Someone wise once said that it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But then someone else, equally wise, said “the greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it”. So it is in this spirit that I pick up my crystal ball to give you my take on the upcoming trends in field service in 2019.
This is the year that new technologies that have been overhyped in previous years will start to enter the mainstream.
The hype around wearables has previously been focused on smart glasses and extended reality (XR) technologies such as AR and VR. It is possible to see many opportunities for these technologies in field service. For example, engineers wearing smart glasses could have hands-free access to augmented reality overlays of product schematics, or transmit live footage of repairs to gain support from tech experts back at base. Whilst there is likely to be a resurgence in interest in XR in 2019 (Gartner has predicted that by 2019, AR and VR solutions will be evaluated and adopted in 20% of large-enterprise businesses), for field service companies, wearables in 2019 will be about smart watches.
Sales of smart watches have boomed: research suggests that the 71 million per year shipped in 2018 will have doubled to 140 million in the year 2022. Many have voice activated features and it is easy to see how field service engineers will be more productive when they can communicate with the back office – accessing and replying to calls, texts and emails – without having to stop working on the task at hand.
There has also been considerable hype around AI in field service; some AI applications that will start to be more widely used in 2019 will be good for productivity. One trend is the move towards hybrid service environment - the combination of chatbots with humans. Gartner predicts that 25 percent of customer service and support operations will integrate chatbots by 2020, up from less than two percent in 2017 and that, also by 2020, the average person will have more conversations with chatbots than with their spouse.
Using bots to handle tier one service questions, or queries from engineers in the field, switching to skilled human staff when needed, is efficient and cost effective. Similarly, bots can be used in the same way to prepare information for the engineers, so they arrive at each job fully briefed. Finally, engineers in the field who need expert support will take pictures or video of kit, and AI applications will be able to recognise parts or pull up relevant service manual content, again reverting to experts only when needed, and improving the efficiency of the operation.
In 2019, field service will become even more focused on the end customer. Peoples’ expectations of service have been increasing for many years, driven by their experiences with consumer brands such as Amazon. This coming year, the focus will be on communications and control. End customers want end-to-end visibility of their service appointment - they want to know exactly where their engineer is and what time they will arrive, they want to self-serve to book their service appointment, and they want the ability to reschedule, even when the engineers is en-route. More service brands will be creating customer facing apps that will facilitate this level of service.
There will also be an increased focus on first time fix as customers become less willing to accept the need for a second visit. They will expect engineers to arrive fully briefed, with the right parts to complete the job.
To complement these trends, there will also be more emphasis on proactive and predictive maintenance. IoT devices can alert service organisations to impending repair or maintenance issues before they occur. Whilst industrial IoT is more established, the installed base of consumer IoT units is predicted to grow from 7 billion in 2018 to 12 billion in 2020. This means that consumers as well as business end customers will start to expect their boilers, for example, to send a message to the contracted maintenance company, and either schedule a service appointment, or conduct a remote procedure or reset.
There is an ageing field service workforce and it is getting harder to recruit skilled engineers. One trend we will see in 2019 is the wider use of freelance engineers. An increasing proportion of people are becoming self- employed and working in the gig economy: Self-employment has grown from 3.3 million people (12.0% of the labour force) in 2001 to 4.8 million (15.1% of the labour force) in 2017. One source even predicts that half of all workers will be freelance by 2020. In field service, this will help to resolve staffing problems, but will create issues around how to manage and motivate these workers, as well as how to train them and assure quality of service. Technologies such as AR and VR discussed above will be part of the solution, connecting engineers with more experienced permanent staff back at base and transferring knowledge in a visual real-time fashion. AI applications will help with scheduling and assigning the right engineer to the job.
In this climate, it will become even more important to retain the skilled and experienced engineers that service companies do have; good staff will value training and opportunities to progress in their careers. Another key trend is that they type of skills that service engineers need are changing. In 2019 there will be an emphasis on soft skills; as service departments are under pressure to become profit centres, engineers need sales skills; as customers are increasingly demanding, engineers need interpersonal and customer service skills and as the job increasingly involves new technologies, engineers need to be adaptable, IT literate and good at coping with change.
In summary, whilst these predictions are my best guess, the truth is that I don’t actually have a crystal ball. Despite this, there is one thing that I can be absolutely sure about: at Cognito iQ we are privileged to be embarking on another year of working with our outstanding colleagues, customers and partners. As yet another wise person said, there are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind. I’m looking forward to seeing what 2019 brings.
Laurent Othacéhé, CEO, Cognito iQ