Field Service Expert Interview: James “Alex” Alexander

field service expert series


As part of our Field Service Expert Series, we ask industry experts for their views on the market and what the future of field service holds. We recently talked to James “Alex” Alexander, founder and team leader at Alexander Consulting. He provides hands-on performance consulting, including strategy formulation, customer success analysis, market intelligence, voice of the customer research, service quality, sales effectiveness, and culture change. Alex is the author or co-author of more than 120 articles, five studies, and four white papers on services success. He has also written three books on the topic of field service effectiveness, including Brilliant Customer Success, The Brilliant Service Professional, and Seriously Selling Services. Alex has spoken, consulted, and trained on creating customer success in 17 countries.


You write and speak a lot about changes in the services world.  Please share an overview of the biggest shifts.

It is a wonderful time to be in the services world. In just a few decades the industry has changed dramatically. Driven by maturation in most industries and more sophisticated customers, product companies have finally learned about the critical role services play in getting, keeping, and growing customers. This elevation of services’ importance has ignited an evolution in services—moving from Phase I through Phase II and now into Phase III. Let me begin with the transitions on services businesses as a whole.

The Evolution of Services Organization

Segmentation: From geographic territory to targeted industries to dedicated to a account. 

Maturing businesses in maturing industries caused suppliers to move from a geographic model focus on select industries in an effort to differentiate. Hence, the service organization had to follow suit, creating the need for services pros who were not only strong technically but knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the targeted market they were assigned. Now suppliers desperate to compete are moving to a strategic account model, treating their best or highest potential customers as a marketplace of one. Service has to align again and move into Phase III by dedicating service professionals to just one (or a few) account.

Financial Expectation: From cost function to profit center to service is the business.

When the product was king and services were considered a servant of sales, the services organization was a cost function. Hence, efficiency was the mantra and any suggestion to cut cost was approved immediately. When product margins deflated, the slow and sometimes painful transition from free to fee occurred in Phase II. Services leaders were still expected to bail out sales when required but also meet their own revenue and profit targets. Effectiveness was the emphasis and “do it right the first time” was the battle cry. Now another major transformation is required as customers are focused on performance and demanding specified outcomes. Yes, quality hardware, software, parts, consumables etc., are still required, but that is now up to the supplier. Customers are buying outcomes and paying on a monthly basis. In this subscription model, service is the business.

Strategy: From customer acceptance to customer satisfaction to customer success.

In the wild west of Phase I, it is sell-sell-sell anything in any way and let service figure out how to make things work best they can. Many times the service organization makes chicken salad out of chicken feathers but sometimes not, resulting in a disgruntled customer. In this scenario, the service imperative is just to keep the customer from kicking the product to the curb and ripping up the invoice—get the customer to accept what they’ve got. Customer satisfaction in the strategy of Phase II. Keep them satisfied and they will buy more is the thinking. Yet, customer satisfaction alone doesn’t cut it in Phase III. Customers demand measurable results, and only by making customers successful as they define it will they keep paying month after month and be open to buying more. Here is my bias—I think strategic customer success, not the tactical, functional customer success that gets most of the press is the future of not only services but business.

Exec View of Services: From red-headed stepchild to smartest cousin to favorite son.

Interesting how things have changed.  In the old days, I had a CEO of a software company tell me he would pay me a lot of money if I could help him eliminate his services group! In Phase II when the financial numbers such as services contributing 40% of revenue and 75% of the profit, executive respect for service went up (not always a lot, but at least some).  In Phase III, services are center stage, moving from background vocals to lead singers. The day is finally here—service pro as rock star!

How about field services? How has that field evolved?

FSE Pro Capabilities: From tech savvy hard worker to industry specialist to executive advisor. 

The brilliant field service engineer still has to be technically proficient, work hard and be polite but also possess strong customer acumen, be proactive and strategic, communicate powerfully, influence with integrity, and build trust outside and inside, up and down organizations. These are very similar to the requirements of a strong business executive. We are asking a lot, but the investment in recruiting, training, and coaching is worth every shilling. No one has a more positive impact on customer success than the brilliant FSE — no one.

FSE Structure: From Lone Ranger to a Few Good Men to a Band of Brothers.

In Phase I, the FSE basically goes it alone moving from problem to problem, checking in with his boss now and then.  In Phase II there are more FSEs to banter with, some people in support helping do phone fixes and back-up.  In the account-based structure, suppliers implement for Phase III, for things to work the FSE must work as a member of an account team–sales, marketing, engineering, product development, professional services, and executives for example.  Smart suppliers are also learning the big improvement in customer loyalty when they embed FSEs into the customers business.  In most cases, customers with mission-critical needs will pay for resident engineers to support their efforts directly from their locations.

What does the field service engineer of the future look like?

