Unless your field workforce is composed of goats, these days you’re contending with a mix of workplace safety guidelines, employee health priorities, and customer preferences that complicate how, where, and whom you can dispatch. At the same time, the massive shift to digital commerce and remote or touchless interactions has forever altered the expectations of customers. We all want interactions that are informed, effective, and immediate—and we want them to be equally good in our personal and our professional lives.

If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of customer service—and especially field service—in keeping important aspects of our lives up and running. Everything from cold chain logistics, hospital equipment, and manufacturing systems to utilities, home appliances, and consumer electronics has become even more critical as many of us find ourselves living our whole lives from home. Where and how field service is being delivered is changing rapidly, and not just in the short term. With a “field” that is increasingly—but certainly not exclusively—virtual, companies need new tools and different ways of thinking about how to service products and assets wherever they might be.

Expertise Is Going Virtual Too

Part of that change centers on the workforce of technicians, at all skill levels, and how to deploy them. Take the example of electric utilities. They’ve faced the simultaneous challenge of a big drop in revenues and new difficulties ensuring normal operations. As industrial production dropped and office workers stayed home, commercial demand for electricity declined. Distressed business and residential customers stopped paying their bills. To compound the problem, utilities tend to have a high proportion of older workers, especially among specialists and skilled technicians—essential workers they can ill afford to put at risk. For those working directly in power plants, that has meant sequestering for weeks at a time. But that still hasn't addressed the need for servicing equipment in the field. Or the increasing pressure to do so more cost-effectively.

Tools to help teams communicate and collaborate remotely are filling the breach. Secure mobile apps designed specifically for field service existed before the pandemic, but they’ve proven invaluable during it. These apps push important messages—say localized updates on travel restrictions or an urgent service call that’s just come in—to everyone who needs to know. They make it easy for field technicians to reach other colleagues with additional expertise. Technicians can follow a workflow, search for relevant information, or initiate a video call with another expert quickly and easily. Although they operate without the need for specialist devices, these mobile apps provide augmented reality through annotation capabilities in live video.

Fixing what may seem like a short-term problem is leading to substantial improvements in both customer experience and productivity. The ability to access expertise beyond just that of the technician on site increases the first-time fix rate and improves time to resolution—both key factors influencing customer satisfaction. Expert technicians who may be highly vulnerable to COVID-19 can work remotely, supporting on more callouts than they could handle in person over the same elapsed time. Calling on other experts facilitates knowledge transfer among technicians and helps new hires get up to speed more quickly.

The Next Step: Putting Customers in Charge

Customers themselves have begun to play an even more critical role in this new approach to field service. The latest innovation in field service mobile apps extends to putting them directly into the hands of customers, particularly business customers. As with mobile apps designed for technicians, they allow customers to directly access service history, product manuals, guidelines, and videos. They incorporate the ability to request and schedule service callouts as well as to get real-time notifications and communicate directly with technicians. More importantly, these mobile apps also give customers the same augmented reality capabilities to work directly with remote experts through video, deferring or limiting the need for an on-site technician.

Although it’s early days for customers using field service mobile apps directly, the results so far are promising. Giving customers more power to manage their assets, and increasing the likelihood of preventing or resolving problems, gives them greater control. In time-sensitive operations where the stakes are high, that has huge potential to improve outcomes for customers.

Empowering customers to be more hands-on in managing their assets also helps to close a critical part of the feedback loop for manufacturers. Customers are best placed to validate information about assets in the field. Validating and updating that data increases the odds of getting the right fix the first time and improving preventive maintenance. It also ensures that customers have better visibility into their equipment and are more educated users.

Technology has changed the way we make purchases—and the way we maintain those tangible assets. There will always be a need for field technicians, even as the “field” becomes an increasingly virtual one. And that means we can leave the weeding to the goats.