June 16, 2015

The Fabric of Field Service: Field Force Automation

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Field service is one of the worst industries when it comes to jargon. Even if you’re a senior executive, you’ve probably experienced head-spin trying to keep up with the different acronyms and technical terms, especially those that relate to software. In your web travels, you may have come across the phrase “field force automation” and wondered what it meant.

Is it just a synonym for field service management?

Is it something your team(s) should be doing?

No, and yes, respectively. This article will define field force automation (FFA) in the context of modern field service and explain why it’s an important practice for competitive companies.

You’re Doing it Wrong

If you’re still using spreadsheets and paper-based workflows to manage field service, it’s safe to say you haven’t embraced field force automation. Many smaller teams and local outfits still work from clipboards and filing cabinets, with an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach to technology. In a sense, this allows technicians to focus almost exclusively on each job at hand, but it doesn’t afford them any tools for productivity, record-keeping, or communication.

Many service companies use some kind of software to manage day-to-day operations such as scheduling work orders, tracking time, or managing inventory. But even that doesn’t necessarily constitute field force automation; simply having software doesn’t mean you’re using using it for strategic advantage. In fact, 40 percent of service executives say that sub-par technology infrastructure is keeping their company from growing.

What does this look like? It looks like the legacy field service software that still runs on Windows XP and doesn’t support mobile access, or the homemade system that cost a lot of money to build but doesn’t integrate with other back-end programs.

What is Field Force Automation?

Field force automation, in essence, is the practice of using technology to streamline administrative and logistical aspects of field service, so your workforce can focus more of their energy on problem-solving and job success.

FFA relegates all of the menial tasks of field service (the ones that would require countless hours for a human to complete) to a central management system. This system typically consists of a server component (installed onsite at the company office or hosted through a cloud server) and a mobile component (accessed by technicians in the field, through tablets, smartphones, PDAs, etc.) — a structure that provides constant synchronization between field workers, jobs, office administrators, and back-end programs.

To put it simply, field force automation is not synonymous with field service management (FSM), since many organizations still practice field service management without proper automation tools or modern technology. Instead, think of FFA as a leading best practice for field service management.

As more organizations embrace the servitization model and try to leverage their field service teams for profit, field force automation will likely become the focal point for new growth strategies. Companies will adopt FSM solutions that get their workers onsite faster, give them tools to deliver a first-time fix, and put their brand on the cutting edge of mobile service.

If you’re looking for ways to bring automation to your field service process, start with these four key areas:

  • Workflow: Pre-programmed or customized workflows can give technicians step-by-step instructions and diagnostic tools for certain types of jobs (such as troubleshooting an outage). This video from SAP (featuring smartglass technology) is a good example of a self-guided repair process.

  • Data entry: Instead of scribbling notes on a clipboard and re-keying customer account data back at the office, technicians can complete job information forms on a field service mobile app that automatically syncs data across all systems. That means less careless mistakes and a clean audit trail for billing/invoicing
  • Routing/scheduling: Many FSM solutions offer “dynamic scheduling” tools which auto-assign jobs to specific technicians based on job priority, technician availability, skillset, and proximity. Technicians can use the same software to plan the optimal route between jobs, factoring in job order, traffic, and road conditions.
  • Preventative maintenance: The right automation can help your team transition from being a reactionary workforce to a more surgical, preventative one. To start out, you can set up preventative maintenance schedules for customer equipment based on item specifications, warranty, part lifecycles, etc. More advanced preventative tactics might involve remote monitoring — i.e., using embedded telematics sensors to track early warning signs like pressure, voltage, flow, and heat.

Why FFA is Important

One of the biggest (and most obvious benefits) of field force automation is that it improves work efficiency. Removing laborious, administrative tasks from your technicians’ and dispatchers’ workloads will yield significant time and cost savings for the whole company and greater overall productivity. A 2013 FieldAware study revealed that efficiency and productivity are the top two areas of concern for service companies, yet 22 percent still use paper-based workflows, and 27 percent use a homemade FSM application.

Additionally, field service is currently in a hand-off state between the generation of older technicians who are retiring and the younger millennials just stretching their legs in the field. That hand-off inevitably creates a skills gap, since new technicians have little to no experience completing service calls. According to a recent survey by Manpower, “technician” was one of last year’s top three most difficult roles to fill. This makes sense, given the technical nature of the work. Field force automation can reduce the new talent learning curve by replacing training curriculum for basic, functional tasks like data entry, time tracking, and route planning.  

Efficiency and productivity are probably the biggest enablers of field service success, but they aren’t the end-result. More than two-thirds of field service executives say that customer satisfaction (not cost reduction or operational efficiency) is their number one goal. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since the whole point of showing up on time, working efficiently, having the right tools — i.e. the practice of field force automation — is to serve the maximum number of customers in a way that improves their loyalty to your company.