Episode 10

Five Questions for a Field Service Expert Podcast – Stephen Taylor

In this episode of the Five Questions for a Field Service Expert Podcast, we chat with Stephen Taylor, lead field service consultant and coach at Stephen Taylor and Associates. Over the past 30 plus years Stephen has coached numerous field service executives and supervisors on implementing performance management systems in their organizations for improved performance and service delivery. In this episode, Stephen discusses how to make positive changes within a field service organization to make field techs happier and more productive.

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If you prefer, you can read the transcript below:

[00:00:09] 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.
[00:00:24] Today we’re talking to Stephen Taylor, lead consultant and coach at Stephen Taylor and Associates. Over the past 30-plus years, Stephen has coached numerous field service executives and supervisors on implementing performance management systems in their organizations for improved performance and service delivery. A core belief that guides Stephen’s work is that setting goals and giving regular performance feedback invariably helps technicians work harder to improve productivity. Stephen, welcome, we’re delighted to have you with us today spending a few minutes on the podcast.
[00:00:59] Stephen: Thanks for having me, Dan.
[00:01:01] Mobile Reach: Well, listen, we have five questions for you as we do for all of our field service experts and wanted to roll right into those with you. Are you ready to go forward?
[00:01:11] Stephen: Let’s go with it.
[00:01:13] Mobile Reach: Great. So, with your background Stephen, I want to understand some of the impediments, some of the obstacles, first, before we get into solutions, to why you think field techs tend to resist the adoption of technologies that are really there for their benefit and to make their jobs easier. And then, as a follow up to that, give us some of your thoughts on how you’d recommend field service leaders making that kind of change to their organization where they are introducing new technologies.
[00:01:49] Stephen: Well, first of all, I think that when companies try to implement change, the resistance really comes not from the change but the way the company is implementing the change. You know nowadays all service companies have some sort of field technology and the really important thing is that the competitive advantage is basically getting the crew to use the software to its full advantage. And the fact is, they generally aren’t involved and so they don’t buy into this well for a number of reasons. One there’s no perceived benefit to them. It’s off target or really impractical. It’ll take them longer to do it with the software than the way they had done it previously. There are a number of other reasons. It’s really hard to learn. And I think the classic one is for the techs, it’s easier for him to or her to do it the original way. The other really critical thing is they find that a lot of times, there’s no support or no recognition for changing. And it’s interesting what happens is what I’ve seen with a lot of companies is the employees basically fall into three categories of groups. You have a small percentage who are really gung-ho and they jump right into it and they say they apply it completely. And then at the other end you have a very small percentage who are completely against it. And we’ll go as far as sabotaging the whole process. But then you have a whole pile of people in the middle who basically are waiting it out to see what happens and they’ll do what’s expected of them. They’ll do the adoption but they’ll wait and see if the company really sticks with it?
[00:03:41] Are they really going to support me? So those are the kinds of things that come up. And again, I think it has far more to do with the way it was implemented and it wasn’t the change itself. So what do you do about that? Number one, you involve people, you involve your field crews, even before the pre-purchase stage, and you ask them what their needs are. Number two, when you’re when you’re rolling this thing out, you really have to have a plan and you have to stick with it. And here’s a really critical thing. When you’re doing the training with them, and obviously that’s a huge factor, train them to their satisfaction, not yours. You know, as a supervisor, we want to get those people trained and out there back in the field as quickly as possible. But the fact is that sometimes we do that for our needs and not theirs and they end up going out really not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing. So, train them to their satisfaction, not to yours. The other two critical things: be available and provide follow up support. They need to know that they can turn to you when they do have questions. And the final thing: always praise their progress even if it’s the smallest incremental bit of improvement. Make sure you catch them doing things right and let them know. Actually, that’s far more important than the training and giving instructions in the first place. So that’s how I would approach it.
[00:05:15] Mobile Reach: So a lot of good counsel there for the supervisor in the bunch. Let’s talk about that for a minute. How is it that a great service technician who does very well productivity wise and technically and soft-skill wise sometimes can become something of an ineffective supervisor. Talk about that for a minute.
