In this episode of the Five Questions for a Field Service Expert Podcast, we chat with Tim Sparks, chief growth officer at ProAutomated. Tim outlines the company culture that is most conducive to satisfied and engaged field technicians. He also discusses the top three qualities of a valuable and productive field tech. The episode runs about 21 minutes.
If you prefer, the full transcript is available below.
[00:00:18] 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. Today we’re talking to Tim Sparks. Tim is Chief Growth Officer at Pro automated. As chief growth officer, Tim works with service companies looking to expand by providing highly skilled and fully trained service technicians to augment their current field force. ProAutomated has completed around 10,000 projects with field service engineers across North America. They worked at LAX, they are doing work at the Marriott. They’ve worked at St. Thomas Church and Lincoln Financial Field so it runs the gamut in terms of what pro automated can do and where they can work. Before moving into this role, Tim worked at ProAutomated actually as a field service engineer himself. He has been an operations director and CEO as well as CFO so he has worn many hats and has a very well-rounded view of field service management and field service organizations.
[00:01:27] Mobile Reach: Tim, welcome and thanks so much for chatting with us here at Mobile Reach.
[00:01:31] Tim: Thank you.
[00:01:33] Mobile Reach: Great. Well you know we have five questions for you as we do for all of our field service experts. So let’s go ahead and get rolling. What kind of a company culture do you find is most conducive to an engaged and satisfied field tech?
[00:01:51] Tim: Yeah so people join field service because they want to help others. In my opinion and field service engineers tend to be very independent people.
[00:02:06] Tim: They work with this incredible autonomy out in the field and with customers. And those are all great aspects of a company culture for an engaged and satisfied workforce in general and especially for our field service workforce. So I said I think that some of the greatest strengths of that company culture can also be its weaknesses and we need to be able to provide some sort of collaboration. But isolation is one of the main complaints of my field engineers and it’s a very difficult job to do in field service. You feel alone sometimes like you’re out there on an island all by yourself. So things like tech groups, regional outing or company outing for a field team, and quarterly performance reviews of constant feedback those all those kind of things help really increase collaboration within the field team. And that’s a tough line to walk because on the one hand you know those things that are making that that field service culture the lack of micromanagement being independent being the guy that customers go to to get problems solved in too much quantity can be a detriment to culture. So I think really as I look at ProAutomated where we start culture and this is I’m sure not a surprise for most people is they want that day one training for a field engineer when they’re with others when they’re at the company headquarters at a training facility and in the weeks that followed that training when they are with people those are just crucial to building and maintaining that company culture.
[00:03:46] Tim: And then I think more on the retention side of culture, a culture of growth and a lot of people now in field service are talking about growth plans and development plans and things like the career path. So you know when when you’re in the field and you feel stuck like there’s no where to go that culture can deteriorate pretty quickly. So having either internal or external resource, internal strategy to build a plan for a culture of advancement opportunity and it doesn’t have to necessarily be promotions. I mean you can’t just be personal. I think that’s key to a culture that is conducive to an engaged and satisfied workforce.
[00:04:34] Mobile Reach: Nice that makes a ton of sense and I love the idea of career paths and quarterly reviews. It makes a ton of sense and it sounds like there’s you know a lot of good sort of playbook borrowing from other frankly other businesses other business models. And that that’s a good a good best practice across the board. Well you know if you think about then translating this into sort of skills and competitive you know mindsets, if you think about what makes a highly skilled field tech what do you think the top three qualities you would look for are in that tech say when you sit down with him or her in a quarterly review.
[00:05:12] Tim: Yeah I love this question. And really this stems all the way back to recruiting. What are you looking for in a potential field service engineer? So I have three things here. And these are in order. The first one is what I like to call it and we call it pro automated social engineering.
[00:05:35] Tim: So the soft skills the people with the knowledge of what or what not to say when to say it and who to say it to. Although it’s kind of you know you get what you want to refer to intangibles. But again kind of a soft skill package of a person.
[00:05:51] Tim: Then number two, what we look for is people who are problem detectives. So these aren’t just people who want to go out and solve problems but they actually go looking for problems when they’re on site. They go looking for root causes they want to know why something doesn’t work. Not just how to fix it and how to get off the job site. And then last is technical. There’s obviously got to be a base level of technical ability and kind of time management skills for anybody in field service. I’m honestly I’m less concerned with whether a field engineer actually knows how to fix something and I’m more concerned with whether they know how to find any information to fix something whether that’s a Knowledge database or who to talk to you know you didn’t know where to go in in the company or who to talk to or who find out this information from.
