Are Freelancers the Future of Field Service Staffing?

This interview by Derek Korte, editor at Field Service Digital and a senior editor at Original9 Media. It first appeared at  http://fsd.servicemax.com

Field service leaders have a lot to manage on any given day. But there’s one responsibility that’s often lost while  keeping the work orders flowing and vetting the latest technologies — talent. Sure, the IoT continues to reshape the service industry, but field service is still a people business. When something breaks, customers expect a skilled professional to show up and fix the problem quickly — hopefully the first time.

But it’s a challenge to maintain a trained, knowledgable service team. Experienced techs retire and are difficult to replace, and new technologies require new skill sets. As a result, service organizations are turning to freelancers to supplement their full-time workforce, while ensuring customers get a consistent level of service. We asked Michael Blumberg, president of Blumberg Advisory Group, to explain the most surprising takeaways from his latest research into the freelance phenomenon in field service.

You found that service organizations rely on freelance platforms to improve geographic coverage? Why did that surprise you?

I was surprised to learn that organizations are using freelance management platforms (FMS) for more than just handling a temporary surge in demand, or providing coverage in remote geographic areas. A significant percentage (61 percent) use freelancer platforms to expand their geographic coverage. They are using these platforms to facilitate strategic growth, not just to cut costs or solve a tactical problem.

You also found that organizations increasingly use freelancers to respond to emergency service requests — why?

The conventional wisdom is that freelancers are best suited to handle project work, such as installations and scheduled maintenance. Our research suggests otherwise. In fact, 53 percent of the respondents indicate they utilize freelancers to handle all types of work, including projects and emergency repairs. By relying on freelancers, service managers can ensure they have the right coverage when and where they need it.

What’s unique about a FMS is the crowdsourcing element, which leads to situations where technicians are often competing for the same service request. As a result, technicians know they have to be very responsive because their income depends on it. I’m not suggesting that company-employed technicians are lazy, but sometimes there’s no incentive to take on more calls. There’s no incentive for them to respond faster or get more calls done.

How are service managers using freelance platforms to improve recruitment and onboarding?

Even when organizations use freelance techs, whether for a long-term project or on-demand emergency work, they still have to spend time recruiting, training and onboarding those technicians. The crowdsourcing element of FMS platforms means that managers can find these techs quickly, so they can spend less time recruiting. And the digital nature of these platforms means that managers can train them, share work orders and outline what’s expected. A majority (59 percent) of companies using freelance platforms are able to recruit and hire new technicians in 14 days or fewer, while only 11 percent of non-FMS users are able to achieve this goal.

How do service managers integrate these freelancers into their regular workflows and explain service expectations?

They can be very selective about which freelancers they choose to work with, and they can request technicians who have certain qualifications and skills. Managers can also describe the procedures that the techs must follow when they go out on a call, which is something companies are already doing with full-time technicians. Lastly, some managers administer short quizzes and exams that the freelancers must pass before they’re assigned work.

Your research suggests that agility is the most important factor when deciding to use a FMS. Why?

Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents indicated that their need for agility is the number one reason why their companies turned to a variable workforce. While cost savings might be the reason why these companies considered this alternative in the first place, agility is why they continue to use it. In today’s dynamic service environment, service organizations need to respond quickly to surges in demand and constantly changing technical skill set requirements. They can’t afford to spend a lot of time staffing up to meet demand because it is likely to change quickly.

And relying on freelance platforms can also improve service productivity and quality? How?

Freelancers are often more engaged with the service organizations that hire them because they see themselves as independent contractors. They’re running their own business.

Freelancers want to demonstrate that they’re responsive and effective so they will be given more jobs. There’s also a snowball effect — the more calls freelancers take, the more income they’ll have, which creates a productivity mindset.

Are there any quality and productivity tradeoffs?

Our survey results indicate that 65 percent of companies using a FMS model have experienced improvement in field service productivity. Furthermore, first-time fix rate is 18 percent higher among top-performing FSM users than the industry average, while SLA compliance is 16 percent higher.

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