Web Extra: The Human Side of Automating the Field Force

This is the full transcript of an interview with Brain Jones that appeared in The Trenches
from the September 2001 issue of Field Force Automation.

Q. One of the important points you made in the Yankee Report, "Field Services Enters the 21st Century, is the human aspects inherent in automating a field force. You compared it to automating a sales force in that sales and field people both tend to work autonomously and at least have some sense of independence. Can we safely assume that the field service is going to be more challenging because you're going to be dealing with a different level of education?

A. As you know the field service itself is pretty broad because it encompasses everything from really high tech service, such as servicing routers and network equipment, to the construction and building trades, which are relatively low tech. There's certainly an acceptance--even in the construction and building trades--that workers need the Nextel phones with direct connect. People understand technology when it is designed and deployed to directly benefit them rather than being an additional task to complete. Of course, it's important to keep interfaces intuitive and training to a minimum. I think some of that solves itself with today's mobile and wireless devices because the screens are so small that they have to be well designed to do what they set out to do.

Q. Right. They have to be streamlined and in a sense the limitations are going to help the adoption rates.

A. The idea of having the field force provide substantial, valuable feedback at the end of a service call--like this is the client's demeanor or these are some problems we encountered or this is a potential sales opportunity--has real value. You can get an additional level of value out of the more sophisticated systems, which wasn't previously possible.

Q. Really closing the loop will require a tremendous organizational shift for people.

A. For that to be successful you'd have to incent the employees accordingly.

Q. It would require the appropriate device. I was talking to a vendor a couple of weeks ago who was rolling out one of their new phones and showing me some of their field service apps. They had some of it set up for providing feedback from the field. I don't think people are going to spend the time fat-fingering their way through these applications on the tiny screen to provide this kind of information.

A. I think that's why there is some promise in the area of voice-activated solutions. Speech recognition.

Q. Especially when you get into wearable computers and devices like that. Talking about devices here, we still have yet to see any kind of device with the built-in power to do everything, with the ability to do it all. We all thought the smartphone would be something, with a display on the back and whatnot. But it's clear that even on the horizon there's no device that's going to be able to fulfill many of these functions, is there?

A. That's true. It seems like there's quite a bit of R&D going on in that area. There are problems with standards and coverage and bandwidth. Some of those will be addressed by 3G. But what devices will come along and to what extent will they solve the problems, I don't know. My gut feeling is that we'll continue to see divergence and some specialized devices will emerge that will be technically capable of fulfilling these needs, but not today and not next year.

Q. I see the bike messengers all over New York with smartphones. I think their limitations stand out, but they serve a need, a specific function with an enterprise and I think that's where they've been successful. In your report you wrote about scheduling and dispatch. Do you still see the-how shall I say this-the inefficiencies involved in having human interaction in a dispatch center or a call center? Do you think that enterprises will have to change that?

A. Just like traditional, broader CRM, call center representatives aren't going away entirely, because a substantial number of people still prefer to talk to a live representative. So the goal is to offer alternative channels like the Web and make them just as effective and then gradually roll people into those channels.

Q. Right. We're seeing the type of customer segmentation come into play, whereby your platinum customers get a direct line into your call center, your lower level customers go to the Web, self-service, FAQs, etc.

A. Yeah, it could be similar. Requesting a service call is pretty straight-forward and should lend itself pretty well to a Web-style service application.

Q. I would think so, especially if you're talking about more complex service functions where someone has to come out and fix an industrial pump and the person on-site has to provide parts and model information. So you do think there's a tremendous upside to that?

A. That the direction it's moving in. For that to be effective, you have to think in terms of an integrated solution that is related to the contract and entitlement system, the scheduling system and everything else so that the customer can input the model number and receive a promise that the service will happen within such and such a time frame.

Q. Now we're talking about bolting off on sort of transactional capability over the Web. Do you see a holy grail of software coming along sometime soon? An out-of-the-box type of thing?

A. I think Siebel and Oracle would say that they have it, but no. It's a similar situation to broader CRM, where a lot of people talk about Internet solutions. Although there are definitely these sorts of comprehensive suites.

Q. Toward the higher end of the market?

A. Clearly toward a very large organization. Yes, that's a very good point. The smaller and mid-size organizations, particularly smaller field forces, they're won't find these solutions feasible. They will end up choosing the best of breed, smaller, niche players and integrating as best they can.

Q. It might take a Siebel or Oracle to actually push these concepts into the boardroom. Do you expect that we'll see the kind of merger and aquisition activity and consolidation that we've seen in the CRM market?

A. It seems as if a lot of participation in this space is by vendors who are also active in the CRM market. So to that extent it just reflects broader trends. I think it wouldn't surprise me to see some consolidation among some of the smaller players and particularly the specialists who just offer scheduling or wireless components.

Q. Would you think that a traditional CRM vendor will eventually need to offer this kind of functionality, either via OEM or in partnerships, to remain competitive?

A. I don't think companies, the big guys, are expanding into it because they see it as another potential area for some serious growth. I don't think it'll be necessarily a must-have, partly because there are plenty of organizations they can sell to that don't have field service organizations. It's not a requirement for survival in the CRM space, I don't think.

Q. You pointed out some of the drawbacks of wireless in your report. What would you suggest an end user organization do if it's thinking about wireless as a business requirement. Should they wait?

A. That's a very good question. I have to speak in generalities, but when you consider a field service solution look at the ones that have a viable wireless offering and that can be expected to keep pace with the developments in the wireless space. Maybe the end-user will have to start out with a less ambitious wireless strategy. The other key functions are first, giving the field force access to information that they need when they're in the field whether that be information about the client's contracts or entitlement or information about the product they're going to service. And second, wrapping up the call, saving paperwork and saving the steps of entering paperwork into the computer system.

Q. Should end users worry about standards right now? Wireless XML, WAP?

A. I don't know who the winner is going to be...

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