The Hitchhiker's Guide to Field Service Software
April 2003 - Donald F. Blumberg and Matt DeMazza

For a comprehensive listing of field service software vendors and their feature sets, download our PDF chart.

Field service software. What is it? Who uses it? Why should you be using it? Apparently, these questions are more difficult to answer than they should be. In a recent survey by CRM software developer Astea International, about two-thirds of the nearly 300 C-level executives who responded said that they do not currently have a customer-facing and/or field operations project planned or in process.

James Alexander, VP of professional services for the Association For Service Management International (AFSMI), found similar results last year when he led a study of 370 decision-makers from 29 countries. Alexander’s findings are enough to make any executive, especially one whose company does not make service a top priority, do a double-take: The average gross profit margin for services is significantly higher (30 percent) than that of products (22 percent), a gap that is expected to widen over the next two years. Combine the results of the Astea and AFSMI research and we’re led to this conclusion: Many companies could be missing out on a potential gold mine by not moving aggressively to technologically enable their field service workers.

Astea also found that field service professionals—the employees who implement and actually use field service technology—believe senior managers and CEOs aren’t doing enough to support field service. Astea reports that only 8 percent of these respondents believe their company’s management takes a "progressive approach when supporting and allocating resources for field service."

So where is the disconnect? Our initial thoughts are that maybe there needs to be a re-education about the essential nuts and bolts of field service solutions. And along with that, an unbiased look at what the solution providers have on offer. Toward that end, we’ve assembled a no-nonsense primer for those of you seeking a new or upgraded field service solution.

We picked the brain of Donald F. Blumberg to devise precise definitions for the feature sets and point out solutions available to today’s field force decision maker. Blumberg, a longtime contributor to Field Force Automation, is the founder and CEO of D.F. Blumberg Associates, a Fort Washington, Penn.-based management consultancy. Blumberg, a former principal deputy assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, has advised clients since 1969 on the ins and outs of logistics, supply chain management, customer service and field service.

We also surveyed some 35 of the leading field service software developers, asking them to tell us exactly what features they offer, what wireless networks they support and other critical details. We’re happy to report that almost all of them responded to our query in time for this issue. We’ve created a chart to display their responses in graphical form, with the hopes that it will make it easier for you to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

So where does your company stand on field service? If you’re unclear on some of the finer points of field service software, we hope the following pages will help.

We’ll start with a detailed overview of the various functions that make up an integrated field service software solution.

Service Call Management

Service call management is really made up of six separate parts:

•Initial call handling: Identifies and validates a specific customer’s need or requirement and records the customer’s problem statement. Also may include any other special instructions.

•Processing the customer’s problem statement: Includes determining service priorities and placing the call in a schedule queue. This will also involve call-avoidance sub-routines and help desk support for possible immediate fixes (such as problem/cause/action analysis); routing to a technical analysis center (TAC) for in-depth processing; establishment of a call-back time; and checking for duplicate service calls. This help desk and TAC call-avoidance function is generally provided as a separately accessible function.

•Making the service commitment: Identifies the primary and secondary customer service personnel to be assigned to the account; checking the availability and skill levels of service technician/mechanic/customer service specialist; checking the availability of material and/or service resources; and contacting a service technician/mechanic prior to making a service commitment.

•Dispatching the service technician/mechanic: Involves assignment to the customer or customer’s site via telephone; paging the service engineer’s beeper, wireless handheld or acoustically coupled terminal; assigning tasks directly or via wirelessly-enabled portable computer terminal or e-mail. In many cases, dispatching is done during or at the completion of the process of closing out the previous customer’s call.

•Call tracking and escalation-management: Updates the service call status for any reason after dispatch, including alerting and priority escalation. This will occur if the service call has not been scheduled within a certain time period, the service person or engineer has not called in to closeout or report the service status within an allotted time or the customer calls in numerous times for the same problem.

•Call closeout: Includes recording the time, parts and materials used on the service task or job, updating problem codes, completion of case and action codes, recording of travel and miscellaneous expenses, identification of emergency parts needed to complete the repair and identification of returned items and recording cost.

Service Planning and Scheduling

The typical service organization might be involved in service planning and scheduling. This can include installing, maintaining and supporting everything from very complex equipment that requires changes to physical structures and networks to simply preparing to install heating, ventilation or air conditioning systems. Project planning, preventive maintenance and special task scheduling are musts. The needs include planning and scheduling capabilities for required installations and moves, adds and changes. Required functions include:

•Project planning: Requires the ability to define the resources needed for a site location by type of project, to identify special installation tools and test equipment and to recommend spare assemblies and parts. It may also require additional personnel resources inside or outside the organization (subcontractors) and contacts in other vendor organizations involved with the project.

•Preventive maintenance scheduling: This data, concerning the planned work assignment, must be reviewed against existing resources, current and future commitments and current and future budget allocations.

