Field Service Goes High Tech Amid the Pandemic
Field service operations that install and repair telecommunications; security; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; electrical contractors; plumbers; and anyone else whose office is the consumers’ home or office had to shift their business practices as a result of COVID-19.
The pandemic meant these workers would only go into properties if absolutely necessary. They still needed to address customer issues, from new installations to repairs to disconnects, while maintaining social distancing and minimizing human contact as much as possible. For most, that meant turning to the proper combination of strategy and technology, which ultimately has allowed them to keep customers happy and safe while also stabilizing—and in some cases, even increasing—profits.
WHIRLPOOL RE-EMPHASIZES TRAINING
Whirlpool, the Michigan-based home appliance giant, used the pandemic as an opportunity to re-emphasize its competency training program for its nearly 7,600 field service contractors, according to Matthew Ganus, its director of home services.
Program participation, which had grown 15 percent over the past five years, become even more important during the pandemic, Ganus says.
“We started to see early on how critical our services were,” Ganus says. “We were deemed an essential service.”
With people staying home more, home appliances were in use more, and with increased use came a greater likelihood of breakdowns that required repair technicians. One of Whirlpool’s authorized servicers, Flamingo Appliance Repair in Miami, received more than 1,000 service calls a day. Beyond allaying any consumer concerns over safety protocols, Whirlpool technicians were also being called to service appliances in nursing homes, which were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, Ganus pointed out.
Suddenly it was no longer enough for field service workers to know how to install, diagnose, or repair equipment; they now also had to know how to keep themselves and their customers from catching or transmitting the disease.
Whirlpool’s training program re-emphasized hygiene etiquette, proper sanitation protocols, and the importance of temperature checks and wearing masks, Ganus says.
The pandemic also compelled field service workers to get creative in their overall approach to daily operations, including increased diagnostics by phone and other digital tools. To promote social distancing, they arranged repair visits for when consumers wouldn’t be home and kept in contact with them throughout the visit by phone or text message. Technicians made every effort to minimize their time onsite and to ensure that they had the right parts and tools on the truck so they wouldn’t have to come back a second time, Ganus says.
“By stressing basic [safety] concepts, we wanted to ensure customers had a five-star experience,” he says.
SHIFTING TO CONTACTLESS DELIVERY
In their efforts to shift to contactless delivery wherever possible, field service providers made other operational changes. Cable companies that had previously required customers to come to local offices to exchange old remotes for new ones shipped them out upon request. SimpliSafe, the home alarm company, shifted its television advertising to lead with how easily customers could set up its systems on their own, without service technicians visiting their homes.
SST Communications, which is based in Lindenhurst, N.Y., supports more than 1,500 telephone systems, including traditional and cloud-based networks, cabling, fiber-optic backbones, cameras, paging, and ancillary equipment, in New York and suburban Long Island. System reliability is critical to the businesses that make up most of SST’s client base, says company founder and CEO Jim Hoey. “Our clients are counting on us. If their service is out, they want service right away.”
The pandemic brought a few initial challenges, according to Hoey. “One of the first concerns was to protect my people. At first, it was a struggle to get the masks, gloves, and sanitizer we needed. The environment [due to COVID] can be dangerous. Our customers knew the threat that we were dealing with.”
Customer communications was also essential, Hoey says. “As soon as [the pandemic] happened, we started calling clients. It wasn’t to sell them, but to help them with any of their communication needs.”
Some customers were new to Zoom calls and using remote systems, so Hoey hosted webinars on working from home. The webinars were an extension of educational communications Hoey had already been conducting with customers for years. SST also sends out a periodic newsletter with informative articles, personal stories, and other content that he thinks will interest his audience. This was a great way to update customers on new COVID policies and procedural changes.
A major advantage for Hoey in servicing clients in the socially distanced, no-contact environment was that telecommunications equipment has advanced far beyond old landline phones that could only be repaired or replaced manually. Though some customers still use those legacy systems, many of SST’s clients already had moved to cloud-based systems. While revenue remained steady, profit margin has increased because more of the resources are in the cloud, Hoey says.
With cloud-based systems, many repairs, upgrades, downgrades, and service additions and deletions can be handled remotely, according to Hoey.
“There’s not as much equipment or labor needed for installation,” he says.
When technicians did have to work on customer sites, staying safe and socially distanced was relatively easy because so few employees were working in those offices at the same time, according to Hoey.
Other companies with field service workers have also changed their standard operating procedures, though they still have to enter residences and workplaces.
AirPros USA, an HVAC company based in Davie, Fla., that services residential homes in that state as well as Georgia, Texas, Colorado, and Washington, is one such company. Its technicians largely still need to be onsite for equipment installations and repairs, says Anthony Perera, its president.
Since the pandemic, though, it has been conducting routine checkups and diagnosing some issues by phone. When truck rolls are needed, the company uses the phone to establish social distancing protocols before the visit.
Another issue for the business is post-installation inspections, which in the past had required an onsite inspector to approve all work. Today, using video software, the company now offers inspectors a way to check work virtually without needing to enter the property.
“Customers appreciate concern and care for their well-being,” Perera says. Customers appreciate the company’s willingness to adapt and be efficient on the job.
SOFTWARE MOVES TO THE CLOUD
Some companies with field service workers found that the pandemic forced them to conduct business much more efficiently, shifting many longtime paper processes to digital procedures.
