Field service at the sharp end of digital transformation

Published on the 03/03/2017 | Written by Donovan Jackson

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Yet, this is what has happened in the environment of field service: typical time-worn processes have been accelerated with the introduction of new technology, but the underlying process itself remains the same. The process might be faster, but often, it is still beset with inefficiencies and often ignores the new ways in which people live and work today, said Rajeepan Raguneethan, Microsoft APAC Director, Service Cloud & Incubation.

“Things have changed, but in many instances, business processes haven’t. They’ve seen some elements of technology introduced to accelerate things, but this has happened in isolation, leaving big gaps through which good service easily falls.”

And, while field service serves as a case in point, the issue runs wider and deeper: “This really needs to be looked at in the light of digital transformation where customer service is becoming a key priority for businesses. Delivering better service means keeping customers loyal, focusing on service improvement and on profitability rather than cost,” Raguneethan noted.

Those customers, in the digital era, are more sophisticated. They come in through multiple channels, with online and social combining with the traditional call centre approach. “That means you need an omni-channel platform which can identify the customer and track all their interactions together, regardless of the channel they interact with your organisation. Field service is a component of that, but before it gets to field service, it is likely the customer made an online query, attempted to find an answer from a knowledge base, spoke with someone in a contact centre, and then had a technician or other agent assigned to remedy their issue.”

Raguneethan said this differs from commonly-encountered approaches today, where each of these interactions might happen in isolation. The gaps which are bound to emerge are likely to be obvious to the customer while the organisation might be completely oblivious to them.

It is this that modern platforms can address. There is more to it, too. Thanks to the availability of technology services such as AI, machine learning and cognitive computing services, an increasingly intelligent platform ‘helps out’ internal customers, too. “Like anyone else, field service agents have limited time. If that time is spent on, for example, figuring out the best route to take to get from one job to the next, or even worse, on filling in endless timesheets, is it really the best use of their time? Clearly not.”

Beyond optimisation lies business improvement
Optimisation and efficiency gains are important. They are also goals which have long characterised what the technology industry does. But there is a lot more to it than that, Raguneethan points out. “Sure, when you have a system which automates many aspects of the processes and workflow associated with the delivery of field services, you get a big advantage. But in doing that, you also gain a wealth of valuable data. This means it is possible to start looking at how people perform on the job, baselining and benchmarking performance, identifying where and how to invest on training. When you are digitised, it is possible to do these things.”

One such example can be found in Australia’s Silver Chain, an organisation which provides personal healthcare services. By introducing Dynamics 365 Field Services for its nursing staff in a platform which combines Dynamics 365 back end systems with field services management on mobile devices, it has equipped nurses to better look after patients. Each individual nurse has more time to spend with patients, and spends less time looking for or entering information (as he or she can immediately access all patient information from their mobile).

Such systems, said Raguneethan, are a platform for better service to external customers and one which allows better support to ‘internal’ customers, in other words. “An integrated, intelligent platform means the ability to understand your business, your customers and your employees better. It means using people’s time more effectively, improving productivity and job satisfaction,” he added.

And he has special mention for advanced computing techniques, singling out chatbots as a case in point. “The cost of taking a call in a contact centre is high and, as we know, a lot of time the questions which are asked are the same. Now, we can train chatbots to address many of those queries –, ‘I’ve lost my password’ – or even some of the necessary steps before assistance is provided, such as customer authentication.”

Thanks to the power of the cloud, intelligent technologies like chatbots and other implementations of ‘intelligent computing’ become not only possible, but also accessible. Raguneethan pointed to Swedish multinational industrial tooling company Sandvik Coromant as a case in point. Using Azure IoT Suite, Cortana Intelligence and Dynamics 365, the company has developed a service model with a predictive analytics solution that ties all the elements of customer service process together.

IoT Suite collects, computes and analyses data from sensors embedded in tools, monitoring every aspect of their performance, Cortana Intelligence analysis and makes recommendations and creates a predictive maintenance schedule that’s designed to help avoid unscheduled shutdowns. Finally, the solution integrates master data from the back-office systems with meta data from the shop floor systems to predict when to change or service machines.

Raguneethan said developments such as those already at work in companies like Silver Chain and Sandvik are exciting, and not just for technologists. “We’re enabling whole new ways of working which help customers transform their business. All these years, we’ve talked about it but it was just too expensive or too complex [to put, for example, AI to work]. Now we are at a point where every business can leverage advanced innovations to improve their ability to understand and serve the customers better. And right now, we’re just at the beginning of digital transformation. This is just the start – there is a lot more to come and it is going to revolutionise the organisations engage and serve their customers”

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