How Mr Fixer became the Service Ambassador


We all know that the role of the visiting field engineer is changing.  In fact it's probably been changing for the past twenty years and more. In this article published in the June 2004 edition of Service Management magazine, Rhion Jones looks at the new creature emerging from the shell.

We all know that the role of the visiting field engineer is changing. In fact it's probably been changing for the past twenty years and more. In this article published in the June 2004 edition of Service Management magazine, Rhion Jones looks at the new creature emerging from the shell.

So what's so different about the engineer's role - and the engineer - today? First, in the 'old days', the skills that were most required were technical ones. After all, the main purpose of despatching the individual to the customer site in the first place was to attend to a piece of technology - or to make a repair. Back then, it was possible to send out a clever technician who could scarcely string together a coherent sentence or even pronounce the word c-l-i-e-n-t! Provided he (and there were very few 'she' engineers) could come away with a technical fix, no one worried about the 'soft skills' or the customer service standards - all of which came later.

I remember the advent of the first Customer Service Representative (CSRs), when the pendulum began swinging in the other direction. Suddenly the training school became co-educational, and classes on hardware, software and the early days of networking became supplemented with those on communications skills.

Then came the science of services marketing. At an early conference of the ITSMA (IT Service Marketing Association) in San Francisco, I remember David Munn predicting that the internet would profoundly alter customers' requirements for field service. This would be not least because, if fewer opportunities arose to go out and meet customers, alternative ways would need to be found to absorb all the understanding and knowledge which companies obtained through their travelling field staff.

'What understanding?', I thought to myself. The idea that service engineers brought back to the company any really useful insight on customers seemed to me fanciful. It was as much as most firms could manage just to get them to send in adequately completed call closure data - and we were all fighting a battle to get them to use technology-assisted tools to capture this information more quickly.

Transformation

But David Munn has been proved 100% right and today, ten years on, the role of field service personnel has been transformed. Technical skills are still needed. If anything, we need even better skills, for if an engineer or technician is required today, it is likely to be for a more difficult problem (or more difficult customer!). But now the ambassadorial function is as important. Attending onsite is possibly the only human interaction between client and supplier. Organisations have to make the most of this opportunity.

So, we now make sure that those who represent us are clued-up to the gills with information to impart to the user. First, we have to ensure that he or she knows about the customer. Who will he or she be meeting? Is it the person who uses the equipment or is it the person who signs the cheques? It didn't matter in the past. But now you're going to brief the customer on your new products - and the new prices - and the changed company address - and the new preventative maintenance contract offer - and the forthcoming user conference and corporate golf day - and so on, and it's important to know who you're talking to.

It's also quite crucial to be aware if this is a satisfied or dissatisfied customer. What exactly is the history of this account? And should we check that this is not the fourth visit in a month because that system is forever collapsing on account of an unsolved problem?

It sounds as if a mixture of general corporate communications and specific account management tasks is in danger of crowding out the fundamental purpose of the visit. I can imagine technically-oriented field staff claiming that all this information is available on the website anyway. Why spoon-feed the customer?

Yet websites are like advertising posters at the side of the road. They may be there, but you cannot be sure that your target audience looks at them. And, even if they do, you're unsure how much they absorb.

But wait, there's more. So far, we've touched on information that field staff may need to know and impart to their customer. There is more - much more. He or she is also required to listen

Consultation

We are entering an era where it is not enough to communicate with customers. The new buzz phrase is 'customer consultation'. This means engaging in a proper dialogue - not just a one-way-only satisfaction survey. It is about giving customers a voice or a seat at the table of the meeting that decides future plans, or looks at ways their requirements can be better met - with both products and services.

At the Consultation Institute*, we have started looking at the dynamics of this type of consultation, and discovered that there are many skills and methods that are directly transferable from other consultation scenarios.

A key finding is that the use of peripatetic staff of all kinds is becoming an important way of capturing vital intelligence about what customers think and require. Modern mobile technology means that this is possibly the fastest and most effective way to pick up news and insights that can make a real difference.

Fully equipped

So the field engineer is now becoming equipped with a list of questions and issues to discuss with customers - much as was formerly required of sales staff. Sadly, for many companies the economics of sales and account management have changed and therefore the sole opportunity to consult the customer arises when support staff pay a visit.

As with all such evolution, this is both bad news and good news. Our field-based personnel will need even more training in the delicate arts of customer consultation. This adds further cost and makes the job even more difficult. But it is also intensely rewarding, for there is no better platform for the future of any business than a really strong appreciation of its customer's needs, priorities and preferences.

Companies that add consultation to the skillsset of an ambassadorial field support team will prosper.

Rhion Jones is a widely experienced independent consultant and commentator on all aspects of customer service, CRM and e-government. He advises users and suppliers of technology and offers executive briefings and seminars throughout Europe and the USA. He has also been appointed programme director for The Consultation Institute. He can be contacted through http://www.rhion.com or email at: rhion@rhion.com

*The Consultation Institute, 21 High Street, Orpington, Kent BR6 6BG.
http://www.consultationinstitute.org
Article reproduced with permission from the June 2004 edition of Service Management magazine, published by Penton Media Europe Ltd,

Penton Media Europe Ltd,
Penton House,
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Isleworth,
Middlesex,
TW7 6EL

Tel: +44 (0)20 8232 1600
Fax: +44 (0)20 8232 1650
http://www.servicemanagementmagazine.co.uk

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