Field Service Management (FSM) refers, quite literally, to the management of a company’s resources when they’re off-premise, either en route to, or on-site at, a client’s project location. Today, FSM is employed by numerous industries whose business activities require the deployment of mobile agents or contractors for work assignments in the field. A sampling of the great diversity of industries that rely on FSM to manage their resources are given below, but this is a very limited representation:
- The telecommunications and cable industry
- The in-home healthcare industry
- Utility companies
- Public sector transportation (such as trains and buses)
What all of these companies have in common is that they provide an off-site service, or an off-site installation, repair or maintenance of a product. They all have a mobile workforce that operates in multiple locations, performing a variety of services. These very fluid work environments increase the challenge of managing them exponentially. For example, monitoring field workers from a remote location may lower employee productivity. The responsibility for managing customer expectations and ensuring optimal customer service for on-site interactions must also be prioritized, even though it requires a greater effort to carry out. And industrial equipment left underutilized on the field can be very costly to the business.
These are just a few of the additional challenges that companies with field service operations deal with on an ongoing basis. The responses that the marketplace has offered to address these challenges have largely involved the development of software systems. In fact, the last 10 years have been particularly fruitful for FSM software producers, and the overall quality of the software has improved. The software now offers greater choices to businesses by offering them the option to deploy both on-premise or as a hosted/cloud-based system. In addition, FSM software is able to integrate with backend systems such as service management, billing, accounting, parts inventory and HR systems, creating a greater cohesion between in-house management and off-site work projects.
While the reach and efficiency of FSM solutions have improved significantly, many small businesses haven’t adopted the software in great numbers. Unfortunately, many are still relying on copious, under-productive, paper-based FSM methodologies, and aren’t benefitting from these technological advances.
Addressing FSM Challenges With Software
Most FSM software systems in the market today can proactively assist with many of the challenges that are unique to field service operations (as noted above) by dealing with the issue of long-distance management. Some of the more prominent features of the software are:
- Creating work orders
- Ensuring the best field technician for the job has been dispatched
- Allowing management to monitor performance in the field, and the status of specific work projects
- Allow for digital data entry, record keeping, invoices on-site and work completion signatures by clients
Field technicians require the best tools to keep up with rising customer expectations at all levels of the interaction, and a software solution that targets service delivery by making it faster, smarter and more personalized goes a long way to ensuring that end.
The benefits of FSM software are many, and as the use of cloud-based business solutions become more affordable and more accessible through mobile devices, FSM will continue to grow in importance. What is now already a multi-billion dollar industry will continue to expand.
It’s important to note that not all FSM solutions are designed to provide the same level of support and intervention to all industries, and across all user intent. In fact, individual systems can offer a wide range of capabilities and functions to choose from, depending on the industry and the level of intervention that’s expected.
After all, field service businesses come in all shapes and sizes; a small- to medium-sized company would probably require quite a different set of capabilities than a multinational organization. As in most cases, sound software selection ultimately depends on the circumstances and conditions that are unique to your business needs. FSM software is no exception. If your business goals include reducing expenses and improving productivity, then achieving these goals will be best served by an FSM platform that best aligns with your day-to-day activities.
Technology is now married to the cloud platform for real-time information exchange. Smartphones and tablets enable service technicians to perform on-site data entry (as opposed to returning to the office to enter data) and real-time analytics. In addition, the adoption of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) permits smaller businesses to have access to a full suite of FSM software through a monthly subscription, and therefore can compete against large companies with in-house software bought up front.
As businesses like Uber provide examples to customers of cloud-based real-time scheduling and tracking, our expectations for timely delivery of products and services have become much more sophisticated. One study showed that 89% of customers would like to see the Uber-model adopted for technician scheduling. For example, when technicians are held up for a service delivery, they can employ an FSM to update customers, explain changes in the scheduling and reschedule the appointment to a later time, if necessary.
FSM solutions can also make fleet management much more efficient. For example, GPS-linked software on snow plows can tell management where the snowplows are located, what streets have been cleared and where snowplows can begin clearing snow.
FSM can also provide added value value in other ways. Access to instruction manuals and diagnostic tools better enable service workers to perform their work. Contractors can be integrated into asset management and evaluations. Digital data entry has proven far more accurate in logging hours and in tracking job completions. Digital record keeping can also serve as a proactive tool for business audits.
As customers become more savvy about the innovations in mobile enterprises, FSM is expected to become a critical key to success.
While the field service industries are increasingly adopting FSM software as partial or whole solutions, as customized suites purchased up front or as SaaS, the very recent introduction (circa 2015) of a new player in the field of technology has changed our expectations for FSM.
When Virtual Reality Enters the Scene
This new player is virtual reality (VR) — an extraordinary tool that envelops individuals in an alternative environment. VR is usually associated with immersive glassware and headphones, but tactile technologies, such as specialized suits and gloves, are also available. VR is being framed as the next emerging trend that will offer companies the ability to not only think outside the box, but also to see outside the box. According to many industry experts, both VR and augmented reality (AR), in which the individual’s actual environment is not changed but enhanced, could have an important role to play in the future of field service and how business is conducted.
Why is the case for VR and AR in field service management being portrayed by many analysts as the big game changer?
The answer to this question is complex, but one aspect is quite clear: the introduction of this type of technology into the arena of FSM isn’t simply a means to improving business productivity or reducing expenses, but is in fact restructuring how business functions are carried out.
We will look at two examples of functions that have been impacted by VR/AR, how field work has been transformed and how the quality and productivity of work has increased.
The first of these falls under more than one job category — it involves the level of knowledge that a field technician would need in order to complete an assignment. Virtual or augmented reality provides the next information-age step that’ll take FSM beyond manuals on smart phones. For example, the use of a special headset or smart glasses (such as Oculus goggles) could enable a field service engineer to virtually walk through the project scenario without ever leaving the main headquarters, simultaneously communicating with the technician in the field and advising him/her on the required steps.
In this set-up, one experienced engineer could supervise and troubleshoot at multiple sites where less-experienced field technicians are located to complete the job. According to many industry researchers (including Howard Lightfoot of Cranfield University School of Management), this functionality could “…de-skill field service activity.” Consequently, in parts of the world where a skilled worker isn’t available, VR and AR will link less-skilled workers to a skilled technician back at headquarters who can take them through the process. The most detailed level of operation can be accessed by 3D or holographic imaging, so that instructions are communicated as though the engineer was present, and with instant feedback on the result.
The cost savings are significant; not only the ability to hire less-skilled technicians for on-site work while being supervised by a single skilled technician, but also the fact that the supervisor could be thousands of miles away, reducing the expense of flying experts out to every complex job. In addition, whereas previously at least two engineers were needed at every work site to ensure quality control, the use of this technology eliminates the need for engineers to be physically present at the work site, further reducing operating costs.
The second industry function that will be revolutionized by this technology is in the field of training. As a training tool, its ability to place technicians and engineers into the environment they’re learning about is without comparison. Its potential as a highly detailed and highly visual training tool will simplify and deepen the student’s understanding of complex tasks.
While we’re tempted to think of VR and AR as far-off realities, the largest cloud-based solution providers are already investing in these platforms. Facebook has purchased Oculus VR, and Google has Magic Leap. Microsoft is now also promoting its Hololens platform.
Like all seismic shifts in technology, it’s difficult for small to medium enterprises, and even large, multinational ones, to see any ROI for VR and AR in FSM, at least in the short term. However, the collaborative VR and AR service model, as well as VR training, will prove to be the new models of how field enterprises will operate sooner than we expect. So put on your VR glasses and prepare for the future!