[00:05:36] Stephen: Sure. I’d say it’s the most classic thing I’ve seen and have had to deal with over 36 years. Basically, it’s that we tend to promote people for their technical skills and not for their people and organizational skills. And the fact is the skills required to manage their people are entirely different than the skills of actually fixing something or dealing with something. So, bottom line, you don’t promote or hire people that are not liked or respected by the crew. But there’s more than that when I’m an employee or a field employee. If I want more money or I want more status there’s always more prestige in saying I supervise people or I get more money if I supervise. So what happens is a lot of technicians will allow themselves to be promoted when they really don’t want to do it or they feel that kind of pressure that they need to do it for those reasons I just mentioned. And the big difference is when you become a supervisor, you’re not being judged anymore by really what you do. You’re being judged by what other people do. And so the real job of a field supervisor is to create a motivating environment for your people.
[00:07:03] And if I were looking for someone, I think number one, I’d look for someone who is liked and well respected by the crew and someone who really likes to work well with a team. Another thing, a really critical one, is you look for a technician who likes to share skills and knowledge and helps other people. And another final thing, someone who has really good time management skills and again those skills can be very different from just being technically very good. So the other thing is that it’s much easier to train someone and fill in technical gaps than it is to fill in people skills gaps. So those are really the things that you need to do. Don’t provoke people just because they’re the best technician that they’re not necessarily the best supervisor.
[00:08:04] Mobile Reach: So you’re talking a lot about skills and behaviors and, naturally, the results of those things combined with the outcomes or results. What’s the relationship, in your purview, between those results, whether they are operational, financial, technical. And then, what are those behaviors or skills that a team might embrace?
[00:08:32] Stephen: Right. I’m a strong believer in metrics and being able to see what an outcome is going to be. But there are only sort of limited benefits to just having really good results. And the result is a measurement that takes place at the end of a period of time. And once it’s over, it’s over. Then you’re working on a new result. Once that result happens you can’t really change it.
[00:09:00] On the other hand, critical behaviors or critical activities are things that happen in between those times. And the reality is, for a supervisor, you have control over how people behave and with those critical activities are and how you can handle them. So what happens is critical behaviors can very much impact the kind of results you get. And when you send your crew out into the field, it’s things like accuracy and timeliness and costs and parts that become very important metrics. And I’ll give you an example. We work with some companies on something called a “perfect day” where we define a result which is having that perfect day. And then we show the field crew and the supervisor how to define critical behaviors. And so we start about a week or two weeks before and they sit down with the crew and they say, on this particular day, let’s use an example that’s very common in field service, which is the issue of call-ins. This is where you go out and, for some reason, you have to call in and get parts sent to you from wherever from your warehouse is and it can be a long distance away. So with the crew, we define the critical behaviors or activities you need to do to make sure on this particular day, you accomplish those results or that result of no call-ins. So, for example, we sit down and they’ll come up with things like: go over the plans the day before. Check inventory on your truck the day before. Speak with the warehouse about the parts that you need the day before. So the crew knows they need to do those things the day before that perfect day.
[00:11:03] Now some interesting results happened because of that. Almost the day after you discuss with the crew those kinds of things, the improvement already starts. I’m thinking of a particular company where they were having call-ins about 60 to 70 percent of the time on jobs and already it started to improve. But the interesting thing is on that perfect day they managed to get 100 percent. And by the way, I should emphasize, the supervisor who worked this out with them didn’t require that they continue to do it. He didn’t require that it’s an absolute must from now on. He said all I want is you to get that perfect day on that day. And the idea was to show them that if they really diligently pay attention to these critical activities or behaviors, they will be able to get that result on that certain day. Another important thing happened after that perfect day. They maintained about a 95 percent lack of call-in rate and that had very much to do with the second part of the equation which is the supervisor praising them and making and recognizing them for observing and doing those critical behaviors on a regular basis. So if you ask me, the critical behaviors or activities are far more important in terms of achieving those results than just simply being telling people, here are the results.
[00:12:36] Mobile Reach: That makes a lot of sense. And you’re zeroing in on actually something I wanted to dig into a little bit more deeply and that’s around positive feedback.
