In this episode of the Five Questions for a Field Service Expert Podcast, we chat with Bruce Breeden, Vice President of Service Operations for Fairbanks Scales. Bruce talks about how best to make your field service engineers and technicians more effective. He also discusses the importance of building technician training programs in reverse starting with the needs of your customers. The episode runs about 25 minutes.
If you prefer, you can read the full transcript below:
Mobile Reach: Welcome to the Five Questions for a Field Service Expert Podcast. This is the show for field service professionals where we dig into the big questions about field service delivery and management. Every episode we ask a field service expert five questions that can help you do your job better.
Mobile Reach: Well, we’re talking to Bruce Breeden today. Bruce is the vice president of service operations at Fairbanks Scales in Kansas City. Today we have five questions for Bruce, as we do for all of our field service experts and Bruce certainly qualifies as an expert. His vast experience in field service runs pretty deep having worked in executive management, in business development, in marketing roles, in organization development, industrial safety, fleet management, and call center operations. So, really the entire gamut of field service focus, Bruce has been there. And with that richness of experience, Bruce has written a book called “The intentional Field Service Engineer” and he’s also the creator of the “Field Service7” service engineer development program. Bruce is the founder and principal of Field Service Resources, an organization that serves field service engineers and field technicians throughout their careers. It’s really a great opportunity for a field technician to launch directly into productivity and Bruce enables techs to do that. Bruce, it’s a pleasure to chat with you today, thanks for being with us.
Bruce: Thank you for such a nice introduction. I’m really looking forward to being with you here today.
Mobile Reach: Great, well thank you. For you, our five questions are targeted mostly at your expertise in equipping techs with the right kind of knowledge and the right kind of know-how and confidence to be productive, but it will run the gamut. So let’s jump right in the with the first question. I want to know, with you having spoken with any number of field service organizations, in your experience what are some of the most common issues you’ve identified with field technician training and getting them to effectiveness?
Bruce: Sure, let’s start with the basis of field service, the technical skills, and technical training. Depending on the company, typically a challenge will be the broadness of the assigned products and the quantity and age of the installed base. I’ve worked in many organizations where, to our advantage, we had a long history of products and those vintages stay out there for a long time and don’t get traded in. And the expectation to train on older products or variable type product lines within a customer site, it’s always a little bit of a challenge.
Then products are discontinued and become obsolete, or you’re in a multi-brand organization and you don’t necessarily have the factory training available to you. We’ve gone in and out of generalization and specialization over the years. It’s hard to be the jack of all trades and master of none if you will. Particularly today, with an aging installed base as well as all of the different types of technologies, there is a point where you have to move into specialization. But the one thing we all struggle with is exposure to a product line after training. The beginning of training and completing that training course is challenged by the retention factor of the student in the training class to start with. Particularly if they don’t get exposure — we call it “stick time” — on that product soon after their training would certainly be a challenge.
In today’s world, we want microlearning. We want web links to reference materials and job aids and instructional material. I think we can relate to that as consumers. I don’t know about you but every time I need to do a home repair, I’m on YouTube looking at the latest techniques and there are always 12 different ways to do things. In our business, being able to specialize that training material and give it to the technician or the service engineer 24/7 is really key.
Let’s move off the technical aspect for a moment because that’s just part of the training. That’s really just having to train our team to be a professional field service technician or service engineer. What are the company, organizational and service team goals? What initiatives have been changed that need to be focused on? Because there’s incredible bandwidth in a field service technician’s role and their responsibilities have an impact on the company brand and to the profit and loss of the company. How do we to teach them to work independently and productively? How do we train them to work safely, escalate issues and document quality or customer complaints? I think we get the story that there is a lot there.
Speaking of stories, I can cite my own personal example. When I started in field service, I had the great fortune of coming into a company that had an embedded system. It wasn’t very formal, but certainly, as a new technician coming into the field service industry, there was a system that welcomed me and many others. It not only taught us the technical side of the business but also the field service side of the business. I think those are two distinct and critical elements of shaping our people and supporting them properly so they can contribute to our organizational goals.
As I look back, that system included work objectives, mentoring, in the field training, resourcefulness and a culture that lead us to become great ambassadors for the company, not just great service technicians. With that, the emphasis today should also be on soft skills and job skills and a lot of things I just talked about in terms of using technology, working productively, and being safe, those are job skills. We often think about job skills that are just technicians being able to service that piece of product. But obviously, we recognize the importance of soft skills like inventory management, productivity, safety, and use of technology. Look at all the technology that techs and engineers use today to do their jobs. It has a wonderful impact, but unless we use the system, we don’t get that benefit.
