Getting Real About Real-Time Technology
September 2003 - By Chris Martins


As a part of my participation in a recent online seminar about real-time service optimization, I had the chance to consider more closely some of the opportunities—and potential challenges—in attempting to achieve real-time service delivery. The concept of real-time solution architectures has attracted the attention of analysts and other cognoscenti as one the next major issues to hit the business technology market.

To quote one of the seminar’s other speakers, Barton Goldenberg of ISM, an expert in CRM and the real-time enterprise (RTE), “a real-time enterprise shares information with employees, customers and partners in real time through the complete supply and demand chains.” Others have used the term “zero latency” to describe the same effect. The premise is that technology can streamline business processes, eliminating unnecessary lags and inefficiencies that hinder performance.

The Benefits of Real-Time Service

Clearly there are virtues of real-time solutions that can positively impact a number of elements of the field service process. Traditionally, field service operations tended to work in a batch, dispatch and report model. Requests for service were taken by telephone, queued up for assignment, scheduled and dispatched to the technician. With the tech out on the call, the process entered the dark side of the moon—out of touch with command control. Upon completion of the service visit (or sometimes much later) a report was completed that closed the trouble ticket.

There are certainly inefficiencies within these processes inherited from the time when technology was more limited—or when technology simply didn’t exist. Opportunities for improvement are available from work order initiation through to invoicing. Although mobile technology is often a key element, it really is only a part of the mix. For example:

•Web interfaces can permit customers to initiate work orders and check service call status without the need to queue up in a call center. That improves customer satisfaction and reduces costs.
•Scheduling tools can provide increased flexibility to incorporate a multiplicity of variables—customers, locations, products and specific issue—and to schedule service visits in an interactive fashion, marrying speed and precision.
•In the field, technicians can communicate with dispatchers while en route or on site, providing and receiving updates to work assignments.
•Automated service call reporting and invoicing can eliminate much of the paperwork, improving both record-keeping and payments.

Real-Time Meets Service Effectiveness

Albert Einstein is often cited as saying that things should be made “as simple as possible—but no simpler.” That motto can be applied to service processes as well: things should be made as “real-time” as possible, but not at the expense of delivering quality service. As attractive as efficiency improvements are, the emphasis on efficiency should not ignore the equally important goal of service effectiveness. Increased speed is valuable only if the end goal is equivalent—or, better yet, superior—service.

As part of the aforementioned seminar, several participants spoke of how their mobile deployments leveraged real-time service capabilities to achieve business advantage. Needless to say, these companies were strong proponents of the business benefits of real-time service. But equally clear in each situation was the fact that these businesses had determined the complete end-to-end service process and were providing a solution that encompassed all the pertinent elements. And mobile technology was an enabler, but not necessarily the critical factor.

Begin at the Beginning

For example, several deployments cited in the seminar shared a common element: they did not rely entirely upon their customers for the information needed to start a trouble ticket and begin the field service process. Timely, accurate information is vital to an effective RTE. An RTE system creates an infrastructure that shares information quickly, but accuracy of the information is paramount. Real-time systems eliminate the slack that traditional processes often have used to absorb mistakes or adjust to missing information. Zero latency requires accurate and complete information or it may actually be less effective than the traditional approach.

If you are contemplating a real-time service solution consider carefully that dependency; it could be a problem for service processes that depend on customers for the information that sets the process in motion. Many service organizations expect customers to do the initial appraisal and diagnosis of a situation as part of a service request. Thus, the start of the process (and its overall effectiveness) depends on the weakest link: a customer who is neither a product expert nor trained to analyze a product problem.

Traditional service delivery could mitigate the customer dependency through a call center. The agent taking the call can ask questions and solicit additional information that help guide the start of the service process. In some cases, the agent might even eliminate the need for an on-site visit by walking the customer through a series of actions that constituted “guided self-service.”

Call centers are not simply cost centers to be eliminated. In many service organizations they deliver value that goes far beyond call logging and trouble ticket generation. If you want to Web-enable your service solution and let customers initiate their own trouble tickets, mimicking that capability needs to be considered.

What About Intelligent Devices?

What some companies are doing to address this issue is to include intelligent device management (also called e-support) technology as a front end to real-time service solutions. Technology from companies like Questra and Axeda can incorporate sensors—a mix of hardware and software—that monitor device activity and gather the data needed to inform the service process. Rather than trigger a service-call process based on the imperfect detection and analysis of the customer, these tools can do the preliminary data gathering that is needed to initiate the process. When integrated with field service management applications, this technology can create a seamless service process—even in real-time—that starts with accurate and complete data.

Of course, not every service process is amenable to intelligent device management technology. Optimally, more and more equipment will be designed with these capabilities built in, supporting connection to a field service application via standard adapters over an IP network. To retrofit an existing architecture requires not just changing your service applications, but the equipment being serviced, as well. That may prove too large an investment to make this type of real-time service worthwhile.

Intelligent Re-engineering

But whether or not intelligent devices are the answer to your organization’s deployment, intelligent service solutions clearly should be. If you are going to eliminate slack from the process, ensure that any intelligence that was part of that slack is somehow reincorporated into the solution some other way.

If re-engineering your equipment is not practical, consider re-engineering your processes. Those who have undergone business process re-engineering or studied the practice know that analysis is a key part. Without a strong understanding of your service process (where value is provided and where process steps are superfluous or duplicative) you might actually simply streamline the process without improving it. Eliminating bottlenecks at one point in the process may only introduce bottlenecks elsewhere.

Inefficient, But Effective

Real-time service has real-time benefits, but care must be taken. Understanding the capabilities of one’s existing service delivery is equally important. As traditional service processes have evolved, they likely have incorporated capabilities that may be hidden from view, but valued by customers nevertheless. These service processes may be inefficient, but effective in other ways. In fact, their very inefficiencies may be adaptations to the requirements of the business. Don’t let the drive to efficiency obscure the virtues of the old way of doing things. Real-time is good, but only when the result is a quality service experience for the customer.

Chris Martins is an independent consultant and commentator on technology solutions. He can be reached at [email protected]

 


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