[00:12:47] You’re certainly an advocate for praising a technician or recognizing a technician when deserved and that that’s the value that that brings for ongoing improvements and performance. Besides positive feedback and recognition, what are some of the other behaviors that you would consider to be the most important for a field service supervisor to follow?
[00:13:17] Stephen: Well it starts with a couple of questions. And one question I’ve always asked myself over the years is, other things being relatively equal, why is it that crews work harder for some supervisors than they do for others? And why is it that crew supervisors some of them have more turnover and lateness and lower productivity than other supervisors? There always seems to be this pattern. And that leads me to when we talk about skills. The first thing is the issue of self-awareness. And I’ve asked this question to everybody that I’ve worked with over all these years. And I just think they make or break people. And the first question is this: Are you really as approachable as you think you are with the people around you? And to make it much more specific, do your employees at any level do they honestly feel comfortable coming to you with problems ideas or concerns? And this is important on a timely basis. Or is it possible that you’ve taught people to hold back or go around you? And the reason I’m mentioning this is sometimes we teach people to respond to us in certain ways and we’re sort of oblivious to it and we can’t really influence other people if we are really sure of how we impact on others.
[00:14:53] In my opinion, that’s what defines good parenting and it also defines good marriages. So it’s a general kind of question that helps people helps people direct themselves to work with others relating to others. Now let’s get down into the final really the critical kinds of things that I think are important for getting the best out of your people. Number one is the whole issue of rapport. Get to know your crew, get to know who they are as people. An example is I was working with a supervisor and I had to do an assessment of her by speaking to her employees and they said she was pretty good. But they said she made absolutely no effort to get to know them as people. It was strictly job-related and nothing else. And I told her that I gave her the feedback and she basically said to me you know I’ve thought about it. And she said that’s the way I am. I’m not going to change. And the reality is she’s as far as I know, she didn’t get promoted. And I’m not asking people to become best friends with your employees outside of work. I’m only saying get to know them as people because when you get to know them as people and you build that rapport they’ll come to you sooner with problems. They’ll feel more comfortable around you.
[00:16:36] So that’s that’s one critical one. Another one is to have very defined specific goals and objectives and make sure you share them with your people. And, in line with that, make sure you have very specific expectations. Make sure your people know on a weekly basis or on a daily basis, however your business runs. Let them know what the metrics are. Let them know how much pipe has to be laid. How much of this has to be done or that has to be done. And tied with that of course, as we’ve discussed, is getting regular feedback. And in particular tie it to those critical behaviors or activities. By the way, an interesting fact, this isn’t something I’ve made up, it’s research, is that supervisors who catch people doing things right, more than just give constructive feedback, but if they do it on a ratio of 4 to 1, you’re going to get far better productivity. So every time you go out in the field and you make some kind of observation and you give feedback, you had better have praised people at least four times more than going out there and having your employees see you as someone who is always fighting something critical and not finding something very positive at all. The other really critical thing, and again there are many more than I probably won’t mention, but the other one is follow up. When people ask you for something get it back to them. Don’t say leave it with me in another lifetime if they’re lucky, really make a point of getting back to them. So those are a lot of the critical ones that I think you really should be doing.
[00:18:16] And the final one is to listen, listen and listen, never stop listening to your people. And sort of a mini skill that goes along with that, or something to avoid: you’d be amazed how many people, including me sometimes, who finish people’s sentences for them. And your training people to shut down and not really give you any information at all. But think about that. Think about the people around you in your life and the people that you work with. How many times do people finish your sentence? It’s something that can be worked on. But first of all you have to be made aware of it. So those are a lot of the characteristics or behaviors of what I think make a very good supervisor.
[00:19:00] Mobile Reach: That’s outstanding food for thought especially the very concrete 4 to 1 ratio. Thank you for sharing that. And along those same lines, let’s actually wrap with our last question for you. What motivating tips would you recommend for avoiding dips in productivity?
[00:19:24] Stephen: Well, bottom line, communicating regularly with your people. That means getting out into the field as much as you can. Ask questions to your crew things like, “anything you need?” Ask them on a regular basis, “What do you think?” You know those are really critical. And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with having very demanding objectives and expectations but you just gotta make sure that you know your people and that you know your crew and are always asking them things like, “anything that you need from me?”
