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Get Me to My Call On Time

How Web and Wireless Communications is Helping Create a Revolution in Mobile/Field Service Delivery

Few industries operate with as much egg on their face as the $22 billion market for computer field services.

I know, because I've been there and had to wipe off my fair share of embarrassment. As the former regional manager of a large information technology field service provider, I came to work each day knowing I'd spend a good many hours apologizing for the glitches and screw-ups that kept our customers waiting and fuming.

  • "Sorry, sir, that replacement keyboard is still on back order - someone should have contacted you."

  • "No, ma'm, according to our scheduling matrix, the technician should have been there three hours ago."

  • "Please understand, miss, we have no access to the supplier's catalog. Note that we're on a different time zone and their offices won't reopen until Monday. Yes, of course, I will make sure to alert our mailroom that you intend to FedEx a large pipe bomb to our offices."

And could anyone really blame our customers for venting their frustrations? Every day, computer manufacturers and dealers are selling elaborate systems and equipment backed by our "Fail-Safe Next Business Day Parts and Labor On-Site Response Service Contract." What they forget to mention is that they're operating on a tri-lunar holiday calendar that calculates "next business day" by a formula determined by "whenever conditions seem favorable."

No one has done a credible survey assessing how often or by what timeframe next-day service is off the mark, in part because the customer market is so widely fragmented: 87% of businesses engaging mobile field services have fewer than 100 employees. Companies like these don't generally go to court because their computer took a week or ten days longer to fix than their VIP service contract guaranteed. Which is not to say that they aren't losing business and customers of their own because of service lapses, or that they aren't switching IT providers every chance they can on the hope that sooner or later someone will begin to get it and actually make good on the terms of a service contract, call in, call out.

An Army Outnumbered by SOS Calls

In fact, the road to quality field service is paved with good intentions. There are approximately 75,000 IT service providers in the U.S., employing upwards of 500,000 hard-working technicians and engineers who do an incredible job at staying current on rapid changes in computer technology and equipment. IT field service has become a viable career path for thousands of young people, and the upward mobility within the profession - and on the job - has been a boon to the entire technology services market.

And the numbers keep growing, as OEMs and resellers routinely subcontract their accounts to numerous national third-party providers, who in turn may turn to smaller regional firms covering zoned territories. The national market for computer services is projected to reach $30 billion by 2003, much of that fueled by 20% growth rates among the top tier of providers. Forrester Research predicts that outsourced IT services will replace corporate IT departments entirely over the next several years, covering not only repair and maintenance, but the spiraling demand for installation, system upgrades and professional training.

Unfortunately, even an army of seven million strong can't keep pace with the far greater enormity of S.O.S. calls stemming from hardware failure, system troubleshooting, and the sheer basic maintenance requests that most service contracts provide. Recent estimates place the number of IT service calls at 300 million annually. Consider that 70% of those calls require replacement parts and you begin to appreciate the disconnect that has created the Mother of All Bottlenecks preventing service providers from getting the right person to the right place at the right time with the right part.

You also understand why service managers like me often felt like besieged EMS workers - screaming our way up and down the procurement chain looking for a miracle to keep our customers breathing until real help arrived.

Field Service is Customer Service

Companies that regard mobile field service as an after-market loss leader are doing themselves tremendous injury, for it is this famous "last mile" of customer relations that can make or break the reputation of a branded manufacturer or reseller. Recent studies by Gartner Group and others have shown that field service has moved beyond its dim boiler-room origins to become a vital part of the equation for measuring customer loyalty. Field service, noted Gartner, "traditionally a low-visibility, back-office function, is suddenly finding itself in the spotlight as a critically important part of the service economy." In other words, the perception is starting to take hold that in many parts of the New Economy, field service is customer service.

Much of the problem in existing field service models - whether for sophisticated network servers or your office copier - really rests in the way communications occurs among various stops along the supply chain. Ironically for an industry so reliant on scheduling and logistics, many providers are still operating with whistle-stop methods.

Even a well-staffed help desk or a first-rate Web site call center can't come to the rescue if there is no coherent, live communications system linking parts supplier, purchase manager, distributor, dispatcher, service manager and field technician.

As it is, less than 30% of the largest service providers - those with more than 100 technicians - have automated their dispatch and logistics operations; very few of these have begun to harness the Internet to advance their efforts. Meanwhile, it is a certainty that the vast majority - the 85% of service providers with less than 50 employees - have been even slower to establish a collaborative online solution to managing their mobile field operations.

