Just like enterprises (only smaller)!

I was a little more enthusiastic than I should have been when my hot water heater stopped working in the middle of my morning shower last week. As I shivered in the now-freezing water, I looked forward to the fact that I’d have the opportunity to speak to my local plumber.

Sure, most people aren’t as excited to meet their local plumber as they’d be to meet, say, Sir Paul McCartney, but can Sir Paul McCartney provide anecdotal information about the state of field service for small business owners? I don’t think so!

(Author’s note: In the event that Sir Paul McCartney has extensive knowledge of the field service practices and perceptions of small businesses, I offer my sincere apologies. This author does not intend to undermine Mr. McCartney’s credibility among small business owners, field service practitioners, or fans of the band Wings.)

My plumber was very patient throughout the litany of questions I asked him during his visit. Questions such as, “How do you manage your fleet?” and “What utilities are you using for your parts inventory?” To his credit, it took him a full four minutes before he very politely asked me to wait upstairs.

Small businesses like plumbers have been of great interest to me throughout my time studying service management. The prevalence of mobile, the ubiquity of the internet, and the ease of software and hardware development have increasingly led to technology barriers coming down, first for the enterprise, and eventually for companies of all sizes. To that end, and based on Aberdeen’s research, it seems that we’re approaching a major turning point for small field service businesses.

Where do SMB owners invest?

Small business owners have traditionally focused technology investments towards making sure the wheels don’t fall off the cart. Now, with the availability of new technologies, small businesses can use technology not as a stopgap, but, like the big guys, as a driver of growth. Aberdeen’s research backs this up. The pressures driving tech investments at enterprises are the same at small- and medium-sized businesses: Number one is increased product complexity, followed by growing competition in products and services.

But, when the rubber hits the road, document digitization is the top FSM capability currently in use by small businesses (and one I’d describe as a drop-dead necessity at this point) — but in areas like customer self-service, internal management of contracted technicians, and remote resolution, small businesses lag far behind enterprise organizations. Putting money aside, if the pressures are the same, why aren’t small businesses investing in technology the same way as enterprises?

Let’s look at an example of what I’m talking about: location tracking. GPS has long since graduated from the thing that got you to your cousin’s wedding into a sophisticated business utility. This is owed to cheap access to GPS readers, combined with fleet management (FM) software. But when you ask the average small business owner how they plan to use an FM solution, the top priority for them is almost always surveillance.

They need to make sure that Dave the technician isn’t spending two hours idling in the Burger King parking lot between jobs. Tech solutions that provide this are cheap and lightweight, and, I’d argue, a complete waste of money. Yes, you need your employees to work efficiently, but this isn’t how enterprise service orgs leverage their FM utilities.

I’ve spoken about this at length before, but brow-beating Dave for eating four Whopper Juniors while on the clock might save a few bucks on gas, but it doesn’t move the organization forward in any meaningful way.

Enterprise organizations take fleet data and use it to route technicians, build schedules, and share information with customers. Resource-tight organizations like small businesses have an obligation to operationalize location data in a similar way to drive efficiency, and it’s never been easier to do. Simple steps like this will allow small businesses to plan routes more effectively, but, more importantly, offer customers smaller service windows, improving customer experience.

Don’t limit your field service management investments to one tech

Location is easy, though, compared to a more complex process like IoT. In commercial manufacturing, capital equipment, design engineering, and other big-ticket practices, businesses have found a variety of ways to capitalize on connected devices. Of course, small businesses, too, are getting more and more access to IoT devices than ever before. This is thanks to the fact that devices serviced by small businesses — refrigerators, HVAC systems, boilers, and so on — are now much more likely to include internet-connected components and sensors.

Today, utilization of connected devices in concert with manufacturers’ apps for service makes documentation and failure reporting easy. It’s easy from there to imagine a future where internet-enabled sensors, used in conjunction with an AR-headset, allow technicians to quickly resolve problems, even on serviceable assets they haven’t worked on before.

These are just two examples, but they highlight the fact that small businesses need to start investing in field service management (FSM) like enterprises do, except on a scale that makes sense for them. There’s nothing stopping small businesses from investing in FSM utilities that support these capabilities and more, and if firms are looking to set themselves apart in a sea of new entrants, there’s no better way to build a brand that people will talk about and trust. Some smart investments today will not only provide a solid pathway for business growth, but it’ll help future-proof your business for the next technology set to transform service.”

For more on this topic, check out my related research report “What Will Drive the Future of a Maturing Mobile Field Service Landscape?

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