[00:20:02] There are variations of this but always asking them if they need something and if you can help them. And again the other thing that I mentioned earlier but I just think it’s critical is to make sure that you follow up with your people. I think it’s very important when you’re a supervisor to have a particular philosophy and the philosophy is this: you work as much for your people as they work for you. I call the reverse accountability. You are accountable to them. Either you’re helping them get their job done the way they should on a daily basis or, in a sense, you’re getting in the way. So that’s the critical thing. If if you have a couple of minutes I can just tell you a couple of quick stories, one that didn’t go so well and one that did go well.
[00:20:54] Mobile Reach: Let’s do it.
[00:20:55] Stephen: OK. This is the one that didn’t quite go so well. This was told to me actually by a client that happened at another company. As a supervisor when you don’t bring out the best in your people, people learn to cope. They learn to put up with you or they learn to get back at you. Or in this case, when it becomes sort of systemic, here’s what can happen. There was a company that wanted to create a new cover for their annual report. So they hired a photographer. And this photographer had this very bright idea. He said you know what. I’m going to mount the camera across the street from your location.
[00:21:38] And he said I’d like to you to lock the gates so that when the people come out at the end of the day there are about 300 of them. I want them to all mill around in the yard and then when I give the signal, you’ll open the gate and they’ll all come streaming out of the yard. And that’s when I’ll take the picture of them. Management said okay, that’s a great idea. But they didn’t tell the employees. The first 50 employees came out and they walked up to the gate, which was this big chain link fence. And they poured out and they saw that it was locked and they started milling around and they didn’t know what to do. Then another 100, 150 and eventually there were 300 standing in the yard milling around wondering why the gates weren’t open. Eventually, the photographer said okay, good, they’re all out, let’s go with it. Someone from management came out opened the gate and all the people came streaming out and they all had smiles on their faces. And it was a perfect picture except for one surprise the management.
[00:22:43] And it’s funny after many years of asking people what they thought happened, what management saw, only one person in all these years guessed the right answer of what did happen. When management saw the yard after everybody had walked out, the yard was littered with rolls of toilet paper, screwdrivers, small wrenches, all different kinds of small tools and utensils. The employees were robbing this place blind and they thought because the gate was locked, they were going to be searched. So everybody emptied their pockets. It’s a classic case of a company that from the from the top to the bottom they really didn’t have a handle on the true productivity and a true motivating environment. That’s an example of a case where they need a lot of work.
[00:23:42] On the other hand, 33 years ago, I had the chance to work with a supervisor. I still remember him to this day. He worked in a plant that did servicing of equipment in the company and he was covered in grease and a really young guy. He was 25 years old and he was frustrated with both his boss and his employees. He just didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to work with them. He actually cried. And like most supervisors, first line supervisors, in particular, he was like a sponge for taking in new information. But he had a particularly high level of self-awareness and he really wanted to make an effort to try new skills, new ideas. And he tried and tried and tried. And slowly but surely he became more and more effective and basically, using a lot of the things we’ve talked about today, but in a very conscious and purposeful way. Today, he’s the CEO of one of the largest food companies in Canada. But the thing I want to emphasize here: it wasn’t really me. He had it in him all along and I was just sort of able to bring it out in him.
[00:25:00] So all the credit goes to him not me so much. The bottom line of everything we’ve discussed I think is this. Once you understand how your behavior affects your crew, it’s only then you can really start developing your leadership skills and then really start to get the kind of productivity and results that you’re looking for. But it all starts with self-awareness and then very specific and practical skills. That’s the way it’s going to happen.
[00:25:31] Mobile Reach: Stephen, that is rich, rich insight I have to say. There’s a lot of wisdom in what you’ve shared with us today and the stories, notwithstanding, a tremendous amount of insight in all of your anecdotes. I appreciate that. Thanks for spending some time with us today to share your expertise on field service performance and delivery.

View all episodes of the Five Questions for a Field Service Expert Podcast here.