Michael Blumberg, President & CEO of Blumberg Advisory Group, joins Sarah to discuss what touchless service will look like in a post-pandemic world.

Listen on Apple Podcasts  Listen on Spotify  Listen on Google Podcasts

Sarah Nicastro: Welcome to The Future of Field Service podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Nicastro today. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of the hottest topics of the year, touchless service. In other words, remote service, the ability to deliver service remotely. I’m excited to welcome to the podcast today. Michael Blumberg, president and CEO of Blumberg Advisory Group. Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Michael Blumberg: Thank you, Sarah. It’s really a pleasure to be here today.

Sarah Nicastro: Thank you for being with us. So today, Michael and I are going to be talking about some of the considerations for a touchless service strategy. So it’s been a year of challenges in terms of the typical field service delivery that we’re all accustomed to. And as such, we’ve seen a real spike in the use of tools like remote assistance and other technologies that enable remote service. And I think it’s a really interesting trend. What I’m most curious about is what this is going to look like when things begin to normalize. So I’m excited to hear a bit about what Michael has seen and is seeing. And we’re going to talk a little bit about some of the things that you’ll need to keep in mind as you set your touchless service strategy for the post-pandemic world.

Sarah Nicastro: So as I said, Michael, here at Future of Field Service, we have interviewed a number of companies this year that have really relied on tools like remote assistance for business continuity throughout the pandemic and to really be able to keep their employees safe, to keep their customers safe and to continue providing service when their typical methods were brought to a halt. So tell us a little bit about what you’ve seen in your interactions over the year and how you’ve witnessed that trend from your side.

Michael Blumberg: Sure, Sarah. We’re really seeing an uptick in the number of companies that are using remote assistance tools, their frequency in which they’re used and in the types of applications that they’re used. When these tools first came out, most people thought that they would be used in an emergency service environment, like a repair situation, but we’re seeing more and more companies are using them to support installations even in a B2C environment, not just in a B2B environment. We’re also seeing them for repairs, depot repairs, for site surveys, for application support.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So increased frequency and increased breadth of use cases. One of the things that I’ve had a lot of conversations around this year, Michael, with the folks that I’ve interviewed, particularly that have deployed tools like augmented reality remote assistance is the idea that… It’s not like these tools are brand new, right? They were around before February or March, and certain organizations were already using them in different scenarios. However, I think it’s fair to say, at least in what we’ve seen, that the volume of their use has certainly increased and companies that we’ve spoke to maybe had them on the roadmap, but were able to really quickly move on that to help them navigate COVID. But one of the themes that’s come up in a lot of those conversations is how this situation, in particular, has really opened people to change a bit more than they were historically.

Sarah Nicastro: So, both from when you talk about touchless service and you talk about these technologies, both from the employee side. So employees that maybe in the past would have resisted the introduction of those tools a bit that were happy to have them, because it meant they could continue working and they could continue serving their customers. And then also on the customer side, customers that maybe were pretty comfortable with the status quo and would have resisted the introduction of something different a bit, have been very happy to have alternatives for folks to coming on-site in those old scenarios. Is that something that you’ve discussed with your contacts, something that you’ve seen as well?

Michael Blumberg: Yeah. It is something I’ve seen, and you’re absolutely right. There were companies that had plans to do this prior to the pandemic. It was what led them to do it, because many cases they had no other choice, really needed to do it. But I think what’s unique about the pandemic, what’s the unique… Well, there’s many unique things, but one of the things I think it did for changing the way we do things and deploying technologies like this is, we were all looking at what’s in it for me? But we all had a reason to do it.

Michael Blumberg: The other part was what’s unique is we’re also looking out for other people. So one of the reasons why there’s a resistance to change and implement new technologies is because people don’t know why they’re doing this. But there’s a very clear reason why, because you couldn’t go on-site. You didn’t want to spread the germs, and there was a lot of uncertainty. So this was clearly a way to deal with it. It forced us. It pushed us forward.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. And I think in this area and in others, I think that little bit of force is something that honestly will be a bit of a silver lining for folks. Because I think that it’s going to spur a lot of acceleration and innovation as companies ramp up, because we’ve gotten a little rid of a bit of that resistance.

