If you take the field out of field services operations, what do you have left? That’s what many companies have been wondering about at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, as many as 78% of field service organizations (FSOs) have stopped deploying their technicians and engineers to customer sites, according to a research report by TSIA. 

Author Radiana Pit | Copperberg

Photo: Freepik

The shift to contactless and remote service

FSOs that have stopped dispatching field service agents to customer locations either shut down during the crisis or found new ways to deliver their services. And although the idea of remote service is nothing new, companies made a huge leap towards it due to increasing health risks and social distancing norms. 

Advances in the industrial IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality (AR) made the leap possible for many companies, especially for the ones that have already connected their devices and were well on their way to digital transformation. 

This change, however, comes with its own unique set of challenges. The increasing demand for service jobs during the crisis has lead to a shortage of talent. Add to that the reskilling necessities for agents that now have to operate differently than before, and you get a whole other level of complexity to tackle.

But what about those agents that still have to operate in the field? 

Even during the height of COVID-19, less than 15% of service incidents were resolved using remote diagnostic capabilities because customers are reluctant to allow OEMs to connect to their products. This called for location visits from field agents to fix issues. So, how were they able to perform their duties and remain the cornerstone of service excellence?

Considerations for in-field technician utilization

The utilization rate of field agents is one of the key service metrics that can inform your employee productivity and billing efficiency. With the latest average technician utilization rate estimated at just 73% by TSIA, it becomes clear that technicians are spending too much of their time on non-revenue generating tasks that most commonly include traveling between jobs and navigating traffic congestion, restocking, paperwork, clarifying incomplete or inaccurate information, etc. 

This has a negative impact on overall business profitability. However, companies can staff up to complete all available work (although finding quality technicians is an issue in and of itself nowadays) and focus on improving the processes involved in assigning field technicians, including scheduling, streamlining data, ensuring consistent communication, and increasing first-time fix rates. 

One of the greatest techniques that can boost the utilization rate is predictive maintenance. With the help of an AI engine and IoT-enabled tools, technicians are informed of the performance of a piece of machinery or equipment and scheduled for maintenance before a malfunction occurs. By providing this type of fix-before-break service, technicians are able to not only prevent mechanical failures but also avoid urgent and costly incidents that may shake the entire system of the machinery.

Additionally, predictive maintenance tools can also help FSOs to determine the right times for appointments, thus enabling technicians to visit customer sites when it’s most appropriate in terms of social distancing and contact mitigation. Seeing how 81% of FSOs believe that smart products and IoT technologies will be the norm in 5 to 10 years, it’s safe to assume that predictive maintenance will become the way for field technicians to schedule service appointments.

Another forward-thinking technique used to boost the field technician utilization rate now and in the future is inspired by on-demand taxi services such as Uber. It consists of creating a network of contract field technicians that can be dispatched to service calls in real time. For example, a company can publish a new service task on an app, listing the necessary criteria and required skills. The task is then rolled out to relevant agents until one of them assigns it to themselves and goes on location to fix the issue. Some FSOs already developed such apps in-house, setting an example for companies that are looking for ways to balance the quality and speed of service today.

Insights into the future

By 2025, approximately 50% of field technicians are expected to resort to freelancing. This opens up a myriad of possibilities for both workers and organizations. On one hand, field agents get the opportunity to associate themselves as freelancers with the companies they want to collaborate with while keeping a flexible work style. High-quality talent is more likely to be attracted by a company that is flexible like that. 

On the other hand, companies will solicit the services of freelance field technicians to meet increasing demands and fill the workforce gap. For both sides, productivity is likely to increase. However, organizations must change the way they operate in order to maintain an efficient workforce, and in this endeavor, technology can be the greatest ally. Luckily, the field service landscape is ready for the technology leap. It has already started prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the adoption of field service capabilities that have helped companies build the right infrastructure for cutting-edge services.

Moving forward, predictive maintenance is likely to become one of the main activities of field technicians. This way, health risks for both customers and agents will be mitigated and the field technician utilization rate will increase. 

Last but not least, technicians that will perform their duties on customer sites will need all the help they can get from advanced technology, not only to solve or prevent incidents but also to protect their own health and that of everyone around them. With contact tracing, FSOs can do just that. As field agents move between jobs, their managers can easily track their movements, pinpoint their exact locations, and determine where in the field they had contact with customers. 

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