Improving Field Services


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Field Service plays an essential role in linking customers to a utility. Most Field Service
organizations are responsible for connecting and disconnecting service, when customers move
in, out, or around the company’s service territory. In addition, Field Service often assumes the
responsibility for disconnecting customers for non-payment and reconnecting meters once
accounts are brought current. To better understand how utilities are dealing with the challenges facing the Field Services
function and its day-to-day operations, the Ascent Group conducted its second annual
benchmarking project to evaluate Field Service performance and practices.

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Improving Field Services

  1. 1. Improving Field Services 2010 Field Automation Prevails Field Service plays an essential role in linking customers to a utility. Most Field Service organizations are responsible for connecting and disconnecting service, when customers move in, out, or around the company’s service territory. In addition, Field Service often assumes the responsibility for disconnecting customers for non-payment and reconnecting meters once accounts are brought current. Aside from connecting and disconnecting, Field Service employees become the key investigative resource for a utility—to understand problems with an account, obtain usage readings for customers and to support internal billing, investigate potential leaks, deliver disconnection notices, identify tampering, and often collect payments in the field. Many Field Service organizations also fill an important role as first responders in emergencies and service outage incidents. Customer expectations for faster or even instant service are putting more and more demands on field service organizations, making it more difficult to ensure on-time arrival and high productivity. In addition, the recent U.S. economic downturn has made it harder for many to pay for basic purchases, including utility and telecommunication services, placing more demands on field service organizations to provide revenue collection enforcement for the company to minimize risk. Utilities are also faced with growing need for more timely access to usage information—to support real-time pricing initiatives, load forecasting, demand-side management, load control, competition, and customer demand. Additionally, status and usage information is needed on an event basis to improve reliability and service quality, or to identify outages or theft of service. These more complex data requirements are driving the need for advanced metering systems, smart metering, and field automation. AMR (Automated Meter Reading) or AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) technologies can directly eliminate much of the traditional Field Service workload. More sophisticated AMI or “smart” metering devices can even accomplish some of the physical on-site Field Service workload through remote service connects/disconnects and tamper/theft detection. Because of these advantages, many utilities are actively pursuing these technologies. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Smart Grid Investment Grant Program is also spurring interest in “smart” metering, “smart grid”, and advanced metering infrastructure projects. The overall purpose of the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program (SGIG) is to accelerate the modernization of the nation’s electric transmission and distribution systems and promote investments in smart grid technologies. The ARRA was signed into law in February 2009. In late June 2009, The U.S. Department of Energy announced the availability of $3.4 billion in stimulus funding under the SGIG program. 100 utilities from 44 states were recently awarded grants to pursue smart grid projects. ©2010 The Ascent Group, Inc. 1
  2. 2. Until these technologies are reality though, utilities will continue to send employees into the field to serve customers and keep the business running. Even after implementation, there will be a need to maintain metering equipment on a periodic basis. And as always, policy and procedures will need to be fine-tuned to take full advantage of these technologies. Clearly the Field Service organization must evolve with the introduction of automation and continually look for ways to be more efficient and effective, and our study demonstrates that this is occurring. Most utilities are focusing on four basic approaches to field service improvement: • Implementing automated mobile dispatch systems or service order management systems to better manage staffing and balance workload. • Tying field laptops or other mobile devices into the Customer Information System to provide real-time information and update capabilities in the field. • Reducing costs through productivity improvement, elimination of field trips, cross training, and safety improvement initiatives. • Automated meter reading or smart metering – whether it’s a large-scale implementation or AMR/AMI to address “high read cost” meters, unsafe meter locations, and high- turnover premises, any degree of automation lightens the load on Field Service organizations. Remote disconnect/connect technologies dramatically reduce field trips, especially for utilities with high levels of delinquencies or seasonal transition. To better understand how utilities are dealing with the challenges facing the Field Services function and its day-to-day operations, the Ascent Group conducted its third annual benchmarking project to evaluate Field Service performance and practices. Thirty-two companies participated in the research, ranging in size from 5,000 orders worked annually to as many as 3.6 million. The majority of study participants were from the United States, however we did have participants from Spain, Canada, and the United Kingdom. A list of participants is included at the end of this