New Links to the Chain

All that said, the field service model is indeed starting to change, thanks to the Web, the advent of wireless application protocols, and also a new generation of software and e-commerce solutions aimed at integrating the entire supply chain.

It may be hard to imagine, but a normal service call for spare parts today may take as many as 30 different steps to complete, with various lines of communication routing through a telephone-centric model monitoring everything from tech support to warranty checks and work-order updates. Under the very best scenario, that initial call takes a minimum of 21 hours before an ordered part gets shipped on its way. Almost by nature of the current phone-based system, it is practically impossible to make good on the promise of next-day delivery even if all assigned steps proceed by design.

With an Internet-based network simultaneously linked to a provider's OEM, logistics and distribution partners, its field engineers and service subcontractors, and its customer's IT sales and service departments, that same service call can be reduced to 21 steps from start to finish, getting the part shipped in only 11 hours.

Of course, no one will ever eliminate the myriad external variables that conspire to delay a parts shipment or deliver an overdue technician from rush-hour traffic to a customer's door. But for the first time, thanks to the right logistics software and the real-time virtues of the Internet, you can begin to manage resources and expectations around those externalities to improve the delivery of your product - and that is truly a revolutionary concept for field service providers.

Making Service Providers the Center of the Universe

An Internet-based field service delivery chain fundamentally changes the way traditional checklist functions are performed. Dispatch, inventory control, parts ordering, time and material tracking, scheduling, product pricing and availability, returns and invoicing, and technician support can all be dramatically enhanced with Web communications, which can also be adapted to suit specific industry workflows and processes.

It means that technicians have direct access to their provider's e-procurement network. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. Parts requests that may ordinarily have been circulated through sluggish offline channels can now be confirmed directly according to needs in the field, with subsequent information on shipment, delivery and even product promotions accessible to the technician. A happy, informed field technician makes a terrific sales person on the front line of the last mile. A frustrated, out-of-the loop technician is another gray hair for a service manager.

But there is another obvious virtue of the Web, which is the hyperlink function that can make a service provider feel like he's at the center of the universe for once in his life. Information I would have done anything to have on hand when I was a district field manager is instantly available via the Internet. Customized packages have been created offering providers online mapping and navigation tools, real-time traffic and weather reports, tech support, training materials, supplier catalogs, and other field service lifesavers. Most of us take such easy-access content for granted on our home PC or at our desk, but until you've been at the receiving end of an irate customer call you may not be able to appreciate the value of such an online support network at your fingertips.

Ultimately, the Internet-wireless approach promises substantial economic incentives. High inventory carry costs should be reduced. Specialized procurement staffs should be less necessary. Shipping and billing should become much more streamlined. Our own field-testing of a Web-native logistics and communications network suggests cost and time savings of 30% or more on most basic tasks.

Wireless and Hand-Helds Should Drive Acceptance

How quickly will the industry adapt? Fortunately, initial product offerings have come to market that are pure HTML-based and can be accessed via any standard browser on every major hardware or software platform. That should be a godsend to the majority of providers still using basic operating systems such as Windows, or who still access the Web via Netscape. While legacy systems may be a long-term issue, the good news is that providers do not have to overhaul their technology to join the party.

If anything, the field service community is well primed for a new delivery model judging from the way most providers have embraced wireless technology in the last year. Even the smallest subcontractor is apt to be well-equipped with two-way pagers, Nextel phones, and Palm Pilots and other hand-held devices - all of which are perfectly suited to the communications and e-commerce network described above. By 2005, two-thirds of the largest providers are expected to have transferred their support operations to wireless.

It would seem that the industry already has adapted, in so far as its willingness to accept the new communications technology. For some it may be seen as a value-added proposition. I would argue that for the majority, adapting now is a matter of sheer survival.

Peter Semmelhack is founder and CEO of New York-based Antenna Software, Inc., the leading provider of integrated Web and wireless solutions for the mobile service industry. Mr. Semmelhack spent nearly four years as Northeast Regional Manager at Barrister Information Systems, a national computer service provider, where he managed a large network of field engineers and technicians. Mr. Semmelhack previously was a staff consultant at Oracle Corporation.

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Peter Semmelhack, CEO, Antenna Software, Inc.