How to implement digital transformation strategies in field service by starting small

When your business is servicing equipment like elevators and refrigerators, it's not possible to go digital overnight. Here are some tips for making the gradual transition.

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Digital transformation is moving organizations toward greater uses of automation, analytics and digital devices, but it's a transformation that is far from complete.

Consequently, managers must work and measure the effectiveness in both digital and non-digital environments.

Nowhere is this mix of digital and non-digital technology more apparent than in field service.

"A combination of events cause service organizations to function in both connected, digital environments and unconnected 'pen and paper' environments," said Amit Jain, senior director of product at ServiceMax, a provider of field service mobile solutions. "In some cases, service technicians go out into very remote areas where it is impossible to get a communications link into a cloud based service system, so they have to manually record information on the devices or clipboards that they carry, later entering the information in the system."

SEE: IT leader's guide to achieving digital transformation (Tech Pro Research)

Even more challenging are the different maturation curves of manufacturers and machines when it comes to service and repair.

For instance, the manufacturer of a refrigerator that you service might have an IoT-equipped unit that you can take readings from and interact with digitally--but an older model of that same refrigerator might not have sensors or IoT enablement at all. Consequently, you can use digital automation and technology in some service cases, but not in all.

For managers of functions like service, which by necessity operates in both digital and non-digital environments, the challenge becomes managing not only staff but information. How do you continuously improve performance when the flows of information, business processes and even equipment that you are called upon to repair is divergent and unpredictable?

Take a measured approach to your implementation of digital technology and IoT

"The shelf life of an elevator is 20 years, so you can be servicing older equipment that is not digitally enabled for long periods of time," said Jain. In other words, moving to an all-digital servicing concept doesn't happen at the push of a button--or even at the turn of one year. Instead, the implementation of IoT and digital servicing is a gradual process that is dependent on the types of equipment that you must service.

SEE: Special report: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Orchestrate your transition to digital technology in short pilot project steps

While the bulk of your staff is still largely servicing an installed base of older machines, you can begin phasing in digitalized technology and IoT for new machines as they begin to trigger service calls. With an approach like this, you gradually shift more of your operations into the digital format, based on the digital capabilities of the machines being serviced.

Double-train technicians

Because field technicians will encounter both old and new equipment, must be equipped to handle both digital and non-digital scenarios. This means that they should be thoroughly trained in the methodologies and tools of each. Most companies train employees on new gear and systems, but they often fail to train the same employees on the changes in the business processes that go along with these new technologies. If they would do this, there would be far fewer questions, and employees would feel more confident about doing their jobs in new ways.

Think about your service information repository

Whether your service crew is working digitally or non-digitally, eventually all information must be collected and available for analytics and queries in a single data repository. The database must be able to interact with both digital and non-digital data from a variety of systems and devices. On the digital side, this means the ability to interact with laptops, machine-generated data, and IoT devices and systems. On the non-digital side, this means the ability to interact with legacy systems where employees hand key information from paper-based field reports.

Develop a set of metrics that can tell you how your department is performing

When operations are a mix of digital and non-digital experiences, it becomes difficult to measure effectiveness and efficiency because of diversity of operations. One way to approach this is to maintain a separate set of metrics for service calls that are done digitally and a second set of metrics that measure non-digital service. A third set of metrics can gauge the percentage of digital versus non-digital service calls, with the goal of moving the needle toward the digital side of the scale.

Connect service performance to business performance

"By measuring the productivity and efficiency gains from using mobile devices in the field, such as how many work orders can be completed in a day, you can show efficiency," said Jain. "In one case, a company reported an 18% improvement in productivity just by moving to mobile devices and digital technology in the field."

Other areas of the business that you can measure are the number of leads and cross-sales for other services or products that your techs get when they are out doing service calls, and how many trouble calls are resolved on the first visit.

"Overall, the best thing you can do when moving to mobile applications and a digital environment is to start small," said Jain.

It is equally important to be agile in your approach to testing new digital approaches in the field--much like software developers use agile techniques in programming. In some scenarios, a given approach might work well--while in others, it might not. By trying variations of processes as you implement more digital technology for your staff, you can evolve the practices that work the best.

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Image: iStock/AndreyPopov

By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...