Digital transformation in the field

COVID-19 forced field service organizations to embrace digital, and they’re not going back

  • Field service organizations must maximize equipment uptime with fewer on-site visits
  • Machine intelligence and proactive customer support are improving outcomes and customer experience
  • Despite the pandemic, the demand for field service workers still outstrips supply

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, service technicians from 3D Systems, a high-end equipment manufacturer in South Carolina, used to fly the world over. When any of the company’s industrial 3D printers broke down—whether cranking out cooling tubes for the world’s largest particle accelerator in the heart of Europe or precision parts for NASCAR vehicles—service techs would arrive posthaste to diagnose and complete repairs.

The pandemic grounded the team for the most part and forced 3D Systems to abandon on-site visits in favor of troubleshooting even the most complex repairs remotely, with digital tools.

Today, when 3D Systems customers make a service call, it’s not by phone but rather by logging into a diagnostic platform and describing the issue to an AI-powered chatbot. The software, having learned how the company’s 3D printers work, can deduce causes and prescribe solutions and the specific parts required. According to the company, the system has yielded a 39% reduction in repeat service calls, and a 69% drop in sending out replacement parts.

The 3D Systems field crew is part of a huge but often overlooked element of the global workforce: an estimated 20 million field service employees who minimize downtime on critical equipment and systems, from wind turbines and HVAC units to home solar systems and cable TV, in dozens of industries. For decades, they worked like road warriors in service vans, dispatched to dirty jobs in far-flung regions. Today, in part because of COVID-19, they’re doing as much of their work as possible from behind a screen—whether it’s a phone, tablet, or an augmented-reality display.

Indeed, the annual market for field-service management software, valued currently at about $3 billion, is expected to more than double by 2027. Applying machine intelligence to provide highly skilled remote assistance, schedule the most convenient appointments, and even prevent service interruptions are becoming increasingly common in the pandemic economy.

None of this suggests new technologies will automate workers out of their jobs anytime soon. In fact, demand for technicians far outstrips current supply. According to a study of service demand in the U.S. by Blumberg Advisory Group and Field Service Insights, some 2 million field-service jobs are expected to go unfilled in 2021.

“We are seeing technicians evolve into skilled problem solvers, using advanced collaboration tools to solve customer issues,” said Nikki Narang, director of product management for field service management at ServiceNow. “If the issue cannot be solved remotely, the technician is now more likely than ever to fix it on the first visit due to the knowledge gained from those remote interactions. That improves customer satisfaction and solidifies the relationship between the customer and the technician.”

Fewer house calls, better service

The rapid adaptation of digital field services is not limited to industrial applications.

Consider Vivint, a smart-home service company based in Utah that connects and maintains a suite of home-automation gadgets, including cameras, thermostats, and doorbells. The company manages 12,000 customer interactions per week and covers a service area of more than 7 million square miles.

Due to the pandemic, service calls now begin long before a tech is dispatched to a customer’s residence. Customer support teams assess issues over the phone and, using online step-by-step guidance, resolve many without dispatching a technician.

“We’re able to troubleshoot approximately 95% of the problems without sending a tech to the home,” says Adam Nebeker, Vivint’s vice president of field operations.

The new system also makes the experience easier for the company’s 2,500 technicians. Before heading into the field, service teams schedule and confirm appointments with customers via text. A new online ordering system helps support safety by eliminating the need for techs to pick up parts or supplies (including gloves, masks, and glasses) at company facilities. Instead they’re shipped ahead of time to technicians’ homes.

“We’ve shifted from having physical inventory locations to shipping directly to our field-service professionals,” Nebeker says. “Our pros receive automated inventory shipments twice a week, which also saves them time refilling their trucks.”

Field-service workers are as eager as anyone for the pandemic to end, but these digital tools are likely here to stay. As many companies have discovered, data-driven remote service is often a win-win: Field techs are usually able to provide better service to customers who appreciate a faster recovery or repair experience.

Digital transformation in the field

Although the pandemic is an accelerating factor, field service technology had already come a long way before 2020. Today, mobile devices, intelligent software, and other tools are making field service work more streamlined and responsive than ever.

Telematics sensors hardwired into service trucks, for example, allow technicians to send real-time data on vehicle components—such as engine efficiency, brake and tire performance, and fuel economy—so companies know ahead of time when their vehicles need to be repaired or replaced.

Fleet-management tools go beyond just sending alerts to technicians in the field. At United Parcel Service (UPS), tracking software considers thousands of possible delivery routes before picking the one that best reduces driver delivery times. According to the company, the system saves UPS about 100 million miles annually.

Other digital tools are also getting into the mix. Augmented-reality headsets help techs cut down on errors and shorten repair times. In 2019, Porsche rolled out an AR system for diagnostics that provides data on root-failure causes and other specs. The company found this shortened service-resolution time by 40%, according to a report by Deloitte.

Even during the pandemic, these digital enhancements don’t eliminate the need for a human touch in field service. Rather, they minimize unnecessary steps to keep workers safe and customers happy. Those trends will surely outlast the health crisis.