Mobile Reach: Nice. So it sounds like early on in your career you were sort of swept right into the notion of not just being a technical expert but really being a service expert and a professional expert if you will. I’m curious, with you having been in field service your entire career, what are some of those less obvious benefits that you have experienced.
Bruce: I would go back and cite a personal experience, and it’s shared by many frankly. Over the years in day-in and day-out type work as a field service person, you end of solving problems. I never looked at that in the broadness that I just posed. I never looked at it when in the field it was a break-fix type of environment. The customer had a problem. We were dispatched out and we “fixed the instrument,” as they say. And I remember, too, a very wise technical instructor at my company who said, “You know guys, your job isn’t necessarily to just fix the instrument, it’s to fix the customer as well.” And that leads me to really understand that there’s a myriad of problems, they could be technical in the form of the hardware, it could also be how the customer is using their system and its application, or it could be a contract or billing inquiry. It could be about other products and solutions that our company had and there are a lot of complicated problems and sometimes one problem isn’t experienced by another user at that particular account, but you have to look at the whole account relationship. So, at the end of the day, you are solving problems. I never realized how valuable and enjoyable that aspect of field service is.
In my book, “The Intentional Field Service Engineer,” I cite a few field service engineers that grew their careers sometimes in a completely different profession because of the experience and success in problem-solving and relating to multiple personalities day in and day out. It really does work out to an opportunity for those individuals that do that well and develop that skill.
Mobile Reach: I can imagine. There’s probably no skill more transferrable than the ability to identify and solve problems at the moment without having to go back and access resources and just, sort of on the spot, solve for the problem at hand.
Bruce: Another example just came to mind. A couple of years ago, a very good friend of mine, somebody I worked with in the field as a field engineer and later in management, was invited back to her college school of engineering and she gave the commencement speech. Probably 20 years after she had graduated, she told the audience about her first job as a field service engineer. It was a remarkable and enlightening speech. She said at my her first job, she was a field service engineer and she had no idea what that really was, so she said “I’m a problem solver. I solve problems.” She ended that speech telling the audience to go out in the field and be a problem solver. So you’re right, it’s important in many areas.
Mobile Reach: That’s great I love it. That’s a great metaphor and lesson for those grads. Speaking of training folks and getting them into the right mindset, I’m curious about considerations you can share with listeners about what goes into the design and rollout of a really effective training program for technicians.
Bruce: That’s a great question. You really can’t do anything without having a plan. It reminds me of years ago, there was an airline commercial that ran on television. It took place in a boardroom and the chairperson at the time went around and handed out paper airline tickets. He handed out every executive an airline ticket and said: “Go see a customer.” Obviously, the point was to promote flying, but I remember my company at the time actually ran a program called “Customers Make Good Company.”
We already had a strong mission and vision statement that could relate what the company was about. But when this came out, it kind of framed things. I was a field engineer and maybe a district service manager at that time, but I could relate to that mission and initiative. Afterall, we were all employees and were customers of one another. We had external customers and internal customers so we could all relate. So my point is that training programs cannot stand on their own. It has to be part of a greater program. A training program can support and provide structure to a program, but training in itself is really somewhat ineffective.
So, when you ask about experiences rolling out a field tech training program, I would start with that it needs to be framed in terms of what initiative that training is part of. It could be routine, but routine is also about maintaining proficiency. Just the other day, we recognized somebody with 50 years of field service experience with our company. And you just think back to all of the technology that they were exposed to and all that they learned through the years to be an excellent field service technician through their career over that many years is just tremendous.
So I always consider planning a training program to first establish an operating practice, not training programs. And that’s really what our Field Service7 is about. It’s an operating practice which training is a part of. Going back to “customers make good company” with my old employer, we could certainly relate to that theme. We knew we needed to have good customer interaction and we had training programs to support that. We also had training programs to support our technical proficiency but it was framed as an operating practice and we measured it. We had knowledge networks, mentoring networks and we had excellent metrics to measure how well we were doing. It was an operating practice though not a training program. I would recommend starting with the company’s mission and vision and that will resonate a good theme and maybe even multiple themes from which you can inspire the organization.
Mobile Reach: So that makes a lot of sense. I like the way you have framed the notion of a training program inside of a broader practice. One of the things we haven’t talked about, and maybe this is a part of your practice approach, is the technology that supports technician enablement So, in your experience and in your current role, what kinds of technologies do you think are best supportive of technician effectiveness?
Bruce: Today’s an unbelievable time for technology as we all can relate. Ironically, I just attended a user group meeting this week and between the supplier presentation and talking to my fellow field service organization leaders, I’m in awe of all of the possibilities that are out there from a technical standpoint. But to answer your question, I think most organizations struggle with an aging workforce and the ability to attract new field service talent and onboard effectively, and that’s a handful.
