Across 2020 we saw a massive change in the field service industry. Some of the very fundamentals of field service delivery will have changed in many ways, possibly forever. However, while we reached this point perhaps sooner than expected, in the December/January edition of Field Service News, Kris Oldland, Editor,-in-Chief, Field Service News, made the case that much of what is being discussed as part of the 'new normal' has been developing in our sector as best-practice for a long time...
Remote service, servitization, embracing the blended workforce, customer-centricity and empowering decision making from the field have all been put forward as critical pillars of whatever comes next after recovery. However, we had seen examples from many innovative companies adopting these approaches long before words like bio-security and essential workers entered into the day-to-day lexicon.
Indeed many best practices were prevalent in the industry that have stood us in good stead against all of the challenges we have endured over the last twelve months. Not least of these has been an agile mindset that had begun to emerge amongst field service companies. This is almost certainly set to become a hallmark of business moving forward into a post-pandemic world.
"Companies have had to get comfortable in recent years, making faster decisions and completing more agile projects. Still, COVID amplified this need," Comments Sarah Nicastro, Vice President of Service Management Customer Advocacy at IFS. I believe companies will look to remain more nimble in the new normal than perhaps they had been previously.
Nicastro's comments are echoed by Laryssa Alexander, President Field Service Division, ECI Software Solutions, who added, "I think the key positive for field service businesses in 2020 was that ability to adapt and adapt fast.
"As businesses, we often talk about those next steps, those advances that either changes the way we work or are changing in the market - it can then take us a while to adapt to them. In this case, two strategic initiatives were available to them, diversification in terms of markets and customer segments as well leveraging automation across all solutions and customers to ensure they are streamlined and efficient.
"When faced with the pandemic - businesses couldn't just talk, they had to act, had to react, and you saw this in field service, especially through technology. Field service, in its very name and nature, is an industry that can't just work from home; it has always relied on field service agents to be out there on-site - carrying out their responsibilities in maintenance and care for customers.
"Therefore, to keep people safe, communication became even more vital and through initiatives such as push notifications, for example; integrated with the central ERP, field agents were able to be updated on appointments and update customers on appointments through an app including the steps needed to keep each other safe ahead of visits. Suddenly it became crucial to all our field service customers, not just those who had already made more forward-thinking investments. Innovation was suddenly second nature to all businesses - it's that survival instinct kicking in."
"During the next few years, infrastructure, and in particular the Cloud, is likely to be the main focus for field service businesses..."
- Laryssa Alexander, President Field Service Division, ECI Software Solutions
Alongside such natural survival instincts, however, we also saw the importance of a robust digital infrastructure. It has become clear that without an underpinning digital infrastructure, much of the agility and innovation we have seen throughout the pandemic would have been almost impossible.
Indeed, in many ways, we are fortunate that we had already begun our digital transformation journey in our sector some years ago. Of course, different companies would have been on different points in that journey; however, the pandemic's impact is that most of us will now find ourselves further down the path than we had planned at this point.
As we move into the new normal of our sector, it is more evident than ever before that technology will play an even more significant role than ever before. However, what has become hugely apparent is that field service organizations must ensure they have an infrastructure to support such evolution.
As Alexander continues, "During the next few years, infrastructure, and in particular the Cloud, is likely to be the main focus for field service businesses who will be looking to ensure the systems they have in place support and are scalable too, an ever-changing customer landscape and a more flexible team model. Ultimately to make sure they can offer the services their customers need. Agility and integration will be central to this, and a cloud-based ERP system provides the foundation for them.
"Due to the pandemic and lockdown restrictions introduced by world governments, many businesses had to look to short-term fixes to keep their field service business running and ensure their remote workforce had access to all the tools and information needed to carry out their roles and support customers.
"These changes will be needed long-term, and a more permanent solution will need to be found. ECI is already seeing field service customers in North America and Europe upgrade their ERP and switch their hosting to our cloud solution from on-prem - to ensure their business is future-proofed and able to operate more flexibly."
Indeed, the pandemic has not only sharpened our thinking in terms of how we can meet best-in-class service standards that we have seen before but also has forced us to embrace what for many companies were new ways of working entirely – particularly remote working, which a study by Field Service News Research revealed was something now over 75% of field service companies have offered to their clients, with two-thirds of these only have done so since the pandemic.
"These innovations have likely spawned from the greying of the average field service engineer and the need to overcome an impending knowledge gap across the global workforce..."
- Jon Arnold, VP of Sales, EMEA, RealWear,
As Jon Arnold, VP of Sales, EMEA, RealWear, explains, "Prior to the pandemic, remote service delivery was growing in demand as reliable, integrated and sophisticated technologies became more readily available.
"For example, through the use of head-mounted devices such as RealWear's HMT-1, remote field service technicians could receive real-time support for complex issues from specialists anywhere in the world. To keep up with demand, the past few years has seen a steady rise in Independent Software Vendors (ISV), ranging from small start-ups to major industry players. These companies have produced a range of solutions, covering the generally relevant remote mentor and collaboration use cases to highly specific scenarios such as IoT (Internet of Things) visualization and inspection or certification of maintenance procedures.
"These innovations have likely spawned from the greying of the average field service engineer and the need to overcome an impending knowledge gap across the global workforce," he adds.
Remote service is also an area Nicastro thinks will be critical in the next few years, with a concentrated focus in the industry on "advancing and refining efforts around remote service," she explains.
"Companies quickly ramped up the use of augmented reality and other remote service tools when the pandemic hit saw immense value in doing so, not just for business continuity but for business transformation. As things normalize, companies will be focused on determining how to cohesively integrate remote service into their service delivery strategy."
Another facet to this same focus area is going to be around how field service companies utilize such tools to overcome and improve their approach to existing challenges.
"The most significant topic for field service companies to focus on will be the need to train their local workforce," Arnold comments.
"Firstly, due to Covid-19, travel will likely be reduced both regionally and globally over the next two years making it difficult for industry experts to offer their assistance on-site."
Indeed, could it be that adopting such technologies and programs can also ease one of the most considerable pressures our industry has been facing for a long time before the pandemic, an ageing workforce crisis?
"Realizing what we're truly capable of, as individuals and as organizations is the single biggest positive we must take from the last twelve months..."
- Sarah Nicastro, Vice President of Service Management Customer Advocacy
As Arnold explains, "the aging workforce's impending retirement and their diminished attraction to constant travel makes training an increasing necessity. However, this will partially be mitigated by the new ease of part-time and home working; allowing for senior Engineers to supply support from home or a local office on a part-time basis."
Ultimately, the pandemic has impacted us all, yet there is always opportunity in the face of adversity, and we must harness this now as we look to the future.
"Realizing what we're truly capable of, as individuals and as organizations is the single biggest positive we must take from the last twelve months," explains Nicastro.
"This year has challenged us in ways we could've never anticipated, and we've come out of the experience stronger and with more perspective. This shows us we can do hard things and tackle obstacles head on."
"The pandemic is the single most disruptive global event to hit business and our wider society since the second world war; having forced many organizations to radically shift their working practices and trust their employees to get the job done with minimal supervision and local support," agrees Arnold.
"However, whether digital transformation was adopted by design or out of necessity, the resulting flexibility and speed of change that this has engendered, will not be given up by organizations focused on field execution nor by the employees who have shown huge value and adaptability to their respective companies during these challenging times."
The road ahead certainly seems more straightforward than the one behind us, but we still have much work to do. However, the opportunity for a future that outshines the past is in our own hands. Now the hard work begins.