Until recently, field service was largely overlooked as a necessary (and expensive) requirement for companies that made physical products, from residential HVAC units to complex medical equipment and everything in between. Machines break, and companies needed to be able to dispatch field service teams to fix the problem.
But that mindset is changing. Nowadays, companies are unleashing their technicians, among the most trusted employees by customers, to identify and develop new business opportunities. It's a logical strategy, given technicians' close customer relationships and knowledge of the products and technologies those customers use. But, as with any business development effort, it's not free.
We sat down with Jim Baston, a consultant who wrote the book about how service leaders can tap their technicians' business development potential, to find out how service leaders can mitigate the expenses involved in service-driven business development.
Why are service technicians so well-positioned to participate in business development?
There are several reasons: They know the technology and the capabilities of the companies that they work for. They also have a relationship with the customer and a position of trust unlike anyone else in their organization. They are intimately familiar with their customers' equipment and have deep insights into the challenges those customers face. Finally, in many cases they understand the customer's goals.
What expenses can businesses expect to incur when encouraging their technicians to drive business development?
The answer depends upon how far you want the technician to go with business development. In many of the firms that I work with, the role of the technician is to proactively identify opportunities and bring them to the attention of the customer. Opportunities are then passed on to the sales organization to follow up on and address. In these situations, there is very little, if any, additional costs.
Much of this expense, such as the time spent communicating the recommendation to the customer, is paid for by the customer as part of the service contract. When firms have technicians develop and quote the solution, then the costs will include time required to source and price products and to write up and present the proposal. There will also be additional costs if the company requires or encourages the technician to engage in social activities with the customer, such as taking the customer to lunch or for a round of golf.
What can organizations do to minimize these expenses?
First of all, I should point out that most organizations want the service provider to make proactive recommendations that help them operate more effectively and achieve their business goals. Customers see value in technician recommendations focused on helping them to be better off and, if that value can be articulated, they will be willing to pay for it.
One way to limit costs is to be crystal clear about what you want the technician to do — and to put in place the processes, tools and support structure to help them do this in the most cost-effective way possible. For example, how can field automation technology be applied to help them quickly source and price products and compose professionally constructed proposals? How can opportunity capture processes be designed to avoid duplication and provide feedback so time is not wasted unnecessarily following up on opportunities?
Another way to minimize costs is to actually charge for the time. Some of the organizations that I work with include time in their proposal to recover technicians' costs. This is typically a minor increase in quoted price and allows the firm to recover most of the costs associated with the tech's time in addressing the recommendation.
For service organizations that successfully get their field technicians involved in business development, what financial benefits can they expect?
The financial benefits can be significant. The most obvious is the increased revenues generated from the recommended work, but there are many more. When your technicians take a proactive role, they are able to make recommendations that can prevent unexpected failures. This means that some of the unplanned service work can be replaced by planned work and planned work can be scheduled for quieter times. If technicians do this successfully, they can impact customer retention and satisfaction — and even reduce the cost of new customer acquisition. A customer who feels they are better off for having engaged a particular service contractor is unlikely to leave and more likely to tell others.
What's more, the work environment for the technicians becomes more exciting and rewarding as they see the customer benefiting from their recommendations. This suggests that labor turnover will be reduced and hiring new employees becomes easier. I work with one firm who has a constant stream of work inquiries from technicians who are recommended by their own personnel.