The current market and jobs economy has left service organizations with a staffing challenge. The follow-on impact of the global pandemic and the “great resignation” are still being felt, while workers continue to age out and the attraction of the freelance job market for skilled workers as a result of the “gig economy” grows. While these factors may be out of a service organization’s control, there are certainly ways to mitigate these stresses, and technology will be a key enabler. Here’s how to bridge the gap between limited resources and maintain a positive experience for end customers.


An Already Difficult Recruitment Landscape Shrinks Further

Employment numbers from the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the “quit rate” of people leaving current employers is now approximately 3%, the highest level ever recorded, and unemployment is at all-time lows in many labor markets. This is made even more difficult for service organizations, as skilled technicians and engineers are among the top five most difficult roles to fill.

Retaining current staff is also proving challenging due to the growing “gig economy” —effectively a freelance marketplace for skilled labor to pick up work relevant to their skillset and on their terms. According to a survey mentioned by Forbes, 24% more people entered the “gig economy” in the summer of 2020 than in previous years. The global pandemic has accelerated this trend, with some service technicians choosing to leave full-time employment in favor of independent contracting.

Finally, the current workforces are aging. By 2030, all baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) will be at or past retirement age. COVID has fast-tracked this trend, with nearly 30 million U.S. baby boomers leaving the job market, many for early retirement, in the third quarter of 2020 alone.


Tech-Led Innovation to Mitigate Skills Deficiencies

Service organizations are already ahead on the digital maturity curve due to the mobile nature of their business operations. But next-generation digital tools are needed that do more to drive knowledge management, first-time fix rates, predictive guidance, and training alongside the performance of work — all of which will have a positive impact on mitigating the impact of the skills shortage.


Tapping into Data to Drive New Efficiencies

It’s exactly this technology foundation that will allow the best service organizations to fine-tune their operations to improve efficiency with data-driven insights and new tools.

In fact, according to a Seagate Technology report, 68% of the data available to us goes unleveraged either to drive experiences or outcomes. That’s why the following three tech-led developments involve tapping into this data to make operations more efficient and pass those benefits on to end customers as well:


1) Machine learning and artificial intelligence make for smarter work orders and technician dispatch.

Some efficiencies can be unlocked before technicians even get on the road. With progress in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), maintenance becomes more predictive, and when repair is needed, the best technician is automatically assigned to a work order based on the nature of the call, experience and skillset, geographical location, and even the equipment and parts available on the truck — armed with the asset and equipment information needed. As a result, maintenance schedules are more effective and efficient, first-time fix rates increase, and truck rolls go down, leaving more time in the day for additional high value customer interactions and greater employee engagement.

Along with the latest technological advances, there are examples of many service organizations using existing infrastructure to optimize where and how technicians spend their time, even where it would have seemed too challenging in the past. Associa, a community management organization with over 9,000 employees, leveraged its IFS Field Service Management (FSM) platform to increase the mobility of its service technicians. The change was simple, but highly impactful.

Instead of requiring technicians to clock in and receive work orders at the office each morning, Associa evolved to a mobile-first model and sent orders directly to each technician. This allowed workers to skip a daily visit to the office. The result? A full two hours of non-productive time eliminated daily for each and every technician. Drip routing is no longer an imposition, but an asset.


2) Joining up the dots between systems to make data work smarter.

Making maintenance more predictive and completing a job on the first visit allows contractors to cover more service calls over time using a limited workforce. Yet there are still too many occurrences where service technicians are unable to access the data and parts they need prior to or upon arrival, increasing the likelihood of a second visit.

Ainsworth, a multi-trade company that provides a range of skilled technical trade services such as HVAC, mechanical, electrical, motor, power, and more across a range of companies, knew it could do more with its data to help drive greater efficiencies in its field operations. The organization focused on data accuracy and access, it integrated its IFS enterprise resource planning (ERP) system with its FSM solution to ensure precise and real-time data was available to workers in the field.

Working with smart devices, technicians can complete work orders, communicate with dispatchers, and respond to any other issue that may arise during a call. Along with an increase in first-time fixes, these advances contribute to higher customer satisfaction levels since fewer service cycles are required to resolve an issue. Next step is how to continue to drive knowledge management and training in the workforce, and factor that into each process for greater “self-learning” alongside customer experience.

There is also an added skills gap benefit to keeping critical data tightly integrated into enterprise software systems. According to a recent Deloitte study, 32% of service organizations build knowledge transfer programs to pass on skills between retiring and new workers. Knowledge management can be built into enterprise software to provide automated data capture, user-friendly mobile apps with prompts, and guides to complete tasks — all support digital knowledge transfer from more experienced technicians to new recruits.


3) Remote assistance for both employees and customers.

Augmented and Merged Reality (AR/MR) tools help take knowledge and skills transfer to a new level, using these technologies can enhance in-field effectiveness. By using an over-the-shoulder view presented on tablets or smart phones, service organizations can provide additional support for newer technicians, with access to senior personnel via live video or other digital platforms. These senior leaders can help guide the technician through the repair so they can learn in the moment — while also boosting first-time fix outcomes and faster resolution times.

Although this technology has been in use for some years, the global pandemic accelerated its adoption from a customer perspective too, and it is now providing service organizations a means to efficiently interact with customers without making physical contact, increasing productivity and reducing drive time as well to save on fuel. AR/MR tools allow service organizations to effectively eliminate drive time, converting these non-productive technician hours into face-to-face customer interactions.

At IFS, we have the perfect example of a customer using AR/MR technology to provide a mix of real and virtual worlds to drive better customer outcomes. Longstanding IFS customer Munters, a global leader in energy efficient and sustainable air treatment and climate solutions, was looking for a robust remote assistance tool to help the company move towards a fully servitized, outcome-based business model. The enforced travel restrictions of the pandemic provided additional impetus for Munters to quickly implement a solution that could support ways of sharing expertise in a manner that is safe for customers and employees alike. It was able to pilot and roll out remote assistance technology for 200 staff across 22 countries in just two weeks — and quickly realize efficiency improvements across its service operations.


Service Companies Must Overcome the Skills Shortage Under Their Own Steam

It’s clear that there is no silver bullet to solve the global skills shortage right now. But service organizations can zero-in on technology such as intelligent scheduling, predictive maintenance, and remote service supported by AR and MR technologies to alleviate rising pressure points along the delivery cycle — optimizing technician utilization and ensuring end-customers receive uninterrupted high levels of service.