Resilient field services

Roy Chikballapur

May 8, 2020

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Machinery companies with a mature field service activity have perfected processes and trained service engineers to intervene proactively and rapidly to deliver their SLA’s. The last 6 weeks have turned their traditional field service execution models upside down. As businesses re-emerge from the lockdowns, resilience will be the key word for many service leaders. Lasting digital transformation will be critical to deliver on the outcomes that customers expect when they sign up for service contracts – higher equipment availability at lower costs.

We heard from some companies that they rapidly adopted consumer tools like Whatsapp to ensure business continuity for their customers, and to counter the closing of borders and the general travel restrictions. To paraphrase Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, even companies in the machinery sector have achieved more digital transformation in the last 2 months than in the previous 2 years. While the aim was to keep businesses running through the lockdown, in the next phase, companies will need to prioritise scalability-driven efforts – to embed these tools more firmly into their work processes, to integrate the data that these digital interactions generate with their customers into their ERP and CRM systems and perhaps most importantly, to build resilience into their digital-powered work processes to survive potential future lockdowns as well as a permanent change in employees’ attitudes and preferences about their workplace and even, the meaning of their work.

Below, I narrow down the 4 digital capabilities that I believe are going to become critical for any field service operation to survive and thrive in the new world that we have entered. Please feel free to share your thoughts on what other capabilities might also be necessary.

  • Asset Relationship Management: Simply put, there is no field service business without a usable database of install-base information. While in the past, most companies got by, relying on disparate ERP & home-grown CRM systems, excel files on shared folders and the like, it was during the onsite customer visits that the real opportunities for services such as upgrades and overhauls emerged. In a world with fewer in-person meetings, new service offers that are developed not only need to be linked to specific machinery models that they are applicable for, but also to the specific customers who are operating these machines. The speed and ease at which this insight can be gained will determine the success of rolling out new upgrades and retrofit service products to the market in the future.
  • eCommerce: Many companies we speak with say that they have deployed eCommerce portals. However, it doesn’t take very long in the conversation for them to admit that the customer uptake of such portals is very poor. Even the customers that do take the trouble to log in to such portals are often content requesting for and downloading quotes so that they can issue purchase orders from their ERP systems. The fundamental shortcoming of most Enterprise eCommerce systems today is that they are meant to solve the company’s internal problem of manual order entry in ERP systems. Since they do not make the customers’ lives any easier, adoption remains poor – leading to them not delivering on the initial business case. Serving customers’ needs require 2 capabilities in eCommerce – 1) The ability to interface to customers’ ERP systems to automate their purchasing 2) The ability to integrate with the customers’ maintenance processes as part of which, the bulk of purchasing decisions are actually made. Very few eCommerce implementations capture this nuance of MRO purchasing. In our era of supply chain disruptions, the supplier who can deliver on time will win the deal. Everytime. The only way machinery companies can be prepared for this is with a system that can anticipate incoming orders by customer, by region and by SKU. A system that can connect with customer inventories to determine stock levels, aggregating not just the supplier’s stock but also the customers’.
  • Remote Support & Mentoring: Onsite service visits for diagnostics, preventive check-ups and simple repairs have altogether stopped due to travel restrictions caused by Covid-19. Many companies have switched to Whatsapp & Skype calls to mentor their customers as they perform tasks that previously required the onsite presence of field service engineers. As employees and customers realize that there was minimal impact on SLA performance as a result of a simple video call, there will be no going back to endless hours on the road or exorbitant travel charges. I expect that the focus will shift to monetising video calls more effectively.

A parallel can be seen in the shift we made from newspapers to web-only subscriptions. Today, we pay for the access to the latest news, curated by credible editors instead of for the paper that the news was printed on. Companies will happily pay for the outcome of maximum availability instead of the travel time and the physical presence of a service engineer, especially since it can be delivered faster and at lower costs.

  • Remote Monitoring: In an era of social distancing, expecting maintenance technicians to walk around a plant to take meter readings and inspect machinery is unnecessary and avoidable. We expect that 24×7 video feeds, connected sensors and meters delivering data directly to a system that can intelligently schedule maintenance tasks and assign them to technicians based on skills requirement and availability will take over most of this mundane work, reducing the risk of avoidable contamination. Until now, customers might have seen such IIoT projects as “futuristic” but in the post Covid-19 world, they will appreciate any service that could reduce the interpersonal interactions among colleagues whenever avoidable. Once again, the IP of the machine builder becomes a key differentiation.

While each process plant might be able to identify some common condition-based maintenance tasks, the only party that has an intimate knowledge of the physics of the machine are the machine-builders themselves. Couple this with the added benefit of being able to consolidate data from multiple customers for the same model of machine with identical components and you have a service that solves a customer-problem like never before.

In conclusion, I would add a 5th capability that might make all the difference when it comes to executing the shift to resilient field services. A common data platform. While many machinery companies are flirting with one or more of the capabilities above, few have enjoyed the effectiveness and efficiency of delivering these services at scale without having to manually aggregate data from across different systems capturing customer interactions and transactions. CRM systems that were built primarily to manage opportunity pipelines for new machine sales are under-prepared to serve as the hub for digitally delivered field services. A new kind of software needs to fill this gap, and at Facterra, we are launching Facterra Seva – the one software suite that can power the digital field services activities for machinery companies of all sizes.


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