[00:06:47] Tim:And if I added a fourth category. I would add in. What I’ll call project management. But I really mean does the field engineer see the forest and then the trees. You know does the field technician go out there and can they get a scope of the project and the who’s who in assigned work to the other people that are on the job site.
[00:07:10] Tim: Not the work for them but the ones that they need to collaborate with you know can they get the request out for the problems that they think they’re going to have on that.
[00:07:20] Tim: You know one of the projects not you know the day before it’s supposed to be done. And then can they get into the tree. So rather than just jumping in and attacking one thing and then going on to the next thing to figure out that you know they’re they’re not actually solving the right problem. I’ve found that that level of project management tends to give the customer a really high level of confidence in the field engineer. So even if they can’t, it doesn’t matter what’s going on at the job site as long as they have that confidence in the field engineer that he’s going to take care of them in and get it done. And as an aside, I did a little bit of research. Most companies that I talked to actually have my first and third responses. So they have technical first and then problem second and soft skills third. So you know it’s up to probably individual companies on the order of the requirements. But for me, I find that it’s a person without the right soft skills tends to get into more challenging issues than a person without the right technical skills. Maybe another way to say that is it’s easier to teach technical skills without the base level of technical knowledge than it is to teach skills.
[00:08:39] Mobile Reach: You mentioned you mentioned recruiting in terms of how pro automated looks for a type of worker. What impact do you think technology has in recruiting and retaining field technicians either pro automated or in what you’ve observed in the broader industry?
[00:09:06] Tim: Yeah it definitely plays a role. Certainly, I’m not alone in that it is the majority of companies think that technology will play some sort of role. You know that was about technology and ProAutomated, we’re expanding, we’re getting into live video and some wearables and augmented reality and you know a lot of the hardware and the bandwidth just isn’t there yet. And so as we look at once or is there how are we going to use that to drive cost down and drive the amount of training that time it takes to train down. How does that technology hopeless in general? Technology is just taken for granted by incoming missions. The millennials and then soon to be the centennials. It’s just expected. You know. So I would actually kind of flip the question and say that really a lack of technology might play a bigger role in driving field engineers away and not being able to recruit and retain the right people if you don’t have the technology. And the fact that you have technology about bringing them to you. So I think it’s again just now just expected. I mean doing things online or in the field with mobile resources. It’s just it’s just a way of life. And like I said you know now some of the kind of the newer cutting edge stuff isn’t quite there yet. And so I don’t think that it’s good not having that is going to drive people away. But having a vision for that vision for how technology is used to change field service is very important for companies.
[00:10:56] Mobile Reach: Well that takes us right into the whole notion of the field technician. That the talent shortage really is the meat of the matter and you know it’s not showing from what I’ve observed and I’m sure from what you’ve seen the not really letting up. There are massive volumes of openings available. There’s a tremendous amount of movement within the field service industry from company to company at the technician level. How do you ensure that you have the technicians you need that say it at Protomen to address the field service needs of your own customers?
[00:11:29] Tim:: Yeah this is definitely a challenge and it’s not just a shortage of field technicians. You know in America we’re experiencing a shortage of labor talent in general. And so since ProAautomated is all of our we’re all about providing trained field service resources to our customers. This is our bread and butter. We spent a lot of time on this challenge. I think that the statistic is over 70 percent of companies you know they’re going to face the talent crisis of field service specific talent crisis in the next 10 years. And I personally think that it’s starting right now and it’s it’s going to be very acute in the next three to five. So for ProAutomated we had to adjust how we do our recruiting. We had to build a constant recurring pipeline to fill our positions instead of just posting at the time of year when we typically hired. We started to keep a pipeline open all the time. So we’re always recruiting.
[00:12:38] Tim: Now one of the other things that we did is we rarely call it poach from other field service companies of course, not our customers but really from anybody that’s already in the field services very rare for us to hire someone with field service experience. We prefer to hire talent and then train them to be good in field service engineers. So we’ve developed training around field service to take people who don’t have any experience in the industry and then get them up to speed quickly. And this type of you know full time consistent it’s got to be quick responses by the quick response for recruiting I mean like same day response because people are moving on to the next company if you’re not getting back to them. It’s not for everyone. And that’s why we partner with so many companies in the way that we do it. For us to recruit train and retain. If we do those things we always keep our pipeline full and growing. And again there’s challenges and each three of those areas. So I think you know the field service profession in general really is attractive to millennials and to do so again younger people entering the workforce that are in the workforce and you know solving problems. New technology. Travel the independence of work. Those are all things and aspects of the job that are attracted to these new workers. I really think it’s it’s our job and ProAutomated’s taking that on itself, as well, to do a better job of marketing these things and you know advertising the benefits of a job and field service.
