What to Expect from AI in the Field Service Industry for the Next Decade

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When we hear about AI, which stands for Artificial Intelligence, we often remember Hollywood’s definition of it. Who could ever forget the doomsday prophecies of the Terminator series? While movies might picture AI as humanity’s greatest enemy, the reality is far from it. AI’s history can be traced back to the time of the Greeks and their myths about the golden robots of Hephaestus and Pygmalion’s Galatea. The basis of AI is on the assumption that human thought can be mechanized. This even dates back to the ancient civilizations like China and Egypt where craftsmen built automatons which the people believed to contain real minds. It was not until the 50s that studies in AI had kicked off. From then, we have had AI machines that have proven their capacity to “think”. Deep Blue, from IBM had defeated Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a game of chess in 1997. In 2011, Watson, also a computer, won against Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, both champions of the famous game show “Jeopardy!” Just this year, a Chatbot named Eugene Goostman passed a Turing test.

Artificial Intelligence is greatly beneficial for the field service management industry. It is AI in action when we hear SIRI’s voice, or when we hear that automated voice that answers the phone when we call the bank. While there is a lot of discussion about the eventuality of human workers being replaced by robots and computers, no one can argue the fact the AI has improved efficiency and worker’s skills. Companies now have AI and virtual assistants to communicate and interact with customers. With the technology in place, there is plenty of room for development for the use of AI in the future.

New Skills

When a business adopts AI technology, the people working in the company can sometimes be threatened by it. It is true that there are risks of being replaced by machines, but what we sometimes do not realize is that having the technology is actually going to make us more effective. Much like how the computers replaced the typewriters, we can gain new skills and adapt to the use of the new technology. Though there are many forecasts of how AI can be a threat to job security, this can be a good avenue to improve oneself, and explore what other things a person can be good at, aside from his job.

Improved Searches and Scheduling

It didn’t take two generations to notice the big leap we had on searches. Today, service technicians use software in order to search for customer information. Building on this, Chatbots can be useful in pulling up information and history in a conversation-based interface. Think of SIRI but on a business scale. Using the same concept, Chatbots can improve scheduling. What we have right now is an annoying series of voice prompted menus. It is confusing and time-consuming. It would be good to develop a bot which you just need to chat with, and it will do your scheduling for you, and it would be even better if it can do predictive scheduling, where it can monitor and predict your schedule, and all you would need is to confirm it, and it’s done for you. That way, it will be hard to miss your biannual dental appointment, or your annual check-up.

Predictive Maintenance to a Whole New Level

In the situation where technicians have to go on site to check the status of machinery and equipment, predictive maintenance is a great help. AI can do the job of making sure that equipment and machines are working at an optimal operating point. And should there be a need for maintenance, it can schedule for a worker to provide the work needed. This is a great help to technicians, as they would not be needing to check on the equipment all the time, and they will be able to work on whatever else they need to do.

While Artificial Intelligence has a promising future, there is still a lot that needs to be developed for it to be fully integrated into any system. Data is in abundance, and AI now has a lot of information to work on that can improve its capacity to think better. However, this overload of information is not enough for AI to be useful. There is a need to interpret the information and translate it into knowledge that can then be put to use, much like how our brains work. We get information and our brains process that information into knowledge and from what we know, we do. This is the key to unlocking the potential of AI, and once we find out how to do exactly that, then there would be no stopping the potential on the use of Artificial Intelligence in our lives.

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The Hero’s Journey: Xerox’s Field Service Force Is Armed With Augmented Reality

This article first appeared in the April 17, 2017 edition of Field Technologies Online.

It’s not hard to imagine that in today’s market, your customer’s success is dependent on the speed and quality of the service provided by your company. This is the situation in the print market which is highly competitive. Many printers utilize similar state-of-the-art equipment and systems in their establishments and printing has become a commodity business. In a commodity market, suppliers compete based on time and cost. If a printer cannot turn a print job around quickly, say within 20 to 30 minutes, the customer will seek an alternative option.  So, it probably comes as no surprise that printers are highly dependent on their equipment suppliers to ensure that the equipment, so critical to operations, is operating properly and at full capacity during their typical working hours (e.g., three shifts/24 hours per day). Extended periods of downtime, output errors, and printing glitches (e.g., smudges, smears, color mismatches) are unacceptable.

Ensuring high levels of machine uptime and quality print output places increased pressures on manufacturers for service and support. Regardless of whether they are forced to deal with a hardware issue or an application error, customers demand rapid response and fast resolution. If service is not provided in a reasonable time frame, manufacturers run the risk of losing customers as well as click-through revenue.  As digital printing technology becomes more complex and sophisticated (think expanded features and functionality), customers need more support and manufacturers find that they must hire more field service technicians to keep up with increased service demand.

Customer Demands Become A Growing Concern

Xerox Israel found itself in a similar situation during the second half of 2016.  Increasing headcount was not an option because it would have had an adverse impact on operating margin. Maintaining the status quo was also not possible. With a 77 percent market share, Xerox’s Israel-based service management team understood that it had to find an innovative and creative solution to overcome this challenge. Otherwise, they would run the risk of losing market share. That’s when Xerox’s Customer Service Manager, Eyal Mantzur, became aware of Fieldbit Hero, an Augmented Reality (AR) software platform. The Fieldbit solution is comprised of smart glasses and software that enables collaboration of live streaming and recording of video, audio, images, and text.

