An IoT-driven economy requires technology-empowered firstline workers

Surveys show more attention, finally, to workers outside the office.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

We continue to bask in the glory of the information technology revolution, now a three-decade-long event, which has reshaping the jobs of professionals and corporate staffs across the globe. However, it seems most workers have actually been left out of the equation -- the so-called firstline workforce, consisting of field technicians, healthcare providers, retail clerks, drivers, and so on. They're called "firstline" for a reason -- they're the people with whom your customers are most likely to have first and only contact. If they can't deliver the goods or services because they are missing out on technology, then your company is seen as unable to deliver, simple as that.

Photo: Joe McKendrick

With the rise of the Internet of Things and associated artificial intelligence, it's more important than ever that firstline workers receive the training, support and technology tools they need to deliver on meeting their customers' needs. Manufacturers, in particular, are seeing a dramatic shift in their business models, with more revenue coming from aftermarket service and support, especially as they develop the ability to monitor products and run analytics for predictive maintenance.

More than 80 percent of executives in a recent survey from Forbes Insights and Microsoft agree that empowering firstline workers with the tools and platforms they need has a direct impact on customer satisfaction, growth and worker job satisfaction,. In this survey, which I helped design and analyze, we found that this important component of the workforce continues to be overlooked.

A big piece of this challenge is providing field service management software that help transform the contracting industry, as more revenue for organizations comes from service contracts and maintenance. Currently, field service and other firstline workers struggle to realize aftermarket service revenue potential due to obsolete software, a recent survey from IFS finds. "Legacy software solutions used by specialty and trade contractors could prevent them from profitably delivering aftermarket services to their customers," the survey's authors state.

IFS' survey of 200 HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), plumbing, electrical, building automation, low voltage electrical, signage, overhead door and other specialty contractors paints a picture of an industry in the grips of a digital transformation: 85 percent of study respondents said they have maintenance contracts with customer-specific terms, service level agreements (SLAs) and pricing, but only 14 percent said their software facilitated these contracts "very well."

"Management of subcontractors to perform service work requires a streamlined approach to securing bids, assigning the work and recording what work is performed and which parts and materials are consumed," the survey's authors state. "Without enterprise systems that can be extended to subcontractors, this can create an administrative time sink while reducing the ability to deliver consistently against the contract with the customer."

As a result, there are scant opportunities for firstline workers to do their part to improve the customer experience or drive new revenue. Only 38 percent said technicians could access information on the terms of the contract including customer-specific requirements. Only 15 percent of respondents have technology to empower field technicians to upsell or sell new service contracts, only 25 percent could issue new estimates and 23 percent could get customer approval for an estimate.

In total, 89 percent of respondents said they use subcontractors, but just over 10 percent have adopted current technology by giving their subcontractors a mobile app to interact with their field service management software.

Many trade and specialty contractors "have invested in some level of field service technology to support aftermarket service work," according to IFS' Mark Brewer. "Often, this same software helps them manage construction crews during the initial project. But now they are at that point where they need to become more attentive to customer-specific SLAs. They need to upsell and drive more sales from each customer and improve the customer experience."

To deliver its promised benefits, the digital revolution needs to involve everybody across the enterprise spectrum. The focus has been almost exclusively on office workers up to this point, but with the rise of mobile, the entire workforce is in a position to contribute to innovate.

Some nuggets from the IFS survey:

  • Almost all, 85 percent, of respondents "have customer-specific contracts, but only 14 percent said their software facilitated these 'very well' and only 38 percent said their field personnel have any access at all to information on deliverables, pricing and other requirements of the contract."
  • Three out of four respondents, 73 percent, do warranty repair work, but only 16 percent said their software handled this "very well."
  • Almost all, 89 percent, of respondents use subcontractors, "but only 13 percent use a web portal and only 10 percent use a designated online-offline mobile app to communicate with these subcontractors."
  • "Field service requires mobile access to software functionality, but most respondents lack the ability to perform key functions on touchscreen devices. The biggest deficits were in functionality that could create new revenue opportunities and improve the customer experience. Fifteen percent could sell new service contracts, 25 percent could issue estimates and 23 percent could get customer approval for an estimate. Only 12 percent could issue automated ETA notifications to customers from a touchscreen, mobile device."
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