As a field service technician with over thirty years’ experience as a fulltime employee, the thought of becoming a contractor is a scary proposition. But that is exactly the path many service companies are headed down – and for good reason. Contracting out field service work adds flexibility, scalability and can even mean more profits for companies that choose to head in this new direction. My fears were subdued when I read the Aberdeen article, Third-Party Field Service: Work Together to Deliver High Levels of Quality. The report praised a practice known as “hybrid labor forces” that are a blend of fulltime employees and contractors for times when workload exceeds the on-the-street manpower on any given day. It can even work out for the betterment of field service technicians.
There are three major reasons companies hire contractors: replacement of retirees, to add manpower to busy times, and to cover difficult geographic situations. According to Aberdeen, increasing competition and shrinking profit margins are also a large part of the mix. “The need to drive revenues, over-deliver on customers’ expectations, and maximize productivity defines field service organizations of all workforce mixes.” Contractors are hired as temps, with the possibility of becoming fulltime employees; as backups to the regular workforce to meet or exceed SLAs; or when a company has entered a new marketplace and has yet to generate enough workload to justify adding a fulltime employee.
Aberdeen warns that profits should not be the single driver behind adding contractors to your field service solution. “The value driven from a blended workforce… isn’t solely a cost-cutting exercise.” Because hiring contractors, in lieu of the enormous cost of bringing on fulltime employees, results in quick and tangible savings, there’s a big temptation to continue the practice even when adding new-hires makes more sense. A contracted workforce also has its downside.
Control, uniformity of service and branding can be difficult to maintain with third-party workers. They also tend to need more attention from managers to keep them aligned with company goals. The key is constant evaluation of a hybrid service team, holding firm to your overall goal of providing exceptional service that produces customer satisfaction and loyalty. This is definitely not an endeavor for the fix-it and forget-it mentality.
The complexity of managing today’s field service workforce is almost as intricate as the machines being serviced. The days of just get out there and do your best to fix the machines have been replaced by shrinking SLAs, first-time-fix pressures, and sending the right tech to the right machine to maximize workforce efficiency. The larger the blended workforce, the greater the need to look to technology for a solution. Field service dispatching software can handle this task better than a roomful of human dispatchers. With the right software solution, companies can customize dispatching so that variables like skillset, location, availability, and access to the parts needed to do the job are taken into consideration before the calls get assigned.
Looking through my side of the window, I see this as perhaps the most challenging part of deciding to blend in contracted workers. Your fulltime employees will worry that their benefits and pay are in jeopardy of being cut or that their days are numbered, and soon they too will be asked to come in only when needed. If these fears are not addressed, they will resent the third-party workers, which will prevent the type of interaction that service forces depend on. A good way to inform your techs of the change in labor policy is to emphasize how it will help the company’s bottom line, which is needed to ensure that every employee has the potential to share in the success. Let them know how you are using contractors to improve the company’s service offering and ask them to help make it work – everyone will benefit with a successful implementation.
When I was young and just starting a family, I worked all the overtime I could lay my hands on and made a lot of needed extra income. Margins have tightened up in many field service industries and overtime is becoming a thing to be avoided. The skills successful service reps are endowed with makes them a valued commodity. Most companies don’t mind if their employees find work outside of work hours, as long as there is no conflict of interest. Who’s to say that air-conditioning install/repair persons couldn’t sub-out their skills to work as appliance install/repair persons on the weekend? Appliance companies will benefit too.