Mobile/Field Service Management Software:
Why You Need It, and What It Needs to Do for You
(Originally published in the March/April 2003 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)
By William K. Pollock
The services industry is evolving rapidly, and is likely to continue to do so - even more rapidly - over the next several years. New technologies will proliferate, new applications will become available, and new software will be sold to support them. That is why it is so critical to choose absolutely the most appropriate mobile/field service management software, with the most effective modules and applications, from the right vendor with the best after-sale customer and technical support capabilities.
The days of the past where services organizations got along just fine by providing their field technicians with nothing more than a clipboard, a van, and a cell phone are long gone. Today's customers expect nothing less than real-time support from their services vendors. As a result, service managers find themselves constantly addressing questions such as, "Is our services organization able to meet the growing needs of our customers?" and "Are our capabilities evolving at the same pace as our competitors?" If the answers to either of these two questions are anything less than a resounding "yes", you may quickly find yourself at a significant competitive disadvantage in a market dominated by other technology-based services providers.
Regardless of the current state of your organization's technology base, one thing should be very clear - what was good enough to run a services organization yesterday will not be good enough to keep your customers satisfied tomorrow. In fact, according to Leo A.P. Moerkens, President of Hands-on Management Consultants, Inc., "today's services organizations need to rely on much more than just service management systems to run their businesses" (Figure 1).
Still, Gartner reports that field service applications have been a "bastion of wireless success and value" with wireless data initiatives often showing "positive ROI within nine months". Further, they expect this market to "continue to grow in users and functionality" throughout the foreseeable future. According to the analyst firm, while historical applications have focused on areas such as job scheduling and dispatch, the introduction of newer technologies have also provided additional value by increasing the number of calls that can be made "via more efficient dispatch, rapid rescheduling for rush or emergency jobs and notification when jobs are complete".
Currently, we believe there are five trends that are strongly influencing the mobile/field service market:
It is clear that the technology is here to address the needs of real-time service for field service organizations. However, the problem has been to find the one software package that has been able to successfully integrate all of the relevant technologies into a single, practical, cost-effective solution.
- Service management software is now being developed to handle the entire service business, and not just small tactical areas.
- Communications technology is promising to greatly improve the efficiency, flexibility and performance of service organizations.
- The web has made universal access a requirement for software.
- Organizations are attempting to limit customization of software and, for the first time, the software industry has the ability to make products far more configurable.
- Integration/interoperability between different software packages - the transfer of information between applications - has been made much easier because of XML.
What to Look for in a Mobile/Field Service Management System Package
We view the traditional components of a Mobile/Field Service Management System package as typically being comprised of the following types of functionality:
However, according to Leo Moerkens, "there may also be many other specific areas of functionality that ultimately define just the right package for any given services organization". As such, we have attempted to list and describe the most commonly sought types of functionality, categorized by Office Functions (Table 1) and Field Functions (Table 2).
- Call handling, knowledge base, and service call prevention
- Field service planning, scheduling and control
- Optimized dispatch, including integrated mapping and GPS tracking
- Logistic/Inventory management
- Project management
- Depot repair processes
- Contract administration and preventive maintenance processes
- Asset management with equipment history
- Wireless functionality - mobile devices
- Web functionality
- Operations and management reports
- Accounting/Financial supports with integration to accounting/ERP packages
- Planning and forecasting functionality
Summary of Mobile/Field Service Management System Office Functions
© 2003 Hands-on Management Consultants, Inc. and Strategies For GrowthSM
|Customer File Maintenance
||Interfacing of data originating from CRM, contact management and/or financial systems to provide up-to-date/synchronized information flows.
|Installed Base Maintenance
||Automatic updating of installed base records for moves/adds/changes, or when parts are used during a service call.
|Service Agreements Administration
||Interfacing of installed base, billing, call handling, and parts databases to determine entitlement and billables (becoming increasingly customized).
||May range from a complete manual interface to a customer-controlled interface where the creation of a work-order is an escalation step; heavily dependent on the complexity of the equipment and/or software.