report. Study Objectives The main objective of the study was to evaluate the various tactics and strategies used today to deliver field service in order to identify best practices or opportunities for improvement. Secondary objectives included understanding: • The range of performance by company and by industry segment; • How utilities are using technology to reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction; • Other effective process improvement or cost-reduction techniques; • How utilities measure individual, team, and center-level performance and encourage high productivity and performance; Participants were asked to share management tactics and strategies, as well as identify any improvement in performance. The study also asked utilities to include considerations, successes, and plans moving forward. The result of this data gathering effort and subsequent benchmarking analysis is captured in the report, Improving Field Services 2010. ©2010 The Ascent Group, Inc. 2
  3. 3. Study Findings & Recommendations Field Automation Increases Productivity and Effectiveness Automating service order fulfillment is an effective way to reduce cost, improve safety, and increase customer satisfaction. Systems easily eliminate manual entry of field-collected data, make data available on a real-time basis to both the field and the office, reduce errors, and eliminate the paper piles. Auto dispatching further reduces the need for manual dispatch and frees up valuable radio waves for more critical communications. GPS and GIS add further mapping and least-cost routing benefits, which can play a critical role in training. Automation also brings more robust performance measures for field service. Management can track order completion times, productive time, travel time, service level performance, appointments met and missed, as well as backlog. 62.5 percent of our participants have implemented some form of field automation—mobile dispatch systems, laptops, field service handhelds, or automated service order processing. Another 21 percent have some form of field service automation plans in the works. Clearly field automation is gaining ground. Additionally, several utilities are pursuing advanced metering initiatives that will eliminate a large portion of field service orders. Setting Service Level Goals and Service Order Priorities Enable Field Service Organizations to Keep their Commitments It is critical that service organizations issue field service orders wisely. Many problems can lead to an ineffective service order system, including a lack of priority working service orders, impatient or poorly trained customer service or billing representatives, and the failure to work or close service orders on a timely basis. When any of these occur, unnecessary or out of date service orders can quickly pile up and overwhelm the system, rendering it virtually useless. A sign that this is happening is when duplicate orders are placed, communications with dispatchers increase in the hopes of gaining priority on an order, “special request” service orders are used improperly in an effort to move to the top of the service order pile. Field Service organizations must set realistic service level goals for all order types to ensure that all service orders are worked in a timely manner. Identifying high priority service order types is the first step in setting these goals. For instance, working all Service On orders on the same day as requested. This goal will help focus your organization to do all that is possible to complete these orders on the date requested, including making sure there are enough employees available to perform the work. ©2010 The Ascent Group, Inc. 3
  4. 4. It’s equally important that all service order requests are worked or properly addressed so orders don’t hang in the system perpetually. Keeping a close watch on backlog and order age should help Field Service organizations keep their commitments. Look for Opportunities to Reduce Field Trips Our participants were asked to identify any recent improvements that have helped to reduce trips to the field. Toping the list, internal policy and process changes (38 percent). Automating service order routing and assignment was also popular a field trip reduction technique among our panel. Twenty-nine percent of companies mentioned initiatives to implement automated dispatch and service order management software and hardware. Advanced metering was equally as popular—29 percent of participants report automated meter reading or advanced metering infrastructure projects. The next most popular improvement mentioned was the matching of in/out orders and soft closing of accounts through the use of estimates or prorated readings (14 percent). Field automation offers many opportunities to optimize and even eliminate service orders. However, there is opportunity to reduce the number of field trips through process improvement and training. Companies should search diligently for ways to eliminate trips through better data integration between service order request system and billing system. For instance, systems can automatically match read in/read out orders and soft close accounts through the use of estimates or prorated readings. Work with other groups within Customer Service to make sure that the service order system is being used wisely. Customer service representative training can be enhanced to encourage agents to cover the bases on all calls, before issuing a service order request for a check reading. Many companies offer “high bill complaint” training that helps representatives discuss usage and work with customers to better understand how services are being used in an attempt to eliminate unnecessary field trips. Review your current business processes that affect the number of orders sent to the field in a continuing effort to identify opportunities to eliminate or reduce trips to the field. ©2010 The Ascent Group, Inc. 4