I think using technology there is a combination that can benefit some other non-technical responsibilities we have that I mentioned earlier such as safety, customer interactions, productivity, and such. So using technology, we can not only improve technical proficiency, but also the soft and job skills that I mentioned. So using mobile platforms, I think that’s key because like the smartphone, people want training 24/7 and they want micro training 24/7/365 as they need it. Going to training and having that recollection doesn’t do it today. There’s too much technology and so being able to have a mobile platform on which micro-training can be filtered down to them where they can get it 24/7 is key.
And also networking people together. I have experiences where the local tech is physically located just so happens not a really good local training in that environment so we have to network them across different geographies and with technology today, tech-to-tech or tech-to-specialist, it’s really important. So I I think that’s my first idea in terms of connecting people with technology, but we are also experimenting right now with IoT. Obviously, that’s very popular and we are moving to reactive to predictive. But also using that in combination with tech-to-tech capability is being able to take a new person in the field that we don’t have a luxury of training them on something that’s 15-20 years old. So how are we able to use that relatively new person and network them with a senior person to add the job resolution. And so lots of technology opportunities and we can use that same technology to direct the job skills and the soft skills that we’ll need with the interaction with the customer.
Mobile Reach: Nice, it sounds like you are a very strong advocate of weaving technology in and throughout a field service organization so it almost becomes indistinct from the operations themselves.
Bruce: I truly believe that. I had experience in a global ERP and CRM implementations a few years ago and a lighter one in just the past couple of years. And it all comes down to, as we commonly refer to people, process, technology, they are one in the same and have to be woven together. Technology can very much aid in that process with directing you on the steps you want to take.
Mobile Reach: So the last question, Bruce, of the five. We’ve arrived at that moment. Tell us a story about one of the best field tech training programs that you have ever seen implemented.
Bruce: Hands down for me it was a program that was a skill standards program and that title doesn’t do the program justice, actually. It was addressing our marketplace at the time. The organization had depended on a revenue flow of certain products that were very hardware oriented, as the world turned, as technology turned, not our products but the science within our products changed. So we needed more field service capabilities on applications and software in addition to just the hardware. And to a degree, that’s a common thing that we as service organizations face.
What was unique to us was that we also had, in parallel, redesigning our customer support process to address those characteristics. So we had a really good person in charge that actually was a field service engineer, so it shows how many transferable skills that service engineers and field techs can have. He was a training and development manager and did some analysis and got some great feedback from our techs and engineers as well as our customers. From this, he determined that we needed to go about our training in a much different way.
And so we did some “layperson” training on the science of how our instruments were used at the time and complemented the technical training on the hardware and software. So, in a nutshell, it was taking the needs of the customer, both internally and externally, and we backward designed our training to address these new skills and processes. So it grew the development of our training program in a much different way. It was much more than a training program, as I keep saying. It became an operating practice. We had the process of training designed based on internal and external customers, and we have complementary job aids. I say job aids as technology has changed that a little bit since then. We are so Internet-linked today. So, however you deliver them, there were job aids, there were measurements, and we had engagement from our line management to our field engineers.
We had a mission that we were a great service organization because we had achieved success over the years. And we were going to continue to be great because we are going to transform ourselves and achieve yet something else. And everybody can relate to that. Another strategic benefit that we don’t really think about is that our product brand reputation was increased. The return on investment of product development programs was improved and we were just plain getting closer to our customers in helping them solve problems.
We can use all of the fancy marketing words we want, but at the end of the day, we’re closer with our customers and solving problems. And frankly, that leads to all of the great business outcomes we were looking for. That result was us addressing our training in a more holistic fashion. But I would preface that with it’s not going to be an overnight turnaround. It takes time. But is an example of using good anyalysis, feedback and participation, and getting out of the way and letting good people have heavy communication channels with the leadership. Again, I highlight that we grew through practice elements of mission vision and goals. Good content, changed content, in this case, engagement, implementing daily practices, and the measurement of those outcomes. So that practice was the best training program I can recall.
Mobile Reach: That is fantastic. I think honestly that will inspire any field service leader. Unfortunately, it’s probably not a story that every field service leader can relate to, but it will certainly inspire them. In fact, if you want to relate to a story like that and tell it yourself one day, I would encourage you to visit fieldserviceresources.com where you can learn more about Bruce and his consulting firm, Field Service Resources. Bruce Breeden, thank you so much for spending time with us today to talk through Five Questions for a Field Service Expert. It’s been pleasure speaking with you.
Bruce: Thank you, Dan, I very much enjoyed it as well.