Editor’s note: Vertical Solutions Inc. (VSI), developer of service software solutions, enables its clients to expand their business and increase customer engagement through post-sales service. Field service is experiencing a paradigm shift from being a necessary deliverable to a springboard from which companies can create a long tail of services. VSI is at the forefront of addressing new expectations for field service software solutions in the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors space and in the ability to 3D print spare parts. The company has been ranked in Gartner’s Field Service Magic Quadrant for the last six consecutive years. In this interview, Kris Brannock, executive vice president for VSI, explains how the IoT and 3D printing are impacting field service.
Q: In what way does Vertical Solutions’ field service solution change the field service / contact center provider landscape.
Kris Brannock: We’re unique in that we offer a field service solution and contact center solution seamlessly together on the same platform using the same IP. But we also address such leading edge areas as the Internet of Things (IoT), live streaming video from the field and 3D printing.
Another area of difference is that we focus on the most complex verticals for field service, such as tech services, manufacturing, medical devices and HVAC. We devote an entire layer of our platform to business process management and social techniques, which gives our clients the ability to quickly adapt our field service solution to specific verticals.
The bottom line is that we recognize that customer service and now field service have become much more strategic in nature. Our technology is enabling this rapid-fire service growth.
For example, we have a client in the medical device arena that uses our software in their core field service management (FSM) environment, and now has continued on using us in areas like facilities management as an umbrella for total non-patient hospital service. This is a revenue generator for them. To do this, a flexible FSM solution tightly coupled with ERP is essential.
Q: What new types of services (and new expectations) are businesses requesting for their Internet of Things initiatives?
Kris Brannock: Most of our clients don’t use the term IoT. They focus more on the functions they want, which lean toward advanced machine-to-machine (M2M) functionality. What we’re finding with our manufacturing clients is that they’re able to work with many of their suppliers that perhaps black box or white label products under the manufacturer’s name to sensor-enable components that have never had the ability in the past.
This opens up an entire field of possibilities, from networking sensors together in dashboards to imagining possibilities for their clients about more accurately forecasting preventive maintenance or just-in-time maintenance.
Q: What requirements and expectations are businesses requesting in the spare parts 3D printing space?
Kris Brannock: Because the impact of 3D printing has the potential to change the entire supply chain, it also has the potential to turn our notion of field service on its head much like IoT.
Because field service is at the tail end of the supply chain, the impact of how and where spare parts are created – and the need for service of these potentially networked parts – is still at its infancy. Our clients are currently trying to get their arms around the potential as there will certainly be ebbs and flows. For example, will a DHL take over making spare parts for them, or maybe a mom and pop shop?
This is all very new. And we see an especially interesting link between 3D printing of spare parts and the explosion of sensor-enabled devices. Will suppliers slap sensors on 3D printed parts? How will these function, and how do you enforce security?
Q: When did your company start experiencing multiple customers requesting these types of services? Is it primarily in certain vertical industries?
Kris Brannock: We started hearing more about IoT about a year ago. 3D printing has been discussed but the impact of service combined with this hasn’t blown up yet like IoT. We think this is partly due to 3D printing technology capabilities increasing while the costs have decreased dramatically over the past year. It has opened up an entirely new avenue for organizations all along the supply chain to consider jumping into the business.
For example, at the 2015 Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas recently, the number of 3D printing booths from 2014 to 2015 increased from approximately 10 booths to an entire section. 3D printing is in its infancy so predictions on which vertical markets might prevail is difficult.
Q: Please share a customer success story in using your company’s field service solution for IoT or 3D printing.
Kris Brannock: A global industrial equipment manufacturing client has invested millions in IoT building off of an “out of the box” M2M platform. This expands their reach into additional service lines and revenue generation while connecting their big data strategy with all post-sales support and field services activities. We have additional clients in the third-party medical device arena that are also tying in IoT strategies.
Q: Did your company change direction at some point during product/service development to meet customer demands in IoT and 3D printing services? If so, please describe what led up to the change.
Kris Brannock: We decided to offer tighter and more meaningful integrations with sensor-based technologies to offer our clients a competitive edge in their marketspaces. What we often found is that we were researching and exploring in parallel with our clients. Once we heard what they were doing and why, it offered us the opportunity to further steer our technologies to enhance their goals – sometimes offering them unique, competitive ideas they hadn’t had the chance of exploring yet.
Q: What challenges have you encountered in the IoT and 3D printing spaces that you didn’t anticipate while developing solutions?
Kris Brannock: There are still very few standards that organizations follow en masse. Coupled with that is security. Security is a major issue; imagining and anticipating security ramifications is critical. It forces organizations to temper their eagerness to compete rapidly because the ramifications can be great if standards aren’t in place and connected device connectivity isn’t secure.
Q: The Internet of Things and 3D printer spaces are evolving quickly. How does your company keep up with the trends and stay on top of client needs and expectations in the midst of a quickly changing competitive space?
Kris Brannock: Our customers talk to us. They look to us for thought leadership, so we’re continually researching what is new and delving into what our prospects want to know. We blog about the most interesting areas that impact field service and customer experience. And we try not to put blinders on regarding peripheral technologies that may be woven in to create an amazing experience.
Q: What is one of your company’s most successful best practices for ensuring customer satisfaction?
Kris Brannock: Full-cycle accountability. Our tight-knit circle from sales to implementation through support is created in such a way that each team is responsible and supportive of the other components. Partners are treated in the same manner.
Q: What challenges have you encountered in recruiting/hiring/retaining the right talent?
Kris Brannock: One challenge is finding the right talent with heavy enough background combining field service and technology skills here in the Midwest. Know anyone looking? However, I will say that Cincinnati has gotten quite a few accolades lately with its tech culture and #startupcincy push. We were recently ranked in the top 19 of Forbes “Opportunity Cities” and within the past two years, the top 10 in Forbes “U.S. Top 10 Emerging Cities,” so we feel it’s changing. It’s a good problem to have, though, as it means the demand is there. We have an amazing team of professionals that go above and beyond for our customers and, like everyone else, we need more of them.
Q: Please describe pitfalls that field service organizations need to avoid when selecting a service provider.
Kris Brannock: Many providers can talk about field service but when you get into the heavy details, field service itself is quirky and idiosyncratic. Many vendors don’t offer the depth and nuances that field service requires. It’s a necessity for a field service solution to have heavy integration with an ERP solution.
Some tactical questions that we ask our prospects include:
- How many post-sales service credit memos have you issued in the past year?
- What about the number of reversed transactions?
- While your ERP may have the functionality to define warranty entitlements, does it provide the process support to automatically apply and enforce them throughout your service-delivery processes? Can it follow up afterwards?
- What is the value of de-installed recyclable parts currently bouncing around in your field techs’ vans that should have been returned to the manufacturer for credit (or the repair depot for recycling)?
- How much revenue have you lost in the past year by applying customer warranty entitlements on service work for which warranty had already expired?
Businesses also need to focus on the strategy of a field service solution. For example, we believe the next wave of service will include interlacing inventive services into the organization. Have they considered adding new concierge services to their portfolio of solutions? If so, will their field service technology support that?
Q: From your observation, what is the most challenging aspect of innovation, and how have you overcome that challenge at your company?
Kris Brannock: Hmm. I guess I would say the most challenging aspect of innovation is the weaving in of new techniques and functionalities with your current vision — and then staying on track. We do it, but it’s a fine balance between management and creativity.
Kris Brannock is executive vice president for Vertical Solutions, Inc. and is responsible for strategic partnerships. Reach her at Kris.Brannock@vertsol.com, follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor at SandHill.com.