solutions that allow end users to create custom business rules and reports and to integrate their field service management solutions with their existing enterprise applications. In short, today's mobile field management solutions automate all aspects of the service call, from scheduling to invoicing the customer and tracking employees' time and travel routes.

"Many service businesses have more complex environments than manual processes can effectively manage," notes Debbie Geiger, VP of marketing for Astea International, a provider of solutions for service-centric organizations. "As the number of different factors that must be considered increases, the number of possible solutions increases exponentially. As the situation becomes less static, the ability to keep track of — let alone optimize — dispatch decisions becomes less feasible. And as the number of tradeoffs that must be made increases, the ability for a human to address this process manually or with a simple tool like a planning board or spreadsheet becomes inefficient and cannot provide optimal results. Scheduling optimization technology has proven benefits for companies that experience complex or dynamic scheduling problems."

Field service management solutions that integrate LBSs (location-based services) are seeing increased demand, as enterprises endeavor to optimize their technicians' travel. LBS solutions can be enabled by GPS, GIS (geographical information system), or AVL (automatic vehicle location) technologies. LBSs allow the field service solution to determine which technician is closest to the customer and then specify the quickest route to the customer. An LBS program with advanced mapping capabilities (i.e. one that is regularly updated with road construction and speed restrictions) can further optimize the route by directing the driver to avoid certain roads or even by giving turn-by-turn directions to a location. Based on exactly where a field technician is located, companies can make better, more profitable, and more efficient decisions on where and when to dispatch its technicians. Tom Bowe, VP of product marketing for Metrix, a provider of service management and mobile field service solutions, notes, "Service projects that reduce operating expenses are getting approved at a remarkable rate right now, especially scheduling and route optimization software with GPS tracking. At $3 per gallon, the ROI is very strong, and companies are motivated to reduce monthly fuel costs."

Sherry Jackson, CEO of field service management solution provider Nexterna, agrees. "Factoring in GPS and optimized scheduling, vehicle costs can be reduced by using efficient routing and vehicle maintenance alerts. This reduces fleet downtimes, while ensuring that necessary preventive maintenance tasks occur." Geiger adds, "LBSs are also being used in field service operations to monitor field engineers and their assets during their daily routes for safety, task optimization, and tracking purposes. This provides organizations with the ability to not only show where each mobile resource actually is, but where they should be based on work order and technician status."

Another trend is the convergence of parts and inventory management solutions with field service management solutions. Field service is not just labor management; it has a lot to do with coordinating the planning and provisioning of required service parts. For instance, if a service organization can determine that a certain part or parts are needed for a service order, the dispatcher or dispatching system can advise the technicians to pick up the part at a stocking location or make sure the technicians have the part in their vehicle stock. In some cases, business rules can be built into dispatching systems so that only those field technicians with the required parts on hand are eligible for service orders that require those parts.

"Parts and tools are integral to effective field service," Geiger points out. "Understocking inventories leads to service delays and purchases at premium prices. Poorly coordinated dispatching results in repeat service visits. The ability to see demand and assets throughout warehouses, vans, customer sites, repair chains, spares pools, parts exchanges, and in-transit parts improves stock-level control and reduces carrying costs. It also increases the probability of first-time fixes and enhances service delivery."

Increasingly, end user enterprises are looking for field service management applications that they can integrate directly with their ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) systems in order to eliminate duplicate data entry, saving time and reducing the chance for errors. "Many of our customers see a decrease in staffing as a result of customized workflow and automation/integration with their back office systems," says Jackson. "These personnel savings include operational staff, as well as field service employees."

Metrix' Bowe adds that companies are looking for service management software that is certified to run on virtual servers. "In the not-so-distant future, your field service system might be implemented as a virtual appliance instead of a hosted SaaS [Software as a Service] or an installed application," he says. "A virtual appliance can be running in minutes, is easy to deploy, has reduced support costs, is available as a monthly subscription, is easy to upgrade, disaster-proof, and scalable. But a virtual appliance doesn't require you to share a database with other companies or have a third party host the solution. Virtualization has all the benefits of SaaS and more, without the security problems."

Finally, as the technology that enabled mobile field service management solutions in the first place — wireless communication — continues to evolve, more functionality will be possible, both at the enterprise level and in the field. "Wireless communication will improve, offering transmission of more data in less time at a reduced rate, and coverage will improve vastly, almost ensuring ubiquitous coverage," says Jackson. "Advancements in PDAs will reduce or eliminate the limitations those devices currently present, moving toward devices that resemble full-fledged computers."