That was the case for Shafer Heating & Cooling, a small, family-owned business in Hillsboro, Ohio.
The business is located in a rural area and had previously relied on paper-based methods for initial proposals, signed work orders, etc. The business had to retain some of its old ways of doing business because some prospects and customers don’t have internet access, but much of its communications with customers shifted to email, according to Nathan Shafer, a third-generation executive who serves as its operations manager. “If you rewind to several years ago, it would have been much more difficult. Now we can use emails for proposals, signatures, to check on the account, little things like that.”
Shafer also credits ThermoGrid’s field service software for small to midsize residential and commercial contractors for helping his company have its best year in its 35-year history.
ThermoGrid uses voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology to recognize customer numbers and automatically pull up all the data employees need to quickly help customers. Field service technicians can access the same platform to retrieve customer information and equipment histories, schedule appointments, verify conversations, record service needs, pull up maintenance schedules, attach notes and pictures, record telephone conversations, and more.
This data helped Shafer Heating & Cooling stay engaged with customers using templated emails and messages to request information before, during, and after site visits; solicit reviews; and notify customers of changes, issues, or delays. ThermoGrid also has an email marketing tool to offer specials or discounts and to notify customers of maintenance contract renewal dates.
ThermoGrid also helps with accounts receivable and other financial aspects of the job, including estimates, hours tracking, commissions, equipment, materials, labor, financing, permitting costs, subcontractor fees, taxes, and job costs, all of which can be transferred to Intuit QuickBooks and made available in a variety of real-time reports.
“ThermoGrid was a huge help,” Shafer says. “We could efficiently tell what we had on the truck so that we arrived with everything we would need. We also had a much tighter handle on our inventories. We never had to lay anyone off during the pandemic.”
Beyond the paperwork reduction and other efficiencies, ThermoGrid includes a coaching/training feature, Rise, which Shafer also found to be beneficial for his field service workers.
The Rise program includes a series of on-demand webinars, downloadable reference materials, scripts, and quizzes to help with selling maintenance agreements, increasing the average ticket, and leveraging service calls for equipment sales.
“ThermoGrid helped with all areas of our business,” Shafer says.
KloudGin is another cloud-based software designed to help contractors in the field. Its customers include Hawaiian Telecom, Kentucky’s Louisville Water, and California Water Service.
Louisville Water used KloudGin’s combined field service and asset management solution to replace systems that were 30 years old and mostly paper-driven, required multiple manual operations, and provided no way for employees to communicate and record their work while in the field.
“Digital transformation is helping us maximize our scheduling, asset reliability, and uptime; reduce capital and operational expenditures; extend asset life; reduce unplanned downtime; and provide superior customer service, all without increasing operational, safety, or environmental risks,” says Dave Vogel, Louisville Water’s executive vice president.
ThermoGrid and KloudGin are just two of the dozens of companies that offer field service management software or field service modules as part of their CRM applications. Other vendors include Salesforce, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, ServiceNow, ServiceMax, Jobber, GPS Insights, LionOBytes, CSG, FieldAware, ServiceTitan, ServicePower, Trimble, and MapAnything.
Research firm MarketsandMarkets valued the current global field service management market at $3 billion and expects it to grow to $5.1 billion by 2025, at a compound annual rate of 11 percent.
The growing landscape for field service management software seeks to help companies deliver effective onsite service by tracking requests, managing personnel, maintaining visibility into operations, processing job orders, and collecting payments in the field. Popular features include work order management, inventory management, routing, dispatch, scheduling, fleet tracking, activity logging, reporting, analytics, and more.
The field service management category was born as companies came to realize that traditional CRM and enterprise resource management (ERP) solutions failed to address their specific needs. Many industry insiders expect to see service providers move away from sales and ERP solutions to more niche solutions, fueled by increased automation, lower prices, and higher mobility.
And as the software landscape grows, so, too, will the technologies that support it.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
“Field service and asset management, scheduling, and route optimization engines will be driven by artificial intelligence/machine learning [AI/ML],” predicts KloudGin CEO Vikram Takru. “These new apps will schedule both field crews and drones. Delivery of AI- and ML-based service, asset management, and optimization will be led by innovative, mobile, and cloud-first-based applications.”
For service and asset-intensive industries, just-in-time parts delivery will happen via drones. Takru predicts. In addition, floating inventory warehouses, coupled with shared inventory warehouses, will start appearing. All warehouses will have drone landing pads.
The ability for field service workers to pre-diagnose problems and make at least some adjustments remotely will progress as more and smarter home appliances enter the marketplace.
The global smart kitchen appliances market was valued at $9.9 billion in 2019 and is anticipated to grow at a compound annual rate of 19.1 percent through 2027, according to Grand View Research.
“Rising consumer disposable income and increasing technological trends, such as Internet of Things (IoT)- and AI-enabled devices, are spurring the market growth. Increasing adoption of smart kitchen appliances in residential as well as commercial sectors across the world is also one of the prominent factors driving the market growth,” Grand View concluded in its report.
The research firm attributes the expected growth to evolving smart features, including connected security and intelligent sensors, which will ultimately save consumers time and inconvenience. These intelligent sensors can help diagnose problems, some of which companies might be able to fix remotely.
Despite the growth in smart appliances and remote working capabilities, there will be some return to previous ways of doing business when the pandemic is in check, according to SST Communications’ Hoey. “Not everyone wants to be doing Zoom in two years. I miss being out in the field.”
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.