Real World Field Service Management Survey
Common challenges that plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and other contractors have in managing their field techs and customers
We set out to answer this question: how much value do contractors in trade industries get from their operational technology? Here’s what you told us.
|The Short Version
Time is universally the costliest factor in running a trade business.
You never have enough time. Winning business depends on how competitively and accurately you can measure time. It’s a constant effort to get appropriately and promptly paid for your time. Customers, and occasionally business partners, frequently consume your time without expecting to compensate for it.
So, it makes sense that the two most important benefits survey respondents experienced were time and efficiency. When owners, office personnel, and field techs relied on software to automate and enforce processes, they enjoyed the highest amount of satisfaction.
While some “old school” contractors focused on nagging staff to follow basic processes and to record their time and materials, companies with multiple software tools, especially with integrated field service management platforms, reported high satisfaction with these tools. Their biggest areas of concern revolved around customer behaviors that were beyond their control.
The survey exposed a few areas where many contractors are leaving money on the table. For residential contractors, some are manually tracking warranty information or not at all. In contrast, commercial contractors, are not tracking inventory on vehicles, in their warehouses, or installed at customer sites. In BOTH types of businesses, they are wasting time and some materials.
Whom We Talked To
- We corresponded with 30 trade contractors in the plumbing, HVAC, and electrical industries.
- Ten reported they primarily served residential customers, ten reported primarily commercial customers, and ten reported a large amount of both types.
- Almost all use computer software for various functions at points in the job workflow, from initial dispatch to invoicing and payroll. Six – or 20% – report using integrated field service management platforms to manage jobs and techs. This included customers using either IndusTrack or competitor platforms.
- Only one contractor – a small home-based business with just 2 field techs – did not use any software.
We asked you about your greatest challenges in managing customers themselves. For you, it all came down to time.
Most of your issues revolved around customers being disorganized, being unavailable at scheduled times, or springing things on techs when they were on site. One contractor explicitly focused on the issue of time. He said, “They waste time. Our techs have to wait for customers to open doors when they know we are coming, or find their credit cards or check to pay us when they know in an hour we are going to ask for payment.”
As of November 2020, COVID-19 restrictions impact the speed of estimators and techs, particularly when a site has strict protocols in place, such as mandatory temperature checks or a check-in process. The conservative business approach is to assume that this restriction isn’t going away soon.
That means contractors should look for efficiencies elsewhere to balance out the inconvenience that this causes. One way to mitigate this is by alerting people in the field of special restrictions through notes in a job file and messages directly to personal mobile devices.
Smartphones have really helped our company to expedite services for our customers, with pictures of units, parts and such, helping to greatly reduce mistakes and thus, downtime of our customers
Other customer management issues:
- Customers want things that weren’t already talked about
- Not being able to directly invoice customers
- Customers cancel appointments or don’t show up at a site
- Customers give the wrong information
We asked you about your common challenges in managing technicians in the field. The list of complaints here was much longer. The number one issue? Organization. Technicians – even in those companies who use various software solutions – sometimes take the path of least resistance. This leads to lost information, lost parts, and lost revenue.
- Making sure they log the parts that they use
- Sticking to processes
- Not being able to reach techs because they are busy, or have their hands full
- Managing their time and keeping track of material inventory
- Keeping track of when they are on job sites and when not
- Works with the union, so they can rotate if there is a bad employee
Our biggest management issue is keeping track of technicians. Knowing when they are on job sites, not being able to reach them because they are busy or have their hands full
Some of these challenges have been tackled through function-specific software tools that ease estimating, jobs management, dispatching, mapping techs in the field, invoicing, payment collection, and timesheets.
ALL of these issues can either be mitigated or solved through good training and an integrated software platform that automates processes and captures time and materials.
Operational Challenges – The Home Office
We asked you how long it takes to handle key operational processes, like payroll and invoicing. The responses varied widely.
Some companies have automated steps to the point that it takes them almost no time at all. Others experience a drag of weeks or even months to get paid.
The takeaway here is that automating timesheets, invoicing, and collection as much as possible reduces administrative effort and delays in getting paid.
The “Tech Gap” – What’s Really Slowing You Down
So why don’t more companies implement integrated platforms that put everyone on the same page and connect these functions in a workflow? The biggest holdup is fear around adoption. Companies with limited or no software pointed to the concern that their techs would have a tough time learning and using new technology. “Some of our guys have trouble even using a smartphone.”
However, another respondent said, “We have great technicians. They generally communicate well across the board and take care to get the job done right. Smartphones have really helped our company to expedite services for our customers, with pictures of units, parts, and such, helping to greatly reduce mistakes and thus, downtime of customers.”
The real holdup to growing a company isn’t the technicians themselves. It’s anxiety over change. Owners in growing companies are concerned that smartphones, tablets, and laptops – like all equipment – can be damaged, lost, or stolen, but the benefits have far outweighed the risks.
First Contact with Customer to Invoicing and Payroll: Automate Your Workflows
Does the job and payment process look dramatically different for, say, a commercial electrician versus a residential plumber? Every respondent noted that their regular job and back office workflows were largely identical. All contractors reported following very similar processes.