||Utilizing real-time location functionality to make the most efficient dispatch decisions (enabled by GPS mapping); usually driven by response times as delineated in service agreements.
||Capability to create optimal routes to minimize travel time and optimize efficiency (enabled by integrated mapping capability) (mainly used in high-volume segments).
||Assigns field technicians to customer sites, and balances the workload; should also have the capability to seamlessly allocate inventory and ship parts.
||Generally driven by equipment availability and supported by an interface with the logistics function and/or purchasing module (some complicated projects that include design/site readiness, software development, etc. may require an add-on project management tool).
||Customer support functionality built on a foundation of electronic documentation, decision trees, case-based reasoning techniques, and knowledge-based tools.
||Financial, for billing, post-calculations and cost tracking/allocation; Operational, for process control and management; and Analysis, to assess processes and drive process improvement, inventory investments and customer satisfaction.
||Principal elements are forecasting, planning, purchasing, warehousing, replenishment/auto-replenishment, emergency parts ordering, returns handling, depot repair, and inventory control (often linked to ERP and Supply Chain Management systems.).
||Provides a direct link between the cost of the purchased goods and services to the billing side of the business.
||Facilitates the real-time ability to quote/price goods and services (e.g., service agreements, parts and accessories, T&M support, etc.).
||Generally interfaced to the organization's financial systems so that invoices can be created in real-time, directly from the field.
||Real-time, wireless data communications enable organizations to instantly link their office functions with the mobile/field workforce.
Summary of Mobile/Field Service Management System Field Functions
© 2003 Hands-on Management Consultants, Inc. and Strategies For GrowthSM
| Field Function
|Maintaining the Schedule
||Interactivity between field and office functions allows for scheduling information to be sent/updated without the need for a telephone.
||Direct integration into a front-end application, so that information can be transferred in real-time to update office records.
||Integrated into the front-end application so that a single entry will allow information to be distributed to multiple modules.
||Built into the front-end application, so that a single entry can be linked to multiple parts of the office system, expediting account reconciliation.
||Provides for real-time trunk inventory tracking, parts ordering, and automatic replenishment.
||An automated, easy-to-use, virtual Field Service Report, containing the appropriate information on areas including activity tracking, time tracking, expenses, parts used, etc.
||Real-time field billing functionality (incorporating electronic signature capture) allows for automatic invoicing for service, parts and/or consumables, and accessories; linked to the main system for billing, and synchronization of information.
||Functionality that replicates the field technician's ability to record notes in the field about customers, parts, equipment, calibration, etc.
||Instant accessibility of support documentation (e.g., instructions, drawings, etc.) delivered via field communications devices.
||Communication interface (i.e., server) that can handle the required channels/carriers, for both voice and data communications.
||Real-time access to customer information base, allowing for instant, and easy, updating of customer information from the field.
|Installed Base Information
||Ability to make installed base and configuration information available to field technicians in real time, and facilitate automatic updates.
|Service Agreement Information
||Ability to provide field technicians with real-time access to service agreement information to determine entitlement, customer billing, etc.
||Provides field technicians with access to catalog and pricing information so they can sell consumables and accessories to customers while they are on-site.
||Provides field technicians with access to knowledge-based systems to assist them in the diagnosis process.
But, what ultimately makes one software package more robust than another? Although the definition of best-in-breed functionality may differ greatly from segment to segment, the following criteria can be used to identify those that have fully embraced the new technologies:
What Is Real-Time Service, and Why Do Field Organizations Need It?
- Real-time operation and communication. This requires real-time system access to every person in the organization through the use of mobile devices, Web-based access, or some combination of the two. The software that is ultimately selected will need to be developed with the end user in mind, and must be highly customizable to meet the specific requirements of both the organization and the individuals who work for it. The incorporation of voice activation and recognition technologies will also serve as a differentiator.