[00:14:30] Mobile Reach: You know your recruiting philosophy sounds really similar to the Daniel Pink theory around autonomy mastery and purpose?
[00:14:42] Mobile Reach: I don’t know if you’re familiar but he argues that everyone in their in their in their working life wants to have those three things they want ever to have autonomy, they wan’t have a degree of mastery they want and feel good that they know what they’re doing and then, of course, they want to have purpose and in the way you are the way you’re describing how ProAutomated attracts folks to the profession is very much in line with that we just couldn’t. Kudos to you guys for that.
[00:15:07] Tim: Well I mean where do you think Daniel got his theories from now. Well I’m I am familiar with that book and he has been somewhat instrumental in our in our philosophy that’s correct.
[00:15:20] Mobile Reach: Well so other well I guess let me let me jump to one sort of final question for you. Fifth on the list here for free you approach automated being a supplier of contingent field techs. Other than being short-handed let’s say at my field service organization. Why. Why would I leverage a contingent workforce. Yeah, I missed your question. I can go into great detail on with my own opinions and I’ll try to give a very unbiased answer here and maybe some questions to consider. So you know we provide we’re a third party service provider we provide contingent workers typically on a full-time basis to long-term relationships, long-term partners. Most of our customers have been with us for between five and 10 years. And you know there are a number of reasons why and I just went to them and I asked them.
[00:16:18] Tim: There are a number of reasons why they use us why a field service organization might look at a contingent workforce. No surprise to anyone. The best response is to increase profit right. You either can use the contingent workforce to increase your revenues, to decrease your costs and in doing those increase your profit. That’s the number one reason why anyone should look at their contingent workforce. You know probably 10 years ago outsourcing field service was kind of a dirty word and now really it’s become sort of the standard I’ll say you know over 75 percent of companies outsource some part of their fieldwork. And those companies on average that do outsource a third of their field work to continue workforces so it’s definitely it’s definitely here and it should be considered at least. So some of the top reasons that my customers use my services at ProAutomated. You mentioned the need obviously and that’s probably the lowest reason why but sometimes you just you just can’t hire you can’t get the open recs at your company they can’t find or attract the right talent in the right location needed obviously something that does drive the use of contingent workers. But I would say number one on the list is to decrease response times.
[00:17:51] Tim: So to round out the field service team to get someone to the customer faster to increase their coverage area we jump right into the number two reason which is decreasing travel costs so that increased coverage even if it’s having more people in the same location. Then at the time when you have to fly somebody in to a city where you already have people it just gives you more flexibility along with that with a response time and travel costs is reducing labor costs. Typically that comes from the fixed labor costs you know things like benefits healthcare all the overhead hidden into someone’s salary which can run you know as much as half someone’s salary all the way up to a full salary only using a contingent worker and paying contingent worker when you need to use them. So you don’t pay for holidays or vacation and you don’t pay for any time any unused time is not paid for. And then last would be the ability to kind of smooth the ebbs inflows and field service work. So if there’s some months or weeks where you have a real peak and then some valleys, using contingent workers can kind of provide you with the ability to expand and contract based on demands. Those are those are the main reasons that our customers come to us and with that we’ve continued to do work long term with these customers. And obviously has to do a lot of partnership and a long-term relationship. You know there’s there’s lots and lots of questions that a company would need to ask on whether a contingent workforce. And then what type of contingent workforce. Obviously now there’s so many different companies and different just platforms. You know the independent contractors the company that actually have workers all kind of different questions that ask all of those you know it’s are really internal company decisions that are going to be driven by all the different factors that a company needs to be able to ask those questions and then decide for themselves.
[00:20:14] Mobile Reach: Well that makes all the sense in the world and you mentioned the relationship piece and partnering with organizations you worked with for a long time. You talk about attracting training and retaining. I imagine your customers feel the exact same way about automated and in having those relationships long term.
[00:20:35] Tim: Yeah, thanks Dan.
[00:20:38] Mobile Reach: Cool. Well, Tim thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us on five questions from a field service expert. You can learn more about ProAutomated at
[20:45] Tim: Thank you. My pleasure.