Logistics Management

Because material is an important component of the service delivery process, this functionality is generally required to provide basic logistics management and support and inventory control. This support should include techniques for managing and controlling the complete service inventory and spare parts pipeline, including central and regional warehouses, down to the customer service representative level and the return-repair cycle. Specific sub-functions include:

•Inventory tracking and control of the full logistics pipeline (from central warehouse to customer service engineer level) to keep track of in-transit delivery, returned parts and equipment, borrowing control and repair/rehab stock control. Data is reported and tracked for effective and defective parts status by stock keeping unit (SKU).

•Customer spare parts order processing includes online entry of orders, order pricing, order tracking and updating, allocating inventory, automatic back-ordering, generating picking documents, shipping paper and transportation documents (shipment optimization, way bills and freight manifests) and recording/capturing data for later billing and invoicing of the customer.

•Parts management agreements include parts at the customer site or in special stocking locations, monitoring used parts and their replenishment and revision compatibility with customer equipment.

•Configuration management keeps track of the installed base of customers and equipment being serviced, the manufacturer of the equipment in the case of third-party maintenance and any relocations of equipment in the field. Wherever applicable, the function will monitor the equipment installed and software used and will be updated whenever they are revised. (This should also be incorporated and limited to the call-handling and dispatch function to identify and verify the required parts and material at the customer’s site.)

•Inventory forecasting and planning involves all inventory stocking points to better plan and forecast inventory and to optimize total inventory levels within the logistics pipeline.

•Inventory replenishment includes generating material requisitions to the next highest inventory stocking level; identifying primary and secondary supply sources for spare parts and consumables; generating purchase orders to vendors or replenishment orders to manufacturing facilities; and quality control processing and receipt processing to update inventory.

•Depot repair involves managing the returns from the field logistics process to provide cost-effective, rapid actions to either convert the returns to good, usable materials or properly dispose of them.


Scheduling/control is the tactical process associated with real-time coordination and control of the service labor force, taking into account customer needs, willingness to pay for service-level agreements and availability of resources.

Financial Control/Accounts

Financial control/accounts is the management of revenues and costs to determine cost-effectiveness, profitability and ROI.

Database Management

Database management involves coordinating control, storage and retrieval of all data in the service organization regarding customers, labor and material resources, installed base, service metrics and parameters, customer satisfaction and financial performance. This data must be made available in online real-time format and/or batch reports.

An integrated database management system, including a comprehensive structured database to provide timely, accurate, flexible information for reporting to all levels of the field service management and service organization structure, is required.

Basic reports to be generated in the system include: customer call processing analysis (response-time analysis); customer history (uptime analysis); call handling reports (calls per location, FE, time to commit, response time); scheduling service-personnel load reports; resources used versus resources allocated; contract profitability; contract renewal reports; installed configuration; inventory status reports by stocking locations; purchase order reports; failure demand reports—including meantime between failure (MTBF) and meantime to repair (MTTR) on service reports; labor distribution analysis (by product line and region); and parts and material consumption analysis.

Helpdesk and Technical Support

Helpdesk and technical support are the processes used to support the call management process to analyze and diagnose service call requests. The goal of these solutions is to determine optimum response to meet customer requirements and needs, while keeping costs to a minimum.

Management Planning/ Decision Support

Management planning/decision support is composed of analytical tools and models for supporting the process of planning and decision making in order to optimize service operations.

Communications Systems Support

Communications systems support is network technology used to provide for the flow of voice, data and image information to and from customers, to and from the field service personnel and within the organization.

Service personnel are often equipped with portable computers or wireless devices to communicate with the central system, downloading and uploading information with the goal of improving customer knowledge, service and support. Elements of field communication and information exchange include:

•E-mail facility and bulletin board: Used as a tool for posting messages between dispatch center and service personnel or from one service person to another. This is also a central facility to place and distribute service memos and recent problem/solution information.

•Forms/reporting: The service person should be able to download from the system call/customer information, display or print it locally in structured format, make his inputs and transmit them back to the system. A list of reporting forms may include: service call assignment, call information status and closeout, contract report, time and material report and billing input, service report, warranty report and customer history report.

•Customer layout information and configuration-data access: The system should be capable of providing communications access for portraying graphical data with storage and editing capabilities. This would be used by service personnel to develop, record and diagnose network topology, as well as equipment location and layout, repair paths and parts information. This functionality can help inexperienced service personnel and call handling specialists to become rapidly familiarized with a customer’s operational circumstances.

•World Wide Web and global Internet access: In certain cases, the system should be capable of connecting to the Internet and Web to provide access for: customers requesting product, technical and help assistance; reporting general problems; providing updates on new technology; and providing other communication channels to and from field engineers, logistics management, helpdesk specialists and other service and company representatives.

Donald F. Blumberg is founder and CEO of D.F. Blumberg Associates, a Fort Washington, Penn.-based management consultancy ( Matt DeMazza is a staff editor for Field Force Automation.


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