- Flexible and secure customer interface. The trend is toward customer self-help and eService in an effort to reduce cost and increase customer satisfaction. This requires the integration of knowledge-based systems in the front-end business applications. The next level will be interfacing to help-desk via chat and/or IP Voice, possibly in the future combined with video.
- Workflow and performance monitoring-based dispatch functions. This requires scheduling and dispatching tools, which will allow dispatchers to proactively manage their business process. Visual tools (e.g., dispatch boards and views that are integrated with maps, real-time location, and the integration of all data required to make the best dispatching decisions) combined with the appropriate drill-down techniques will also be necessary to allow dispatchers to be as effective as possible in their function, along with the ability to handle larger groups of people.
- Real-time transactions, both in the office environment and in the field. This is necessary to respond quickly to customer requirements, manage the processes in a real-time and proactive mode, and to keep investments in inventory down while maximizing parts availability.
- Business rules flexibility. This is also necessary to easily implement and configure the systems to specific customer needs. This includes screen changes to support workflows and create user-friendly interface to the end-users. However, it also applies to the functionality necessary for automating transactions that may currently require manual intervention.
- Field technician functionality that combines all the administrative tasks and integrates them into one application. The most common tasks are activity tracking, time tracking, and expense tracking. These functions, combined with data communication, and in place of voice communication, will increase the efficiency of the field technician and drive costs down while increasing information accuracy and speed of billing. Empowered by real-time, wireless data communications, more functions can be automated directly from the field, such as call closure reporting; automatic parts replenishment following parts usage; and electronic signature capture for immediate customer billing; etc.
Services organizations are what keep businesses up-and-running. Equipment doesn't run by itself - people make it run. But when the equipment isn't running the way it should, that is when services organizations need to step in make it all happen. We believe that every business's service operation is comprised of a "collection of moving parts" - including service personnel, the call center, and the installed base of systems and equipment - and that all of these components need to be working together in order to solve customers' problems.
Thus, it only makes sense that since system failures occur in real time, that system "fixes" should also occur in real time. This is the principal rationale behind what most industry analysts have seen as the market's need for wireless-based, real-time service management.
One of the first companies we saw that provided a complete real-time service solution was Nexterna, Inc. Their Nexterna Clearview system allows field service technicians to work together in real time with the central office by integrating a complete, web-based field service management application with GPS tracking and wireless, mobile communications systems. Nexterna, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Union Pacific Corporation, has more than a decade of experience developing wireless fleet and service management systems for mobile resource management. Their experience shows that a real-time wireless solution allows service organizations to more effectively manage their respective technicians' skill sets and current locations, parts availability, and customer SLA requirements, while at the same time, improving overall productivity, reducing operating costs, and most important of all - increasing customer satisfaction.
Nexterna identifies four principal technologies that power real-time service capabilities in today's marketplace. These include (Figure 2):
- Web-based software
- Wireless, mobile technology
- Integrated mapping and GPS
- Configuration, automation and interoperability
According to the company, the advancement of technology has made the ability to provide real-time service not only a reality, but also a necessity in today's services-oriented environment. Each of these technologies is now readily available, although not always fully integrated into every vendor's wireless, mobile/field service solution packages. However, the question is no longer whether Web, wireless and GPS technologies will work, but rather how they can best help to improve the quality, responsiveness and efficiency of service delivery. In fact, with companies like BellSouth, FedEx, Patterson Dental, and Sears already having moved to real-time, wireless/GPS systems, the argument can easily be made that the impact of these technologies is already being felt.
As a result, we believe that the market's expectations for immediate access to important data and information are also rising. Customers are increasingly being exposed to the availability of current, accurate and immediate information from a growing number of their vendors. For example, companies like FedEx and UPS have been providing access to real-time shipment tracking for some time now, and an increasing number of customer call centers are now providing callers with their place in line as well as an estimate of how many minutes will transpire until a customer service rep takes their call. With real-time data access already being provided by so many different types of vendors, we believe that the market now expects the same levels of support from all of their vendors - especially from their field service and support providers.