Michael Blumberg: Exactly.

Sarah Nicastro: So that makes sense. And as I said at the beginning, we’ve done quite a bit of coverage on the use of these tools for business continuity efforts. And I am very cognizant of the fact that some listeners are still in the midst of business continuity, and others are seeing things really take a turn for the better and focusing a bit on recovery and ramping back up. So I respect the fact that listeners are at different phases on this journey. But I do think what I’d like to center our conversation around today is what will come beyond the use of these tools for business continuity? As we look forward, what will the best strategy for touchless service be post-COVID? So when we are able to return to business as usual, but we have these new tools in place and we have these new methods of doing things, what strategy can we set to provide the right type of service in the right way at the right time for our ourselves?

Michael Blumberg: Sure, Sarah. That’s a great question. And I’ve given some thought to that prior to this interview. I think for every service organization, they need to have a touchless strategy, a touchless service strategy. They can’t go about business and say, “I’m not going to deal with this. It’s not important.” It is important. I think touchless service will become table stakes for all service organizations. Just like you can’t think of a field service organization that doesn’t have a mobility solution. I think that’s what touchless is going to be. And while the pandemic created this buzz word, a touchless service, because the technology was always there, it really has a lot of benefits to a service organization and the customer. In my opinion, I think one of the biggest benefits is it eliminates friction, and friction is caused when there’s a lot of touches or a lot of steps or a lot of additional time involved in completing a task or process.

Michael Blumberg: So, we do this with touchless. We don’t have to send a technician in a car or truck and drive to a customer site. They can do it remotely, and therefore, complete more calls per day. And the customer gets a service completed faster. So it has a lot of benefits. So this will continue. Companies need to consider it. It’s got to be part of their offering. It’s got to be part of their service delivery. And the name may change. It may not be touchless service when we’re post-pandemic, but the concept will still be there.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So what is your advice for folks on how to set the right strategy for their business when it comes to touchless service? They need to have one, but what should it look like?

Michael Blumberg: Yeah. I think the strategy may differ a little bit by industry or vertical, but some of the things you should consider is what is the complexity of the equipment being supported? What’s the level of mission criticality of that equipment and what are the safety issues? So you can almost think of a grid, like a two-by-two grid or four quadrants where you look at the complexity of the equipment and is it mission critical? Is it high voltage? Is it dangerous? And then also what’s the skill set of the customer? Because remember when we talk about touchless service, we’re talking about supporting the customer. So if you’re in an environment where it’s not very complex, maybe the customer has some limited skill sets, you can use touchless service. I think it’s a good solution to also deal with some of the shortages in labor right now. But in a more complex environments when it’s highly complex equipment, maybe high voltage, and there’s nobody on site that’s qualified or certified to support high voltage equipment, then I think definitely on-site.

Sarah Nicastro: Right.

Michael Blumberg: And then there’s another part of this is I think it should be part of an offering. So you’ve got, maybe it’s a basic service, and maybe basic service will be remote assistance. Again, depending on the product. And in other cases, he might charge you a premium. It’s a value-added service for the touchless service, if it’s a more complex piece of equipment.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. All right. So when folks are thinking through how they’re going to set their strategy, what criteria would you use to determine what to do remote and what to do in-person?

Michael Blumberg: Well, I was trying to answer that previously. So think of maybe… One example is cable TV. A customer has to install a set top box. It’s pretty simple to do, may be hard to get a technician out there, or they may have to wait a long time. You could give them an option of the remote assistance. We’ll make this feature available to you to help you install your set top box. While we can describe it over the phone, you may not know what we’re referring to. We might not be able to see what you’re pointing to or what you’re looking at. We can use remote assistance to observe, to see what’s going on. Where we might be on-site is maybe it’s a transformer, an electrical distribution transformer in a power plant.

Michael Blumberg: I don’t know that that’s something that we can do through remote assistance. If it goes down, you might have to bring a technician out there on-site, particularly if there’s nobody on-site in the customer organization that can support that technology.