Prior to implementing Fieldbit, Xerox’s customers would call the Xerox Welcome Center and notify them of their problem. The Welcome Center would dispatch a Field Engineer (FE) who would call back the customer and attempt to resolve the problem by telephone. Usually, the callback was made because the FE was at another customer’s site.  Often, the FE needed to travel to the new customer site to see the problem to diagnose and resolve it.  The net impact was that customers had to wait hours for an FE to arrive onsite to resolve hardware faults and application issues. This resulted in unhappy customers and, ultimately, lost business.  FEs were also not as productive as they could be while onsite because they were often multi-tasking on the telephone with other customers who required help.  A stressful situation for all parties involved!

New Realities, New Possibilities, Better Results

Upon learning of the Fieldbit solution, Mantzur and his team realized they needed to redefine their support paradigm to provide better service to customers and achieve better results.  They placed an experienced technician in the Welcome Center who was responsible to use Fieldbit Hero. He provided technical support to both customers and FEs, who would also have access to the application. By using this solution, the expert support specialist and FEs could observe the problem that the customer (i.e., machine operator) was experiencing and provide instructions, in real-time, in the form of AR content (e.g., video, images, text, etc.) on how to resolve the problem. If they could not resolve the problem remotely then they could provide the customer with a workaround until the FE could arrive on-site.  More importantly, they could provide the FE with the knowledge and resources (e.g., parts, repair instructions, etc.) needed to resolve the issue on the first visit to the customer site.

The Xerox team realized exceptional results in several areas of their service operation after implementing the Fieldbit.

  • Xerox improved remote resolution rates by 76 percent within four months of implementing Fieldbit
  • Xerox experienced a 67 percent improvement in First Time Fix (FTF) rates
  • FE utilization increased by almost 20 percent while the total elapsed time to resolve a service request (e.g., telephone time, travel time, onsite repair time, etc.) was reduced by two hours

Most of Xerox’s FEs are now able to handle at least one additional service event per day. These performance gains result in real cost savings for Xerox because the service team does not have to hire more staff to support customer demand and travel costs are reduced.

While these internal performance gains are impressive, the impact on customer satisfaction is even greater.  “The customer feels very happy and empowered when we help him solve the problem [using Fieldbit],” boasts Mantzur.  “He feels he is the service hero. The quality of interaction between customers and FEs as well as remote technical support personnel is also much better because everyone can see and talk about the same thing.  There’s no guessing anymore. With Fieldbit, customer satisfaction at Xerox improved significantly, to 95 percent, per Xerox’s most recent customer satisfaction research.  Furthermore, customers experience shorter periods of downtime and receive more accurate advice or recommendations on how to improve both machine uptime and the quality of print output.

Ensuring AR Buy-In 

Like many service executives, Eyal Mantzur was initially uncertain about what AR could do for his company.  He first learned about it from referral by  a colleague.  However, Mantzur notes that AR is a difficult concept to describe verbally. It is something that you need to see to understand. Mantzur had many pressing questions when he first heard about Fieldbit… Would it work, would customers be receptive, would the field service organization embrace it?”   These fears were quickly dismissed after seeing the product in action.  Things started to connect when for Mantzur when he realized Fieldbit could help his team see what the customer is talking about and then use AR content in the form of video, text, and images to show the customer and/or FE exactly what to do to resolve the problem.

The management team at Xerox clearly understood the value of AR. This was not necessarily the point of view of the field service organization.  Some of the FEs did not understand the power of the tool. Some were afraid of being replaced or marginalized by the tool. Mantzur overcame this challenge by showing his FEs how Fieldbit enabled them work smarter rather than harder. In doing so, he offered them a trade-off they could embrace – either continue to be stressed out by complaining customers, or enjoy a better quality of work and more satisfied customers by using Fieldbit. Once the FEs started using Fieldbit “they fell in love with it ” claims Mantzur.

Working Smarter — Not Harder — Is Better for Everyone

In summary, Fieldbit is fast becoming an integral part of Xerox Israel’s service and support strategy. The goal is for Xerox Technical Support Specialists to reside at the Welcome Center and provide first-level support to customers.  The number of specialists will also increase.  By utilizing Fieldbit, everyone from the specialist to the FE to the customer can work smarter, and FEs will no longer operate purely in demand mode. Instead, they will have more time to perform periodic/scheduled maintenance, which in turn will improve machine performance and print quality output.  “Instead of maintenance leading us, we will be able to lead maintenance”, claims Mantzur. “It will also allow the customers to be more productive during their normal business hours. They can do a better job at planning their workload. Our FEs will also be under less stress and experience greater productivity”.

In a highly competitive market like printing, manufacturers must constantly be on the lookout for ways to gain a competitive advantage.  The Xerox service organization is on the front line when it comes to ensuring customer satisfaction and loyalty.  Their FEs play a critical role in maintaining high levels of uptime and quality for their customers.  Mantzur’s advice for any service executive skeptical about using Fieldbit is to see a demo and experience it firsthand. “Most people won’t understand the power of Fieldbit until they see how the technology performs,” he notes.  Even the customer will not appreciate its value until they use it for the first time; then they will demand it all the time.”  It is for this reason that Mantzur believes Fieldbit provides Xerox with a competitive advantage and a source of differentiation in the market.

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