The One-stop Sales-Marketing-Service Field Force

How do you convert a 2000-person field maintenance crew into an effective mobile sales, marketing and service force?

This is what the Controls division of Milwaukee, Wis.-based Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI) was faced with two years ago when management ordered an overhaul of the organization and set an aggressive 25 percent annual growth target for the division. JCI, a large organization that provides equipment sales, maintenance and management services for tens of thousands of commercial and industrial building sites, had to ask each of more than 2000 men and woman maintenance field reps to go beyond wrench-turning to become a one-person mobile sales, marketing, and service agent.

This, understandably, involved a major cultural and process shift in the JCI organization. "Today we don't just dispatch somebody to do a single thing, like change a motor," says Blake Stewart, director of service operations at JCI. "We need [our field force] to understand what they're doing and the impact they're making on the facility while they're out there."

Each JCI account now has a primary field account manager, who must decide whether to take a call personally, or to dispatch an available specialist to solve a specific problem. Although JCI is not abandoning its central dispatch facilities, they hope that by giving the account leader input that the right person for the job will be deployed, saving everyone time and money.

The transition from service technician to complete customer contact agent has not been easy for everybody. "Some people resist kicking and screaming," admits Rich Mortimer, operations support manager for JCI. "But there are some guys who are amazing and have outsold some of the sales force while still doing their [service] job." In some cases, particularly with smaller clients, JCI has been able to pull the sales contact off of the account, making the field tech the primary interface for virtually every interaction.

To meet the demands of an expanding set of responsibilities, JCI is in the midst of implementing ServiceAlliance software from Astea International of Horsham, Pa. The system will arm each field rep with a mobile terminal capable of tracking a customer's relationship history, business needs and building equipment, as well as tools to quote and bill new business.

Although a streamlined dispatch methodology is also part of the plan, Mortimer says that the emphasis is on broadening agility and knowledge in the field. "A lot of people look at productivity enhancements as 'how many more calls can I do today?' That's great if you want to go in, fix something, and get the hell out," he says. "We're trying to empower our front-liners to act as consultants--if I get in and get out, I'm not talking to my customer and finding out what their needs are."

That's where soft skills training comes in. JCI now holds annual training courses to develop customer interaction techniques for the field. "We taught them how to ask questions," says Mortimer. JCI techs are taught to interview customers with an eye towards identifying not just what services and equipment a building uses, but why the customer needs them and how it impacts the operation of their business.

Stewart estimates that since the reinvention of the field force began two years ago there has been at least a 20 percent gain in productivity, which he ascribes to an increased understanding of customer needs and better case-by-case personnel deployment.

The productivity gains, increased responsibility, and expanded skill sets have presented Johnson with an even greater challenge: to retain their seasoned field staff, who also realize that they have become more valuable commodities. "That's a real problem. I don't know if our turnover rate is higher than anyone else's, but it's one of the downsides," says Stewart. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that more skilled technicians are not only more likely to seek their fortunes elsewhere, but when they do leave they are harder to replace. "You can no longer hire an off-the-shelf plumber," he says.

Mortimer believes that despite the challenges of training and retaining a hybrid service team, JCI is making a statement about the true role of the 21st century field force. "It used to be that the number one thing you looked for was technical skills," he says. "It isn't anymore, it's people skills."

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