Managing uncertainty, the number one challenge facing Field Service Management in the Covid era

The health situation is pushing field service organisational problems to their extremes. In a context of sustained uncertainty, the ability to prioritise and reconcile constraints – affecting personnel, timescales, service level contracts, etc. – is more vital than ever in protecting business activity.

Early in this New Year, when everyone was hoping to see the epidemic recede, the fifth wave of a particularly contagious variant of the virus is again putting society as a whole under strain. Although the current health measures are not as radical as those of the “hard lockdown” of two years ago, they are confronting companies with field operations teams with the worst of all difficulties for planners: uncertainty – long-term uncertainty, synonymous with the inability to predict, and therefore to plan.

Uncertainty is re-shuffling the cards

There is always an element of uncertainty in what planning teams do, but generally speaking it is quantifiable and, as such, can be factored in and treated as just one among several constraints. Typically, an analysis of activity statistics reveals how many customers on average cancel their appointment at the last moment each week; or how many operatives find nobody in when they arrive on site, despite the confirmations; or else what is the percentage of days lost to sickness at such and such a period of the year.

In all Field Service Management activities, these data are part and parcel of the known hazards – hazards that, while they may occasionally disrupt operations, involving adjustments and requiring responsiveness, in no way jeopardise planned activities as a whole, nor the operational set-up generally.

The uncertainty surrounding the current management of the crisis is of a completely different nature and scale: it has to do with the total unpredictability of the number of co-workers available for call-outs.

  • How do you create reliable schedules and routes when, from one day to the next, 5%, 10% or 25% of your technicians may be required to self-isolate for 7 days or more, depending on whether they are “contact cases”, have tested positive for Covid 19, are sick, are asymptomatic, or parents of children who have tested positive and have to take look after them at the last minute?
  • How do you respond to urgent requests when teams are already understaffed for their regular routes?
  • How do you offer your customers acceptable timescales – for delivery, installation, or service calls – without causing the amount of overtime worked by your available staff members to sky-rocket, and their mileage with it.
  • How do you smooth the workload and make up for lost time when it is impossible to know how health protocols may change and, consequently, how many co-workers will be able to work tomorrow, in a week or in a month?

It is of course always possible to devise numerous paper scenarios…, But what is the point of scenarios which you cannot associate with a probability of occurrence owing to the largely unpredictable nature of the course of the pandemic, and of the health measures taken by the government?

Prioritisation

In this tense situation, companies often have no other choice but to manage the organisation of their operations from day to day, depending on the staff numbers actually available for call-outs. Although in practice this criterion trumps all others, it does not banish the other constraints, and compels companies to make informed trade-offs.

The trade-off criteria and the weighting coefficients assigned to them obviously depend on the area of activity and, first and foremost, on whether the services are critical or not.

It goes without saying that if you are delivering parcels from a clothing e-commerce site, you have far more room for manoeuvre than if you are delivering, installing and ensuring the correct operation of home ventilatory support equipment.

  • In the first case, late deliveries because of a shortage of operational delivery staff are unfortunate, of course. But, no matter how demanding or even intransigent your customers might be, no human life is at stake.
  • In the second case, you quite simply cannot postpone any call: no installation your company has committed itself to can be postponed; no inspection visit and, all the more so, no visit to adjust or replace equipment can be cancelled – at least not without jeopardising patient safety, and without making your company liable.

How do you relieve the pressure?

In this second type of activity, the only way you can get through these difficulties is to minimise the number of indispensable calls by boosting your remote diagnosis and troubleshooting capabilities. Indeed, there is nothing to stop your technicians who are currently “isolating” from performing these tasks and, wherever possible, guiding the patient or other person step-by-step through the adjustment of their equipment, using video for greater safety. Unavoidable call-outs can then be assigned to technicians with the required skills, and who are able to travel to customers’ premises without infringing the health rules.

>> It should be noted that the fewer staff you have, the more important it is to take account of geographical criteria in allocating assignments, and the order in which they are performed: the lower your technicians’ mileage, the more calls they can make in a day. That is currently the priority and it is precisely what our route management and optimisation software enable you to do.

>> By the same token, when circumstances require them to travel to customers they are not familiar with, it is essential to provide operatives with all the information they need to reach each call location quickly: precise address, floor, telephone number access code to notify the individual, etc. It is obviously far easier to implement if this information is already centralised and can be linked with the roadmaps they are sent.

Whether your field activities are critical or not (namely involving health, life or safety), the current situation requires greater customer communication. Both in B2C and B2B, late deliveries and postponed non-urgent calls are far more acceptable to your customers if you take the initiative and keep them regularly informed, by email or by SMS. The lack of information and transparency only triggers a flood of calls to your customer service department, and increases your customers’ dissatisfaction.

What long-term consequences?

Nobody now ventures to make any predictions at all about the course of the epidemic, and the medium or long-term consequences of this interminable crisis for companies. What we are seeing in the Field Service Management field is that companies that had invested before Covid or at the beginning of the crisis in sophisticated planning and route management tools are now faring better than those that did not. Why? Because they are more responsive and capable of quickly adjusting their operations to their actual callout capacity at a time “t”. They also have a better grasp of call-out durations, and can thus create “exceptional” but realistic routes because they take account of performance constraints. Finally, all those whose activities lend themselves to it also developed their remote diagnostic and intervention resources, which they did from the first lockdown, as we explained in this blog. This gave them a head start, and they are now better equipped to ensure the continuity of their activities notwithstanding more adverse conditions – a competitive advantage on which they will now be able to capitalise, both if the crisis continues or if it – finally! – ends.

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