When you do something repeatedly over years and decades, the smart strategy is to look for ways to remove manual steps and connect processes to prevent multiple entries of information. This reduces chances for error and speeds up accurate communication.
One respondent, in fact, saw this as such a clearly repetitive workflow that they wrote their own software to manage it. They described it simply:
“A phone call. Quote pricing. Book appointment. Dispatch. Perform work. Collect payment. Input hours and materials. Make follow-up calls. Invoice digitally. Click payroll. Direct deposit.”
Another contractor has been running FSM software for several years. They report, “Every stage is through the software.”
|NOTE: Where there are workflow differences, the best FSM platforms enable customization of the workflow. For instance, a commercial contractor may need complex billing, phase-based estimating, and detailed time tracking of techs across multiple jobs. A residential contractor likes to build estimates on-site using flat-rate price books, and they rely on mobile payment collection. One software solution, IndusTrack, allows companies to deploy BOTH workflows easily, on the same software.|
Do you use software to manage customer accounts?
Residential and “both types” contractors are mostly leveraging software to track customer information. Twelve say they use dedicated tools.
This is a smart choice. The 8 who are still using file-based or paper-based methods are missing opportunities to mine that information for marketing. It’s more efficient to search for past job information and to market to customers using a central CRM database rather than searching through spreadsheets, past invoices, or job ticket scans.
Are You Using Field Service Management?
Nine contractors of the 30 respondents are using Field Service Management (FSM) platforms. However, only five of the nine say that their software handles all their needs. When we pressed further, here’s why some companies were dissatisfied with their FSM.
- “It doesn’t track inventory well. We can’t even use that portion.”
- “We’re using it for project management, but we can’t use some of the other stuff they have.”
- “We’re looking for something else because they are killing us with fees.”
- “We moved off [the software] because it was too expensive.”
These are complaints we’ve heard in the past about several popular FSM platforms. How do you apply a workflow that covers all the repetitive functions, delivers high ROI, and is easy for your people to adopt? The best FSM platforms do all these things and flex to your unique processes. IndusTrack is a modular platform that adds value whether you’re using some or all functions. It plugs into popular products that you may already be using successfully, turning them into stages in your workflow.
Who does have FSM software?
The average size of a company that uses FSM software is 14.5 techs, with an average of 13.8 vehicles. The smallest one reporting FSM had 5 and the largest had 99.
It doesn’t matter how many people or trucks you have, saving an hour or two of productivity per week adds up fast.
What, if Anything, Is Your Software Lacking?
Most residential business respondents say, “Nothing. It meets all of our needs.” However, for the few who are not satisfied, the biggest gap is in “Lack of being able to alert the company in advance, and on the forensics side of things.”
Commercial contractors depend on “being on companies’ lists” as well as word of mouth. Many get requests from architects as well. Some commercial contractors are still using spreadsheets and paper-based methods for job or project management. When asked how satisfied they were with their current software when it comes to managing projects, half of these contractors said, “very dissatisfied.”
They also do not use software to help them track inventory on vehicles or in the warehouse. However, most commercial contractors rely on software for some things such as estimating.
This leads us to our last section.
Missed Opportunities for Efficiency and Profit
One of the largest cost savings opportunities is in the serialization of inventory. Of all the commercial contractors we interviewed, none of them were electronically tracking what equipment was installed at a given customer location.
Serialized inventory tracking is a unique capability that IndusTrack developed based on common questions that our customers were always asking:
- Which equipment on this site did we install?
- Which equipment did a different contractor install?
- For customers with multiple sites, which building has which equipment?
- Is this a warranty issue? Can we easily identify faulty equipment under warranty and ask the manufacturer for credit?
- Could we add value by proactively advising a customer to replace equipment that is near end-of- life?
In both residential and commercial types of businesses, contractors lose time and materials whenever an equipment failure occurs that is warranty-related. They’re also consuming time whenever they don’t know which vehicles have which parts or equipment. It takes time to search through various types of records to identify whether a failed item is covered. Second, it’s either someone else’s equipment – which is rare, but you shouldn’t have to eat it – or it’s your manufacturer’s equipment and you should be reimbursed for it.
Finally, when you have a long relationship with an account, it’s not practical to go through file cabinets or a hundred electronic files to try to proactively alert customers to things that are nearing expiration or end of life. This is a profit opportunity and a customer experience booster.
One other area where contractors who serve residential are missing opportunities is in enabling estimators and/or techs to create standard estimates in the field. Only six of the 20 contractors who serve residential had such tools. If you’re already sending a skilled tech into a home, business, or facility, you can dramatically slash the time to deliver a proposal to a customer when a need arises during a job.
Good FSM platforms enable flat rate price sheets, standard proposals, photo attachments, and payment collection. When your estimators are tied up or pressed for time, technicians can take photos on-site, attach them to a job, alert a manager or estimator at another location, and get approval to share the estimate with the customer, all in a few minutes.
If you’d like to work with us to turn your business more profitable, claim your FREE DEMO Session with IndusTrack today.