For most technical service organizations, serving customers is the ultimate measure of performance, where operational excellence brings improved customer satisfaction and loyalty, as well as a genuine competitive edge. Even the best-performing service organizations will require real-time service functionality in order to survive - and thrive - in an increasingly fast-moving and demanding market environment.
Let Your Business Drivers Direct Your Service Management Software Selection.
Whichever mobile/field service management software your organization ultimately chooses, its most important consideration should be the ability to match the benefits of the selected package directly to its unique business drivers. As such, it is critical to identify your primary business drivers before selecting the vendor and package that best meets your requirements.
Nexterna has identified a basic set of business drivers that it believes may serve as the primary areas of focus in the development of every wireless, real-time service management solution. These business drivers, or objectives, include:
Reduced Operating Costs and Improved Cash Flow
Increased Operational Efficiency
- Reduced number of callbacks
- Reduced use of vehicles on non-service related activities
- Minimized time between work completion and invoicing
Improved Productivity of Field Service Personnel
- Increased service order completions
- Improved resource utilization through more efficient dispatching
- Better communication with field workforce
- More accurate record-keeping
- Automation of simple, yet time-consuming tasks
Improved Customer Service and Loyalty
- More efficient scheduling and routing
- Reduced wait time for contact, contract, or parts information
- Reduced paperwork
Better Inventory Management
- Quicker response time
- Increased number of calls completed on the first visit
- Decreased billing disputes
Improved Tracking and Visibility
- Reduced inventory levels
- Improved re-order program
- Higher inventory availability
Based on research conducted in behalf of our own clients over the past several years, we also believe these drivers to represent the real justification for why wireless, real-time service management solutions, powered by GPS mapping functionality, are required in today's increasingly demanding marketplace.
- Electronic service orders ensure accuracy
- Improved vehicle, inventory, and technician location capability
- Real-time status updates
- Customers can initiate and check call status online
The Wireless, Real-Time Services Management Value Proposition
The benefits of real-time services management are many, both for the organization's service personnel, as well as the customers they support. Through the use of wireless, real-time service management systems, the organization's service personnel gain the ability to:
However, just as importantly, the organization's service customers can also:
- Access information anywhere, anytime using a wireless handheld device;
- Instantly view service level, equipment warranty, and contract information;
- Capture signatures, enter labor and travel times, record cause/repair codes, and allocate parts;
- Close and bill service orders themselves; and
- Minimize travel time between calls by using a live, graphical site map to determine proximity.
This, in turn, enables the service organization to:
- Take an active role in their own customer service;
- Electronically initiate service requests and monitor call status; and
- Get immediate answers to their service questions online.
Wireless, real-time mobile/field service management systems, incorporating Web-based software, wireless data communications, and GPS mapping functionality, provide a "win-win" situation with identifiable and measurable results at all levels within the services organization. From management, to staff, to service techs in the field, and to the customers themselves - all parties can easily understand how the system will be of value to their day-to-day business operations.
- Manage its service and sales operations with one tool from a single source;
- Coordinate the actions of its service people, call center, and entire back office -continuously and seamlessly;
- Give its service people and customers web-access to vital service information;
- Use integrated mapping dispatch to route more efficiently;
- Track the technician time and parts associated with each service call or contract;
- Set the stage for controlled inventory to help keep costs down;
- Facilitate the streamlined flow of information between and among dispatch, finance, purchasing, and inventory;
- Ensure that customer service level commitments are being met; and
- Review comprehensive reports to get a clear picture of the operation's profitability.
The technologies that can enable real-time service are already here, and the market need is evident. However, since there are only a limited number of commercially-available packages currently on the market to support this functionality in a real-time basis, prospective users must be diligent in their quest to find the right package that meets all of their specific needs.
William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM, a consulting firm specializing in strategic, marketing and business planning; market research and customer/market surveys; customer satisfaction measurement and tracking; services marketing; and Customer Relationship Management (CRM). He may be reached at 610-399-9717, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional information on this subject, please refer to the companion white paper available either at www.nexterna.com or www.s4growth.com.