Unleashing the service chain

Moshe BenBassat, ClickSoftware

Deregulation in the energy industry has undoubtedly caused some shifts in the market. Even if it has not led to direct competition on a regional basis, it has amplified the call for more customer-focused service throughout the country. Customer relationship management (CRM) tools are a sensible way to learn more about customers in order to eventually turn this knowledge into a better service. So far so good, in theory, but how does that look in practice?

Statistics say that up to 70 percent of CRM implementations fail (Gartner Group). There are a variety of reasons given for some of the failures, from software installation problems, lack of integration with other enterprise applications, to staff turnover for these long-haul projects. But maybe it’s because people expected too much from one solution and became disillusioned when CRM didn’t turn out to be a “cure-all.” Rather than look at the shortcomings of CRM, let’s look at where we can add functionality, the ways to make the system stretch to the crucial last mile of the customer relationship: service. CRM tools might be helpful with getting orders placed, tracking complaints, or mining marketing data, but they usually fail when the time comes to actually schedule a customer service visit.

Service is key

A large portion of the day-to-day business in the power market is service. Consider all the installation work, maintenance, repairs and customer requests involved. So why not hire a few more people, provide better service, and raise customer satisfaction? Because anyone who has ever asked management to hire more technicians, dispatchers, or call center agents knows that the response is typically a resounding “no,” and an instruction to “do more with less.”

More employees imply greater overheads, higher risk, plus more vehicles and equipment to purchase. If it’s possible to deliver service more efficiently without bolstering up resources in the field, a company’s revenues will rise alongside with productivity and customer satisfaction. That’s where service chain optimization enters the stage.

Just as manufacturers have a supply chain, the set of interlocking processes that transform raw materials into finished goods, service organizations have a service chain. Service optimization solutions like service chain optimization address every aspect of the service chain: from planning through scheduling and execution to analysis, and back to planning. And the strategy behind it all is to allocate scarce resources in the most efficient way possible.

Streamline and optimize

Ideally, the service chain is a learning cycle. Lessons learnt in the field and analysis from the strategic level can lead back to improved forecasting, planning and scheduling. For example, the system learns over time what sort of problems can be solved without dispatching a highly skilled engineer, so an agent can use remote diagnostics, saving time and money, while still providing the same level of service.

And if a site visit is necessary you ensure the right field service technician, with the right parts, takes the most efficient route to the customers’ address, arrives on time and resolves the problem first time round. As the day progresses, a service chain optimization application will continually reshuffle parts of the schedule so that last minute cancellations or emergency calls do not disrupt the entire schedule. As technicians report delays or early completions, optimized scheduling automatically finds other technicians that can still meet the customer commitment.

Service chain optimization does not stop with streamlining the technician’s and call center agent’s job. The focus is on how to improve strategic decision-making. Although these decisions are made in the boardroom and not in the high-pace environment of the dispatch center, they are equally or more critical. A single wrong decision to create or eliminate jobs in the workforce can crush any chances to achieve company goals–long before the day of service. A service chain optimization application helps to gather information to analyze the current service situation and to simulate scenarios with different parameters. Viewing and operating the entire organization as a ‘service chain’ enables a more collaborative and effective operation.

This includes being able to deal with the high level strategy as well as the street-level reaction. For example, a new marketing campaign that might result in more sales or customer requests can be factored into the forecasts, while a change in the weather could bring on unplanned demands for technicians, which need to be dealt with the day itself.

So what’s the benefit of service chain optimization in the power industry? Much work in the electricity industry requires ongoing complex maintenance or installation stages. Being able to manage projects with scheduled tasks, recurring jobs, time, expense and skill allocations, will help deliver a more consistent, comprehensive and cost-effective service across an extended part of time.

Second, integration with other enterprise applications, like sales, marketing or finance, enhances what is already in place, in terms of both technology and operational practices. A CRM implementation that seemed to be a risky project with unclear ROI [return on investment] before, can bear fruit once it’s combined with service chain optimization. For instance, it’s good to know the customer’s name and address straight away when they call. But only if you can then immediately give Mrs. Smith an accurate time when she can expect a technician to fix the original problem. Otherwise the customer is just left waiting for something else.

BenBassat is a scientist and technologist who founded ClickSoftware. For further information, please visit www.clicksoftware.com or contact Dr. BenBassat at 408-377-6088 or moshe.benbassat@clicksoftware.com.

This is the second in an EL&P two-part series on workforce management, CRM and service chain optimization.

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