Traveling as a passenger in his driverless vehicle, the FSE prepares for his next call. In front of him is a big screen that can access all the possible information required to do his job, just a finger push away. A dashboard of all critical customer data is automatically updating with location, status, history of all products and all supplier contracts, past problems, and their resolutions, PM history, stakeholder analysis with the customer, case studies, testimonials, white papers—the whole shebang.  A voice command compares customer performance across their facilities, and the FSE can also compare performance at Site One with best-in-class, best-in-world day as well. Regarding the issue at hand, the probability of root causes are listed on order, with the best practices outlined as to how to address each one.  The names and positions of key customers are identified including a little on their history, business outcomes they probably desire, and any known personal information. Sitting in the back of the vehicle, a 3-D printer using the wonders of additive manufacturing is making the parts identified as necessary to get the product up and running.  20 minutes before the estimated time of arrival, the bell chimes and a pre-written message or phone script appears so that the FSE can let the customer know of his pending arrival. Note that the customer will have full (or almost complete) and easy access to the same real-time information.

Based up a number of factors, a series of possible recommendations that might improve the success of the customer pop up—only requiring the customer to pay a little more each month on his subscription.  Depending upon the recommendations, a cost-benefit analysis might be available to make the business case for the new product or process, or the value in contracting for a resident engineer, or an audit of a process. As the FSE gets out of the vehicle, he taps his wearable device to transfer all the exact same information outlined above. On-site, he taps, strokes, swipes, pinches, rubs, blinks, or thinks to access the info needed at hand. Depending upon the situation and the FSE personality a soothing voice may be heard only by him to  “relax”, “smile”, “slow down”, and “listen” to better handle the relationship side of the business. 

After the completed call he dictates, types, or thinks the information for his call report. When completed it is inputted into the customer records and all account team members receive the information as well. An automatic “thank you response” is generated with a promise to follow up in a certain time period.  The FSE sends the standard version or seasons to taste. In the future when that time arrives, the FSE is alerted and can tap to send the pre-determined response, tailor the response, or respond in a different way.

How important are the technologies a field service organization chooses to deploy vs. the processes an FSO puts in place?

Processes have always been critical to repeatability via smooth touchpoint management and will remain so. However, technologies have gradually grown in importance over the years and are the enablers of processes and driver of being able to do it right the first time. It’s important to remember the old rule of clearly defining processes first, then add technology to speed and smooth performance. With higher customer expectations, especially around responsiveness, you are crazy not to use the very best technologies available; this should be a high priority. Sadly, this is not the case in many situations. For example, I was just working this week with a highly successful company selling sophisticated multi-million euro solutions and they have to determine attach-rate, PM’s, and first time fixes with a spreadsheet, calculator, and a mechanical pencil.

What advice do you have for companies struggling with determining how to use all the data they’re gathering from and providing to the field?

There are some very smart people who are experts at using the right technology the right way to handle data smarter, but I am not one of them. Let me share a philosophy that might help a little. First, the overall goal remains the same — get the right information to the people in the right way at the right time. Second — categorize. Different information is needed and different touchpoints with the customer. When you map key touchpoints you could easily find 30 or so. Separating data into those different buckets by touchpoint makes it easier to gather when needed. Third — prioritize. Joseph Juran, one of the pioneers of the quality movement, summed up the need to prioritize very well when he said you need to separate the useful from the critical few. Let me give an example, most technical training is wasteful. Often it is put together by subject matter expert, not a professional trainer, and the expert feels it is his duty to discuss everything even remotely related to the topic being trained. Most week-long training could be done in one day of hands-on lab (critical few) and very well written support manual (useful many). The same is true of problem identification, and problem-solving. Fourth, you gotta be mobile and able to gather and use information anywhereHere is a bad situation that the proper mobile solutions can make disappear. See if you can relate to this scenario: You have sent out an inexperienced FSE to an important customer demanding help because there was no one qualified to send. The customer watches as the tech is obviously clueless and picks up the phone to call for help. With the cost of the down machine running in the customer’s head, he starts to question not only the aptitude of the FSE but the supplier’s capability and commitment. Anger starts to bubble up as he asks himself why he is paying for incompetence?  Smart mobile technology can help avoid this.

What steps can field service organizations take to become more profitable?

For the profit center—in rough order of importance:

  • Train your FSE’s on soft skills: trust-building, relationship-creating, influencing with integrity skills. Help them understand that “selling” does not have to be evil. Do this well and you can get an ROI in sixty days
  • Implement dedicated services sellers (especially in the early days of free to fee)
  • Team with sales as best you can. Get management to require offering services at time of product sales  to boost attach rate. Pay them on profitability, not volume. Tie their comp to customer loyalty scores.

What are the future areas of growth in field service management?

  • Focus on your services portfolio by starting with VOC research and using it to expand your offerings. Add all sorts of training—customers want it and will pay for it. Outsource if you don’t have the resources inside.  Strong field service performance helps the service organization “earn the right” to provide more advanced services, consulting and so on.
  • Aggressively sell a resident engineer. This has huge potential. Customers love having embedded expertise onsite, and it can be a real differentiator. FSO’s that offer resident engineers have higher levels of loyalty and faster growth than those that don’t. I have seen a distant number two supplier in a market use the resident engineer strategy successfully to differentiate from the number one supplier.
  • Start your phase III efforts now.

You can connect with Alex on LinkedIn.