  5. 5. Clear and Concise Measures of Performance Give Employees a Clear Idea of Job Expectations and Performance. Best performing companies are deliberate in their measurement of employee, group, and departmental performance— cost, service, and productivity. Structured performance measurement frameworks provide employees with a clear idea of job expectations and performance. Employees want to perform to expectation—make sure they clearly understand what is expected, the measures that will be used, how they are collected and calculated, and how they impact performance. Performance measures will change as processes and automation change—make sure your expectations and measures change accordingly. For those reporting field service performance, the most popular metric was order completion rate—the number of orders completed, per day, and per employee. The second most used measure was order accuracy or order quality. Most companies reported having multiple measures in place, a combination of effectiveness and efficiency metrics. Emphasize Safety Safety is an ongoing concern for Field Services and Meter Reading employees. Every utility has a moral obligation to protect the health and welfare of each and every employee. Employees that are required to work in the field face especially challenging safety concerns on a daily basis. Safety training, awareness and safe equipment handling are critical to the successful operation of a field services organization. Most utilities conduct periodic safety meetings to provide training on various topics to provide a safe and healthy workplace and to foster safe work behaviors and attitudes. Make sure your company has safety-training programs in place. Participants reported safety improvements through focused training and remedial training following safety incidents, defensive driver training, one-on-one coaching, and routine safety meetings or tailgate sessions. Other practices that are helping improve field service safety—safety incentive awards, safety field audits, peer safety audits, peer safety story discussions, and drive-cam. ©2010 The Ascent Group, Inc. 5
  6. 6. Cross-train employees to supplement staffing and build skills. Field Service organizations are typically staffed with very experienced employees, averaging 15 years of service, and more. As many of these skilled employees face retirement, companies are faced with the need to hire or transfer employees to fill the void. Companies can mitigate this by cross-training other employees, like meter readers, to provide some of the services of the field service organization. This creates career development opportunities for employees and provides the flexibility to staff up or down to better match the workload to available resources. Look for ways to train other employees to perform these field functions and grow your pool of qualified employees. Invest in your front-line—provide them with the tools, equipment, and training to get the job done right the first time. Help them understand the customer perspective and how their job fits into the overall picture of customer service and satisfaction. Refresh training periodically to keep employees in top performance and up-to-date on customer service and technical skills. Training is recognized as a key factor for success in reducing errors, eliminating rework, improving safety, and improving customer service. Encourage the Right Behavior through Incentives and Rewards. Forty-four percent of our panel offers incentives, rewards, or recognition to Field Service employees. Formal rewards are the most popular—field service employees earn bonuses based on superior performance. Informal rewards are the next popular—employees earn gift certificates, dinners, parking spots, trophies, and other non-cash items for superior performance. However, more than half of participating companies offer no incentives or rewards to Field Service employees. Incentives, rewards, and recognition can be very effective motivational tools. Make sure you are motivating the right behavior and encouraging superior performance in the right areas. Incentives and rewards can also become stale with time, be sure to rotate emphasis on various measures to keep interest in the program. It is also critical the rewards are fair and worth the extra effort—ask employees for suggestions on types of rewards. Involvement is key to a successful reward program. ©2010 The Ascent Group, Inc. 6
  7. 7. About The Ascent Group, Inc. The Ascent Group, Inc. is a management-consulting firm that specializes in customer service operations and improvement, performance benchmarking, competitive benchmarking, work management, and industry research. Research reports published by the Ascent Group include: • Call Quality Practices • Credit & Collection Practices • Achieving First Call Resolution • IVR Improvement Strategies • Reward & Recognition Program Profiles & Best Practices • Improving Frontline People Processes: Recruitment, Training & Performance • Billing and Payment Profiles & Best Practices • Meter Reading Profiles & Best Practices • Call Center Strategies • Improving Field Services These research reports can be purchased online, through our secure order form at or by phone at (888) 749-0001. The Ascent Group offers many opportunities for your company to participate in benchmarking and best practice discovery through its online benchmarking services: • Call Center Operations • First Call Resolution • Call Quality Monitoring • IVR Technology • Field Services • Credit & Collection • Billing & Payment Services • Remittance Processing • Field Services • Meter Reading • Frontline Recruitment, Training • Reward & Recognition Program The Ascent Group is currently researching Billing & Payment Programs and Field Services. If you are interested in participating in our research, please contact Christine Kozlosky at or (888) 749-0001. The Ascent Group, Inc. 120 River Oak Way Athens, GA 30605 (888) 749-0001 ©2010 The Ascent Group, Inc. 7