Few companies can afford to ignore collaborative business, as global business dynamics are forcing organizations to embrace broader markets and deliver increasingly complex products and services. "In most industries, you cannot go it alone anymore. The cost base of trying to be a master at everything is out of control," says Jane Carroll Blankenship, CEO of Andover, Mass.-based InsightShare, makers of Internet-based software program, Business Collaborator, which allows geographically dispersed personnel to work together on a single document, sales or service issue. In response to demand, the company is currently developing a model of its products for field service personnel.
Achieving low-cost growth through collaborative business opportunities is a logical way companies can rein in expansion costs. For many businesses, the heart of their collaboration initiative often lies with mobile field service operations.
Collaboration between strategic partners and divisions within companies is leading a growing number of companies to use field forces to gather data for future marketing or sales development purposes or directly cross-sell products and services. The benefits include getting richer results from routine contacts between field service employees and customers, and in the long run, achieving the results of expanding without having to hire and train an additional staff.
But there are also many risks, including the possibility of diluting valuable customer relationships by adding a third party to the mix, losing ownership of exclusive client information and contacts and compromising quality by taking field service personnel away from their core competencies.
"Knowing what services can be added to the mobile worker's day that will enhance the bottom line but not undermine the mobile operation's mission is a very difficult challenge, but it can be done right," says Roy Dube, a Chicago-based partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers' m-business practice.
Blankenship says that collaboration is most effective when it begins with two organizations sharing their strengths, and some of the best ideas for improving efficiency and identifying upselling and cross-selling opportunities often lie with field service personnel. Yet these people are often not consulted by senior executives when brainstorming about collaborative business opportunities.
"The essence of collaboration is sharing information, and to do that management needs to get input from the field force in a sensible, logical manner so it can be part of the collaborative brainstorming as well, or the company is operating in a vacuum," Blankenship says.
Nurturing a corporate culture that rewards collaboration is also essential. "Most Americans over the age of 30 were raised in a culture where they were trained to do individual work and rewarded for individual excellence," she says. "To bring field service people into a collaborative mindset requires a whole new way of hiring and training people."
In addition to identifying collaborative opportunities that make sense for a field service operation and also promise improved revenue, the people designing collaborative business programs must also include plans to constantly evaluate how well the collaboration is working.
"Collaborations that sound great on paper often bog down in the micro-management level of things, so they have to be simple enough for workers to execute and simple enough for managers to evaluate on a weekly and monthly basis without taking a lot of extra time, so that it's easy to make sure the collaboration is working out for the enterprise," says PricewaterhouseCoopers' Dube.
Planning for Collaboration
If collaboration involves mobile workers asking customers about other channels or usage of other products or services, the process must dovetail with the worker's basic tasks and equipment.
"Keep questions brief, pertinent and valid," says Guy Waterman, vice president of business development at Austin, Texas-based PointServe, which makes a software system for optimized service delivery for field forces. "The mobile worker ought to have a device in hand that makes the collaborative or cross-selling task mesh with whatever customer contact already exists, such as giving him a check-box option for asking and answering questions on a mobile device or even making it possible to turn the device to the customer to answer a few questions," Waterman says.
Collaborative initiatives must be clearly defined and supported by appropriate mobile devices so mobile workers aren't slowed down and frustrated by the jobs dictated by the collaborative business task. Putting the mobile worker in control of the additional task, versus making him feel burdened by yet another job, tends to produce more positive results, he says.
Another big challenge in collaborative business operations surrounds the ground rules for how two strategic partners or divisions work together. "It is essential that each person working in a collaborative business operation knows the value of working with the other organization so there is mutual respect for each side's contributions," says Warren Hill, global strategy director with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Edify, which develops CRM solutions that often link mobile workers to broad-based enterprises.
Increasingly, because of the need to expand competitive boundaries, "collaboration may not be directly based on the bottom line but is essential to a company's expansion and survival, so everyone working together in a collaborative setting has to know how to measure the value of the time they're spending, even if it's not directly revenue-based," Hill says.
Creative collaboration involves tapping knowledge at new levels of a partner company and maximizing corporate resources without duplicating roles and tasks. "For collaboration to really click, the two companies must clearly define the abilities and tasks of all the personnel working on the initiative and minimize overlapping functions--such overlap can lead to frustration and disillusionment. Plus, word of mouth within organizations is far more powerful than anyone realizes. People in the field who are bad-mouthing the project to others due to their frustrations can cripple the whole spirit of the collaboration," Hill says.
Technology is rapidly changing the ways in which field service personnel collaborate. Mobile devices are ideally suited to collecting and storing information that can be used for collaborative sales and marketing opportunities, Waterman says, but the real opportunities lie in how organizations harness personnel to work together with devices and other teams to tap new markets and customers.
"Field forces tend to be narrowly focused in their tasks, which can be efficient and powerful, but armed with a game plan to capture additional information or cross-sell new services in a logical format that makes sense for both the customer and the field service worker, collaboration can double a worker's power," Blankenship says.