The industry’s service function has undergone a paradigm makeover in recent years. For many field service organizations (FSOs), the journey began well before the pandemic, but the last couple of years have significantly accelerated digitalization projects. As FSOs found themselves in a state of market volatility with increased demand for online and remote services, they hastily turned to innovative solutions as a way to ensure business continuity, thus setting the foundation for the hybrid model that is pervading the market today.

Author Radiana Pit | Copperberg

Photo: Freepik

Considering the scarce resources, limited onsite accessibility, and increased technician turnover, the challenge of a new modus operandi was much more significant than it seems in retrospect. And although now the hybrid model is emerging as a ubiquitous reality, its long-term viability is still a big topic of debate. FSOs are looking for ways to consolidate this model, oftentimes unsure if this is the solution to a more sustainable and resilient future.

At the Field Service Forum 2022, we’ve talked a lot about how digitalization can improve field service performance, looking at connectivity and data as solutions for building resilience while also addressing the shrinking talent pool in the field. We’ve also looked at the new hybrid model and what managing the onsite/offsite service paradigm entails for FSOs.

To continue this business-critical conversation, we sat down with Ahmed Gharbaoui, Aftermarket and Service Expert, and Marco de Sanctis, Field Service Manager at Agilent, for a panel discussion focusing on the hybrid workforce and the solutions that facilitate optimal field service delivery even in times of crisis.

Hybrid solutions that stand the test of time

The pandemic gave FSOs the challenging opportunity to deploy digital solutions, measure their performance, and experiment with innovative concepts. Many adapted parts of their operations to an online format while keeping the legacy format for other parts of their workflow. Looking at the changes that occurred in the service model during that time, FSOs learned which solutions are viable moving forward. 

For Agilent, which manufactures solutions for the healthcare industry, reinventing the customer support model was of utmost importance. The pandemic-related restrictions affected the company’s ability for customer support due to the lack of IT tools and talent needed for the deployment of smart solutions. The company started to work on expanding its ability to provide remote support on customer sites and improving its troubleshooting capabilities. This was made possible by synchronizing both internal and external resources in terms of IT, remote assistance, and connectivity. 

For Aftermarket and Service Expert Ahmed Gharbaoui, connectivity and the data exchange it facilitates has become the most important solution to emerge from the pandemic. The data provided by connected machines provides insights from the installed base that enables FSOs to not only develop personalized solutions for customers but also predict outcomes and potential malfunctions.

One hybrid model, two service teams

Shifting to a hybrid service model means separating field technicians into remote and onsite teams. This can often create a lack of collaboration between the two, so consolidating a good relationship from the very beginning is essential. However, considering the post-pandemic labor crisis that has been looming over the industry for the past two years, splitting an already shrinking team into two service teams can pose quite a challenge.

To overcome the conundrum, FSOs are considering internal education programs to expand the skillsets of existing technicians and are looking for ways to attract new talent. Many members of Generation Z, born roughly between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, have graduated and launched their careers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them are also interested in pursuing a career path in the industry that supports hybrid work.

Our panelists agree that attracting a new generation of workers that is tech-savvy and embraces remote services is a good place to start, but it is only a part of the solution. The other part is incentivizing the current workforce despite changing job descriptions and mixing roles. 

As the first point of contact, field technicians will continue to play a major role in generating leads, and receiving a share of that revenue could motivate them to stick with the organization for the long run. And although many of them may have a difficult time adjusting to digital integrations within their workflows, they will be much more receptive to change knowing that those solutions enable them to plan their onsite visits well in advance. 

Urgent visits will still occur as they are part of the business, but planning tools can significantly decrease the pressure on field technicians. Planning tools help free up time that can be used to engage in remote support or other projects that will make technicians feel less isolated. 

Although visits to customer sites have a social aspect to them, field technicians can oftentimes feel isolated from the organization. And that feeling worsened during the pandemic. As such, a higher degree of involvement can bring a positive contribution to the overall motivation of the field technician.

On the flip side, remote teams are expected to do more work moving forward as remote services continue to increase. In addition, FSOs will be able to optimize onsite jobs, shorten the service cycle, and take action before an onsite visit is even needed by drawing insights from equipment data and making the customer a part of the solution.

That way, remote services will help close the gap between demand and the shrinking talent pool in the industry, but for traditional customers, in-person visits from field technicians will continue to be in high demand.

Making the customer part of the solution

Customer expectations have changed. From demanding safe and secure data exchanges to access to self-service, customer expectations are evolving and FSOs need to accommodate them. There are many factors impacting customer behavior today, but one that is not mentioned enough is the new wave of customers. 

Generation Z is not only entering the field service workforce but it is also becoming a big part of the installed base. They expect remote services from their equipment providers and they are comfortable with DIY solutions using their mobile devices. And while FSOs are striving to cater to that demand, they find themselves at odds with traditional customers who want their trusted field technician on the site for every maintenance or diagnosis appointment.

According to our panelists, FSOs see this as an opportunity not only to educate customers but also to embed a new provision within the value proposition. Before remote support, sending field technicians to customer sites used to be the first response—now, it is the last. For customers who are not comfortable with this change, on-demand visits can be included in the agreement as a premium service.

However, the focus remains on making the customer part of the solution. There are plenty of services that can be done remotely, including customer training for workers on the frontline or equipment operators. Furthermore, even the most traditional customers would choose fast support, seamless interactions, and constant monitoring to avoid downtime—especially in industries like healthcare, where customers can lose a lot of profit if they compromise remote diagnostic capabilities.

The field technicians of the future

The career of a field technician seems like a neverending journey of customer visits, repairs, and maintenance work. But the hybrid model is creating opportunities for a more interesting career path. Senior field technicians can leave the field behind and sit comfortably behind the curtain as remote assistants for their customers or younger counterparts on the field. 

They can also choose to switch to more commercial departments or continue on the service path as trainers or team leaders. For global organizations, having local service leaders drive field teams is much more efficient than a manager at a high level.

Last but not least, our panelists envision a more gender-balanced workforce, as remote services and clearer career paths are more attractive for women in the industry. In an otherwise male-dominated environment, women’s perspectives on field service as well as their expertise are indispensable moving forward.

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