Sarah Nicastro: Right. Yeah. Those are good points. And I think that they’re really good food for thought. I think that what this… I think this is going to be one of the toughest things for folks to sort through once things normalize is, what is the protocol? What is the process for how this fits into service delivery as a whole. So I think the points you brought up are really good ones. What’s the complexity? What’s the safety scenario? What’s the possibility for danger? What’s the customer’s skillset and ability? I think there’s also this element of… And it’s maybe a little bit softer, but I also think there’s this element of where does an in-person video or in-person visit add value in the sense of just needing to have that human connection.

Sarah Nicastro: So maybe that’s something where it’s more of a frustration or an escalation or maybe that’s an initial install where that person is a part of the brand experience. But I think that one of the things that I believe about the future of remote assistance and touchless service is that I think it will become a really good frontline and first wave of service delivery. I think it’ll be really good in terms of triaging issues and figuring out what’s going on. Possibly completing simpler repairs remotely and things like that, so that the field technician’s role can evolve into being almost more of a customer service type role than just a break-fix type role. So I think that’s an important and interesting part of the conversation.

Michael Blumberg: Yeah. I think that makes sense, Sarah. I think if there’s a role for the technician to play when he’s at the customer site, besides just fixing something. Like being an ambassador or asking additional questions, you might want to do it on-site. And then I also think we’ll likely see remote assistance tools as being part of the technician’s toolkit. So before they think they might have to go on-site, but let’s try to do it remotely. Let’s see if we can troubleshoot and triage and diagnose, as you said, before we make the commitment to travel on-site.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. It’s an important tool to put companies in a position of power in terms of what they’re capable of and being strategic in making the decision of how and when they opt to provide service in a touchless way or in a on-site way. So when we talk about touchless service, I think my mind just naturally defaults to augmented reality remote assistance, because that’s what I’ve discussed the most this year. But there are certainly other tools that folks need to be aware of. So what other touchless tools should companies be considering as a part of their strategy or toolbox?

Michael Blumberg: Yeah. Great question. So, I think it’s any tool that is going to enable self-service or take the touch requirement to be an in-person on-site out of the equation. So yeah, we could think of things like just a basic telephone call, right? That’s the remote assistance, although that’s not what we’re talking about. We could do go to use video conferencing as a tool. You talked about virtual existence and augmented reality, but we can also talk about look at full-blown augmented reality solutions. They make use of CAD drawings and digital twins as part of the solution. Connected to an IOT platform, that would allow a company to deliver touchless service. We can also consider a self-service tools like knowledge basis.

Michael Blumberg: I think I just described the gamut from a simple telephone call to a solution where you’ve got IOT platform with sensors, and it’s running an AR algorithm to determine whether you should dispatch a technician or notify the customer that support is required. And then perhaps using an AR session to deliver the service to the customer without dispatching a technician.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. Yeah. There’s a lot of options, which is exciting. So the other topic that I think is probably… So to me, the most interesting parts of this discussion are what’s the strategy in terms of how do companies operationalize touchless service in a way that works cohesively with the ability to go on-site if and when it’s needed? So that’s what we just spoke about. The other aspect of this that I know is really top of mind for the industry is looking beyond COVID. So again, there’s companies that are right now relying on touchless service a lot or entirely to deliver service in the midst of this situation.

Sarah Nicastro: But after the fact, one of the biggest considerations for folks is, how do we monetize remote service as a part of the service offering? Okay. So I actually just… I knew we were recording this today, and I just had a conversation this morning where this came up and it’s a huge, huge, huge consideration. So what are your thoughts or advice for people on how do you make this a part of the service offering in a way that ideally it drives revenue?

Michael Blumberg: Yes, Sarah. That’s a great question. And it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, because I love to help companies monetize service offerings and grow their top-line service revenue, and use tools and technology to achieve that outcome. I think monetizing is going to really depend on the product and the industry. I think there’s some times where a manufacturer might find, or even a service provider, like an independent service provider, that it might be in their best interest to not charge for the touchless service. But there’s other times where they might find there’s definitely a value proposition to do that in the use case. But to get there, to get to the monetization, there’s a couple of steps I think the company needs to consider or take into account.

