Distributed Field Service: Marrying the Gig-Economy and the Enterprise
When college and high school graduates were trying to enter the job market in 2008 and 2009, many found themselves struggling to find steady employment due to financial crisis. The term “gig-economy” was coined in 2009 to describe how a labor force in short supply of real jobs would have to make do with multiple short term gigs in order to make money. What began as a clever euphemism for persistent underemployment has more recently become a concept that propelled companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, and Fiverr to great success.
Those who value the flexibility of being part of an ad-hoc workforce or never knew a steady job market (mostly millennials) are very comfortable with the model of connecting work and workers as needed. There is growing opportunity for the field service industry to benefit.
Using a Blended Workforce
An increasing number of service organizations are using a blended workforce to manage variable demand, special projects, or expansion into new geographic areas. The Service Council reported that 76% of service organizations have used a third party for service delivery and to augment their regular workforce.
A blended workforce enables service elasticity, expanded skillsets, targeted growth, and other benefits for service organizations. A utility company helping to connect a new housing development will need a crew for a fixed length of time and in a limited set of locations. A major snowfall leading to power outages will require a reassignment of resources, as well as reinforcements. Any industry that suffers from highly variable demand for service or covers a large region with few resources also wrestles with appropriate staffing levels at any given time.
The blended workforce is an essential addition to the service toolkit, but also introduces its own challenges.
Service “Crowdsourcing” Challenges
Subcontracting or outsourcing service work is not a new idea. It has been helping businesses expand and scale for a long time. But contracted labor in field service is typically skilled labor that either matches or complements the skills of the permanent workforce.
Is crowdsourcing the new frontier in field service? By 2020, The Gartner predicts 40% of service work will be delivered by contractors. To maximize the productivity and efficiency of a workforce—whatever its makeup—service suppliers will have to consider every option. If increasing the number of contractors and possibly free agents for service delivery is a possibility for your business, consider the following while developing your plans, and how each challenge can be addressed through technology, policies, or process.
Going from Skilled to Low-skilled Labor
Unlike pizza delivery, field service work is usually highly skilled work that should only be done by a professional. There is a reason when your satellite dish appears to stop working you call the provider to summon a technician instead of calling your neighbor. For businesses that want to distribute the work to a larger number of candidates, the quality and reliability of service can drop off a cliff if the wrong person is sent to do the job—and will take customer satisfaction with it. Of course not every job requires your best technician, and in such cases it’s unnecessarily expensive to send your top service pro to do something anyone, maybe even the customer, could do with just a little coaching.
In some instances, it makes perfect sense to assign lower skill work to lower skill resources, but the service supplier still needs to define and enforce the minimum skill requirements. Websites like Fiverr provide access to a network of professionals organized by skill sets or work type who are not affiliated with a single organization. “Crowdsourced” service marketplaces could become a safe and standardized way for companies to find and dispatch ad-hoc workers, to supply certifications and verify abilities, and to match skills to the job that needs doing. But until an independent solution is available, each service organization must become both the gatekeeper and manager for such a network.
Does everybody do the same job the same way? It might not matter whether you put the peanut butter on your sandwich first or the jelly, but when things are broken and need fixing the stakes are a little higher, and you want predictable outcomes.
When large service organizations manage the transfer of knowledge from experienced to new technicians, they rely on training and coaching, and increasingly on remote assistance via augmented reality. A distributed workforce needs access to information beyond just the job site and basic information, but also regarding how to communicate with a customer, any standard policies and procedures, and definitions of success and completion for each job.
Visibility in the Field
In order to contain service delivery costs and remain nimble, every service organization needs the ability to locate the worker, track the status and progress of the job, and send other relevant information back and forth. Even companies that use their own field workforce still struggle with getting visibility and lose opportunities to become more efficient, effective, and profitable.
Mobility seems like a non-negotiable component of field service operations, but some organizations still rely on dumb phones, spreadsheets, and paperwork to get the job done. In order to benefit from the responsiveness and reach of a distributed workforce, service organizations need to invest in mobility to take full advantage of available solutions for workforce management. They also need to ensure their extended workforce has adequate device specs and underlying infrastructure (like mobile data coverage), or offline capabilities to take advantage of these solutions.
There’s a real cost to someone deciding to never do business with your company in the future. While Uber has recently been suffering from bad PR due to sexist leadership and political alignment, any bad news about the company used to involve a driver who had done something egregious. Even though Uber doesn’t consider drivers employees (something still hotly debated in regards to employment benefits and liability), the face of the driver summoned to your door via app becomes the face of the company for the duration of the ride, and sometimes beyond. Extending your workforce to include individuals presents both a risk to your brand and a greater responsibility to vet them for the satisfaction and safety of your customers. Any damage done to your brand by an ad-hoc worker could not only be irreparable, but also illegal.
Customer Privacy and Satisfaction
Leveraging a workforce made up of free agents increases the level of responsibility placed on the service organization to protect customer information and prevent access to customer data outside of the specific job assignment and completion window. Providing customers with the tools to share feedback or concerns will also be critical to make the experience a safe and seamless one.
Outsourcing work is a way to extend geographic coverage for your service, but it will require ensuring that the coverage is adequate. Getting a car from a ridesharing service in a city takes a matter of minutes, but wait times can grow longer as you move further into the suburbs. This will force service organizations to consider which areas might be less likely to be served and set appropriate response time and availability expectations with local customers.
Managing Your Distributed Workforce
Like every aspect of running a business, managing a workforce continues to evolve as economic tides and attitudes to work shift, partly enabled by new technologies. Mobility and speedy networks have been fantastic enablers for the evolution of employment, especially in developing countries with limited internet infrastructure where mobile adoption is high.
All of this presents a tremendous opportunity for service organizations to redefine where and how they operate, and discover new ways to deliver great customer experiences along with revenue growth.