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CRM and Field Service: The Untapped Connection
Fewer than one in 20 companies currently have automated the link between field service and complex CRM systems--but the potential for unrealized profits is in the billions.
Posted Mar 15, 2001
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Relentlessly plowing its way into the wireless landscape, the CRM movement has encountered a rocky obstacle: entrenched field force automation systems.

The "last mile" of CRM, field service operations loom as the final frontier in linking customers to the enterprise in 360-degree relationships. Turnkey connections between CRM and FFA systems promise to allow enterprises to share data between two different sides of the organization, bypassing costly middleware installations and arduous client-server hookups.

The results exploit new opportunities such as mobile service technicians feeding information about work orders, service calls and customers' reactions to new products back to CRM systems for immediate analysis and action. CRM systems, in turn, can also provide mobile service personnel with crucial information about dynamic events and customer updates gathered from call centers, the Internet or sales reps, eliminating broken service calls and downtime.

Linking these systems can also allow mobile field service personnel to play a bigger role in helping upsell customers new equipment and service contracts by feeding valuable bits of sales and marketing information gathered on-site into CRM systems. These connections can raise customer relations to a new level.

Rocks in the Road

The majority of today's sales-oriented CRM systems may as well be speaking Greek when they try to connect to the majority of legacy-based field force systems that have evolved to serve unique, limited needs.

The latest generation of field force automation systems is highly sophisticated, versatile and increasingly wireless, but most are simply not designed to supply the kind of information the new breed of CRM systems wants. Fewer than one in 20 companies currently have systems automating the link between service technicians and costly, complex CRM systems, and the potential for unrealized profits is in the billions, says Kristi Urich, field service and utilities solutions manager at Intermec Technologies, based in Everett, Wash.

Other obstacles to creating seamless CRM-FFA links include the cost of building new technologies and practices, buying new equipment and sparking some cultural and behavioral changes in organizations where field service personnel have traditionally resisted change.

But a growing number of companies are wading into the process and are finding some surprises. Among the discoveries: Field service personnel are more receptive to adding CRM-related activities to their routines than many assumed they would be.

By starting small, enterprises can exploit narrow chunks of CRM information in the field operation or carve out manageable projects directing new data from the field to the CRM system.

New XML-based applications are making it easier to standardize different types of data between CRM and FFA systems to create quick, custom solutions exploiting data shared from different parts of the enterprise, says Hemant Taneja, CEO of Boston-based Isovia, which specializes in "pulling CRM data from anywhere into useful applications in the field."

Finally, a growing body of new technologies and consulting practices are specializing in the zone where CRM and FFA intersect, bringing the time needed--and the costs--down to palatable levels.

The CRM-FFA Future

Although such examples of CRM-FFA links are rare in general, such systems harnessing data from CRM in the field are on the rise. Less common are applications based on data generated in the field that makes its way back to the CRM system for sales, marketing and new product development, but that is where developers are concentrating activities.

Last year, MediaOne, the nation's largest broadband company, replaced its technicians' paper-based system for responding to service calls with a wireless communications system for technicians and dispatchers that included two-way messaging and a wireless workforce management system, devised by Intermec.

Each of MediaOne's 1,200 field service technicians received a mobile computer that wirelessly receives up-to-the-minute work assignments. The system sped up productivity by improving logistics and avoiding cancelled appointments using information fed to the field force by MediaOne's CRM system. The new system resulted in a 25 percent productivity gain by allowing workers to handle additional tasks.

In Norway and Denmark, Hydro Texaco used an Intermec solution to replace the field force's paper-based system for tracking repairs on boilers at commercial sites. Each of Hydro Texaco's field repair workers received a Windows-based mobile pen computer that syncs up wirelessly from each user's repair truck to get detailed information on each customer's repair order, including the location of spare parts. The system also gives the field technician information about the most recent repair, resulting in complete daily statistics being made available to headquarters about trends in boiler breakdowns and repairs.

Intermec's system is improving Hydro Texaco's revenues by revealing redundancies and inefficiencies in the system to service managers, and sales managers can also see where opportunities for new products and services lie.

Exploiting New Trends

"As technology gets more sophisticated and repairing equipment is more complex and global, field service personnel need more information, in general, than what can be contained in a manual or gathered from a single source," say Brian Barker, Isovia's senior vice president of marketing and alliances.

Until now, field force personnel, who were mostly blue collar types who learned their jobs on the fly, relied on "tribal" methods of sharing information with one another without documenting what they had learned. "These blue collar guys are walking around with a tremendous amount of knowledge, but we have no way of downloading their information," says Barker.

Workers tend to resist doing paperwork and filling out forms at the end of their workday, lowering the quality of data gathered, he says. But if you create a system for field workers to enter key information at the point of contact with a handheld device that asks simple questions and provides information about problems in real time, "you'll save these guys a lot of time and gather much higher-quality, more valuable data to plow back into CRM," Barker says. Isovia created such a system for a large U.S. manufacturer of heavy equipment whose name his company could not disclose.

Sales managers making monthly visits to dealerships suspected that equipment sales were routinely reported late, giving the dealers three to four weeks financial float--the difference between profit and loss on some items. Isovia equipped the manufacturer's field service force with handheld wireless devices, allowing them to update headquarters with reports of the actual inventory movement when they made routine visits to the dealership. The procedure was simple; the workers incorporated the process into their jobs and the manufacturer immediately saw gains of 27 to 35 days in the cash collection cycle at most of its dealerships.