Michael Blumberg: First, I think they really need to gain clarity about the value in the use of the tool. They really need to be able to clearly articulate to the customer what it will do. What’s the benefit it will do? Why should they use it? What advice will they get? Not advice, what value will they get out of it? Will it save time? Will it improve productivity? Will it increase uptime? So they’ve got to be able to talk about it in those terms, because without those terms, there’s no value. If there’s no value, nobody’s going to pay for it. You can’t monetize it.

Michael Blumberg: The second thing is, I think it’s really important that they conduct market research to validate there’s a value in use, and customers are willing to pay for the solution. But we don’t want to force things on customers. It’ll fall flat on our face. Anyone who does will fall flat on their face, and likely what’s going to happen is they’re going to say, “Yeah, we tried it. There’s no value. We can’t charge for it.” No. They just didn’t do their proper due diligence. So conduct the market research to validate the value in use that there’s a level of interest in it, and they’re willing to pay.

Michael Blumberg: Third step is construct offerings, different offerings at different price points. And determine what kind of customers are going to buy, based on those offerings and price points. So there’s some research upfront, and then some research after you develop the offerings. I would suggest anyone who’s considering doing the research, they should do focus groups as well as surveys. So maybe focus groups to get the customers involved. Get their feedback qualitatively, what do they think about it? How much are they willing to pay? Get some ideas, and then validate that through large scale research efforts, like a telephone survey or email survey. But then when you have all that knowledge about what it is you’re going to offer, and the customers want it and they’re willing to pay for it, you got an idea of the price point. And then, of course, you want to conduct your market sizing and forecast on the market that there’s a market. How big is it? How fast is it growing? How much of that you can penetrate?

Michael Blumberg: And then the last step, of course, is your go-to-market plan. How do you take it to market? Are you going to pilot-test it first? Do you have some beta customers or are you going to roll it out full-scale all at once? Probably the best thing is a pilot, but each company has to make their own decision until they do it.

Sarah Nicastro: Sure. Sure. Yeah. I like the point you made about… The way I took it was speaking their language, right? So this is a mistake that I see companies make time and time again, is using internal terms to describe an external value proposition. Right?

Michael Blumberg: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sarah Nicastro: So, “Hey, we’re now we’re doing touchless service.” Well, touchless service might not sound appealing to a customer that likes to consider themselves high touch. Do you know what I mean?

Michael Blumberg: Right.

Sarah Nicastro: So remote resolution might be a better way to put it or, “We can solve your problems faster,” or, “We can guarantee X result for you,” or what have you. I think it’s something that oftentimes doesn’t even necessarily change the tools used, the steps taken, or the execution of what’s being discussed, but has an incredibly important impact on the outcome of the project’s success in terms of how it’s received by the end customer. I think it’s a really important point to have people remember that there is most often a difference between how you talk about this and sell this and plan for this internally, and the vernacular you need to use with your customers and how you need to sell it externally.

Michael Blumberg: Yeah. I agree 100%, Sarah. You point to two things. One is what I call the difference between having a production orientation versus a market orientation or customer orientation. Companies that don’t do a good job at monetizing their service or selling offerings is they’re talking to the customer in terms of what works for them. You call that internal. I call that production they’re talking about. How difficult is it for us to deliver service? So we’ve introduced this new tool to make it easier for us. That’s taking production internal orientation to the extreme. Versus the market orientation is, “Look at what this can do for you.”

Sarah Nicastro: Right. Okay.

Michael Blumberg: And I think the other thing is that too many companies use buzzwords. They pick an industry term and say that’s what it is. In the research that I’ve done recently on touchless service, I find the companies that are really getting their customers to embrace it and adopt it and use it and engage it have branded it themselves. They’re not saying, it’s a AR solution from this company, it’s they’ve given it their own brand name. I think that makes a difference.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. So how would you describe or summarize the opportunity for touchless service in a post-pandemic world?

