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How can manufacturers improve field service operations?

Equipment providers and distributors are shifting their focus to improving field service. What are some best practices and technologies that can boost customer engagement and increase sales?

The need for field service professionals has increased in the last decade. The North American service sector is diverse, ranging from field service catering to large, multimillion-dollar plant equipment to the small office/home office, or SOHO, that might host corporate servers for a dozen employees, or manage brokerage or call centers right from a private home.

In addition, manufacturers have outsourced certain operations and therefore need more and better local representation in the market. Today, field service best practices elevate the service technician to an essential company representative.

types of players have entered the service game who were not previously a part of it -- such as wholesale distributors. They are extending their revenue model offering to customers in sectors such as healthcare, by not just selling medical devices but by cleaning and repairing them. For manufacturing partners, this might involve light assembly and servicing of the end customer.

Best practices today include an end-to-end view of the service model. Here are a few to consider:

Warranty management for customer engagement. Online relationships should be developed to continue to educate the customer on how to operate their equipment more effectively and gain maximum value from their investment. Providing tips to the customer reduces service calls and equipment failures (which causes outright replacements that cost the manufacturer). It also can capture additional sales.

Integrated technical support. This includes the management of the customer care process from restocking supplies, performing repairs, assigning the technician's work, parts and service logistics, as well as selling upgrades. Today the technician must have mobile technology to allow for productivity, information access and efficiency.

Last-mile logistics. Wasted time on the road is at your expense -- not the customer's. Late technicians, no-shows or technicians who arrive with the wrong parts are all major sources of customer dissatisfaction. So, managing the day's routes effectively is critical. Today integrated service logistics and last-mile software should be part of the technology infrastructure. These are some practices and features for last mile:

  • Managing appointments. Pre- and post-delivery notification and confirmation of appointments while the technician is en route to assure that the appointments will be kept, or notifying customers if the technician is late.
  • Mobility and telematics. GPS and automatic vehicle location, or AVL, for locating and directing vehicles precisely. These technologies are blended into solutions to provide driver instructions, monitor delivery status, and allow for real-time routing changes if a stop is added or cancelled or a service call takes longer than expected.
  • Customer acceptance. Mobile signatures, as well as the ability to follow up on customer satisfaction immediately after the service call.

Total lifecycle management. Service technicians know a lot about equipment and how it really performs under a variety of conditions, so they should be included in the product lifecycle management, or PLM, process. Designers and technicians can easily pool their knowledge to create better equipment and diagnose and solve repair issues quickly.

Customer service training for technicians. Training should go beyond certification or authorization for equipment repair to include interpersonal and sales skills that can foster positive working relationships with the customer, as well as maximize the value of the visit. Technicians with good customer service skills can encourage a sale or upgrade.

Predictive strategies. Staying ahead of a failure preserves value for both the customer and the provider. Analytics can help prevent downtime, predict maintenance needs and reduce the need to replace equipment.

Remote diagnostics and the Internet of Things. Though remote diagnostics is not , mobility and IoT technology that includes sensors, RFID and such can allow service providers to extend visibility, monitoring equipment on-site and remotely. IoT applications can also help technicians understand the conditions under which equipment operates, allowing them to stay ahead of problems.

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