"Down the road, we're looking at CRM systems that are so tightly connected to FFA that consumers can go online and get a diagnosis to their problem, then request an appointment for a repair and receive a commitment back, then get an e-mail or phone call reminding them of the appointment the night before, and even a notification when the repair person is en route to the consumer's home," says Guy Waterman, vice president of global strategies for iMedeon, a CRM-FFA solutions provider based in Alpharetta, Ga.

start Small

One of the biggest mistakes companies make when considering whether to link CRM and FFA is trying to do too much at once and locking into a specific outcome, says Sam Barclay, vice president of client support for Fairfield, N.J.-based stayinFront.com, developers of Active Elk, a software platform for linking CRM and FFA.

"We believe in a phased approach, moving from one small group of users to the next and making adjustments in the system as you go, because you can bank on the fact that you will rewrite your program as you go," Barclay says. He says that companies should avoid the trap of looking for "continuous improvement in the system from one week to the next," but instead allow results to surface in a (roughly) 90-day timeframe. When companies try to link CRM-FFA systems across too many areas of the enterprise at once, results tend to get muddled.

"CRM has caught the enterprise resource planning (ERP) disease, and technology has created this idea that we can connect everything to everything, and so if I sneeze, someone should be notified," says Keith Raffel, chairman and founder of Mountain View, Calif.-based Upshot.com, a creator of sales force automation systems.

Instead, he says, companies linking CRM and FFA systems should start by capturing one or two new sets of useful information from the field and build a straightforward pathway to send the information to the CRM system using a handheld wireless device that regularly updates a separate database housed on a Web server.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Attachmate, which specializes in developing Web-to-host solutions that link CRM and FFA systems, created such a system for Sharp Electronics' German division, allowing its field repair force to peer into the CRM system to identify the location of parts. Before implementing the system, field workers used a computer dial-up system to request the part, which took three days. Afterward, parts location took a matter of hours, reducing turnaround time to one day, says Megan Miller, Attachmate's director of product marketing.

Build on Legacy Systems

Experts who have succeeded in linking CRM and FFA systems say the overwhelming amount of data still lodged in legacy systems makes it necessary to adapt existing FFA systems to new CRM capabilities, versus starting from scratch with a new FFA system.

Many CRM systems are new, but 70 to 80 percent of business-critical data for CRM-FFA applications resides on IBM mainframe computers, a fact that is not likely to change anytime soon, says Miller of Attachmate, so assume you will be creating Web-to-host solutions from legacy systems.

Security is a concern to many companies linking CRM and FFA systems; Attachmate's solution is to provide data in an HTML-only version to users. "You compromise your data when it runs resident on the client server, but you can orchestrate your system so you're only giving users an HTML display of the data from that host, with the server sitting between the user and the host as an automatic barrier," Miller says.

Sharing Knowledge

Pioneers in the movement to link CRM and FFA say the evolution of XML into a standard language for creating Web pages for both CRM and FFA applications is a breakthrough for these operations.

However, XML is still not widely adopted, and programs and applications available to designers of CRM-FFA systems are limited. "You can use Visual Basic or Java to create Web-based pages that can be shared by CRM and FFA operations, but XML is much better because it looks like it will bring some standardization to the market and enhance everyone's efforts in this direction," says Raffel of Upshot.com.

Says David Golan, vice president of product marketing for Westborough, Mass.-based Applix, a company that helps link CRM systems with field service applications for a variety of companies: "We've been developing applications with XML since August 2000, but we feel we're in the minority, and although everyone is heading in that direction, there's a ways to go before we reach critical mass."

In general, FFA users tend to be a more homogenous group, using one class of portable computing device, while sales force automation users usually have a variety of devices so data and forms must be consistent across all types of devices to enable a CRM-FFA linkup, he says.

"Be sure to get a vendor who can handle both sides of the pizza, or all the various devices you're using for a CRM-FFA effort, because otherwise you'll pay three times as much," Barclay says.

One reliable fact of linking CRM-FFA systems is that holes and gaps will be revealed in the way things were done previously, and it is essential that these be addressed before implementing a system, says Ellen Libenson, vice president of marketing for Los Angeles-based Thinque.

"Make sure all your business processes are in order, because if there are holes in your system, you're simply going to automate the holes and multiply your problems," she says. Also, she urges companies to create an in-house help desk for field service workers, versus shunting problems to a software developer's help desk. The in-house approach will reap faster, more customized results.

For companies whose systems for field forces lack good wireless coverage, fast data transmission speeds and good user interfaces, an alternative is to run a thick-client Windows CE-based device allowing the user to store and forward data on scheduled transaction updates so the field service worker can still perform the task when out of coverage range, says Urich.

"Even if your system is 100 percent wireless, you need a backup plan in case the system goes down," she says. Urich also says it's smart for companies to have Ethernet or telephone dial-up options for synchronizing data, because wireless transmissions can sometimes be costly.

Because CRM-FFA systems are designed to constantly evolve, systems integrators say that efforts should maintain a reasonably low time and cost investment.

"In our pilot phase, larger companies say they want to buy our platform and bring it in-house for engagements that will cost around $150,000 to $300,000, but smaller companies prefer an ASP model that could bring their total investment down to $10,000, amortized over a year or two," says Taneja of Isovia.

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