Michael Blumberg: Well, I think it provides a trifecta of value in this post-product pandemic world. It dramatically improves customer experience. We’re finding that the end customer likes this ability to get touchless service, to get service fast, to have somebody walk them through the solution. I know I had that occur to me when I had a problem with my cable TV. We had a touchless service experience. It optimizes service delivery, so you can do more with less, because you don’t have to necessarily send the technician on-site. You could do it remotely. You can also be more productive and efficient, because you’re doing the triage. You’re doing the troubleshooting remotely and you get a better chance of knowing exactly what’s going on. Because you could see and observe it.

Michael Blumberg: In the past, you had to do it based on somebody’s description of it. And maybe there is some language issues, or what have you. Or just they weren’t describing it in a way that the expert on the other end knew what they’re talking about and vice versa. And then the third benefit is, we just talked about it, generates a new source of revenue for companies.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s going to be really cool to see this evolve and to see companies navigate some of these things we’re talking about, in terms of how to incorporate this into their operation and how to monetize it and how to evolve those relationships with their customers and things like that. We talked a little bit earlier about this increased openness to change that we have both recognized this year with what’s going on. What advice would you give folks on how to make the most of that attitude that exists right now? How could they capitalize on the fact that people are a little bit more open-minded right now than they maybe were before this situation?

Michael Blumberg: Yeah, sure. Yeah. As we discussed earlier that while the pandemic was putting these external pressures on us, that external pressure led us collectively to look at how do we make sure everyone’s safe? How do we make sure we still get the job done? How do we make sure we still serve the customer? And most importantly, how do we look after one another? I think in the most simplest terms, it’s how do we look after each other? How do we make sure we don’t spread germs to somebody, we don’t spread the virus to somebody? So part of it is like, “Let’s protect ourselves. Let’s look at what’s in for us,” but also how do we help the other person? So we could learn from that and look at applying that idea, that concept to any new technology or any new desire for change. It ultimately gets down to really being clear about the why we’re doing something and answering for us and for others, what’s in it for us all, collectively?

Sarah Nicastro: That’s a good point. And like we talked about just in the question before, that answer is going to be different depending on which stakeholder you’re looking at, right?

Michael Blumberg: Exactly. What you’re getting into.

Sarah Nicastro: So going back to, in terms of… Yes, exactly. In their own language. Yes.

Michael Blumberg: Exactly. Yeah.

Sarah Nicastro: Good. All right, Michael. Any final comments, thoughts, advice, words of wisdom that you would want to share with our audience?

Michael Blumberg: Yeah. Yeah. I’m happy to do that. So when I talk to companies who have really powered through the pandemic, and even during the darkest periods, they seem to be doing okay. They’re getting by. They had customers. They were delivering service. Versus other companies that were struggling and even still struggling today. Now some of them, it might be because they’re in industries that are just unfortunately not doing well. But I saw other companies and spoke to other companies where the same industry, one company is doing really well through this, has customers, delivering service, generating revenue, making profit, and others are stalled. And I think what it comes down to is those companies that were stalled, were stalled all the time. It’s just as they say, “High tides raise all boats.” And so low tides prevent the boats from going out in the ocean.

Michael Blumberg: That’s what was happening. Companies that, and that’s what had happened. And so companies that are doing well were agile. They’re agile companies. They had contingency plans. They were anticipating the change may happen. It was just a matter of when. Those who weren’t, quite the opposite. So I think that’s the takeaway is, do your best to be agile, have contingency plans, be ready for change, expect change to happen.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep. Very good. All right. Well, thank you for that, Michael. And thank you for being with us today. I really appreciate it.

Michael Blumberg: Sure. It’s my pleasure, Sarah. Thank you.

Sarah Nicastro: You can find more on how companies have been navigating COVID-19 complexity and how they’re preparing for the post-pandemic world by visiting us at FutureofFieldService.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn as well as Twitter at The future of FS. The Future of Field Service podcast is published in partnership with IFS. You can learn more about IFS service management by visiting www.ifs.com. As always, thank you for listening.