I am a creature of the retail world, having spent my young and early professional life in it, both directly as an hourly employee, and then indirectly in advisement to some large retail brands. Because of that, it’s something that I talk about here frequently. Most of the discussions that I’ve had have been about the actual retail go-to-market strategy for retail organizations: Where service can fit in their current day-to-day operations. This means focusing in most instances on service rather than field service, utilizing what physical space is available to provide experiences for customers who are standing on your property.

Field operations, as they relate to retail, usually fall into two categories: building physical infrastructure for delivery, repair, and installation services, or the act of delivering service to retailers. Having discussed the latter in some detail, let’s focus on the expansion of companies towards delivering actual field operations outside of retail.

It’s easy to see this in a binary—the only field service you could provide, as a bookseller, for instance, is a product delivery service. But is that the only service that you could provide? Are there opportunities to servitize the book-buying process, perhaps through subscription-based book clubs that provide books to members each month and organizes and runs their meetings, perhaps in partnership with local catering? The technology potential and intersectionality of local businesses have finally caught up with the ambitions of business owners…let’s not stifle out-of-the-box thinking now.

Obviously I can say things like this without consequence, since I don’t need to find the money, resources, and infrastructure to make it happen. With that in mind, let’s talk about some of the logistical considerations that could help connect the dots.

Appropriating field workers

How does one “staff up” for field operations? How do you manage the vehicular costs, material costs, and labor costs associate with these sorts of additions to your workflow? Why, the same way you do everything else of course. Resource planning and logistics shouldn’t be a new tenet for your business, and these new additions should slot alongside them with ease. If they don’t, you need to evaluate the tools that you’re using to manage these systems in the first place.

Schedules for field employees aren’t the same, obviously, as in-store staff, and it’ll be up to you to decide if these two (or more) roles warrant different types of talent to inhabit those roles. If so, they should sit side-by-side on a time sheet, with similar expectations, appropriately divergent goals, and compensation commensurate with skill and out-of-pocket expenses (if any). If your in-house staff can also manage your field operations, can you hybridize their day, allocating some time to in-store work, and some time to field work? How can you make this equitable? How can you conform to labor laws? Good software and mobile oversight will help you.

On-site points-of-sale

As a retail employee, my job was never to ring out customers, bag items, deliver exceptional customer service, or show customers where a product was. My job was the up-sell. At Gamestop, I was hawking preorders and magazine subscriptions. When I worked for Apple, it was their various service programs, whether it be AppleCare, which still exists, or MobileMe and One to One, neither of which exist any longer. Checkout can be managed by a mobile phone, or, if you’re Amazon, an elaborate system of motion-sensor cameras. The value of a retail employee is how much additional money and loyalty they can bring into the organization. This doesn’t stop when they step off your property (assuming they’re still on the clock, of course).

Setting field sales goals that are realistic and respectful is a key to making field operations viable for any business, but certainly for retail. For that reason, field workers need to have point-of-sale access on mobile devices—this should include full inventory, the ability to allocate inventory, remit payment, and schedule follow-ups for delivery if appropriate. This sort of connection to backoffice processes is the bare minimum of successful field operations. Your field workers can’t waste your customer’s time calling to check on inventory or whether or not you can get something. They need it at their fingertips.

Where does all this tech live?

There are basically three ways that point-of-sale, navigation, and appointment management (and the dozens of other things you might need in the field) can be put into the hands of field technicians: Proprietary devices, company-supplied consumer mobile devices, and employee-provided devices (BYOD). Is there a right or wrong way to do any of these things? Probably not, but it’s important to think about what works best for your purposes.

If you’re bought into a proprietary point-of-sale system, a proprietary device might seem like the best option, but obviously if you’re running service-oriented applications on the device, they need to be compatible—and natively compatible—or the system loses any value. What’s the point in deploying a mobile version of a proprietary technology if it can’t do what you need the mobile solution to do in the first place.

We’re at a point where, from a mobility perspective, consumer devices typically fit the bill just fine. Whether you own the devices centrally or you rely on employee devices typically comes down to the economics. The value of centrally managing devices is that you can have a few phones or tablets that are picked up and returned centrally, and you can control the operating system, applications, and what apps the device actually has on it. With BYOD, there are mobile device management overlays that can help regulate company-owned applications, but you’re still treading in difficult waters if you’re messing with an end user’s property.

In the end, the technology is a means to an end, and while field operations might not be the defining facet of retail, for many businesses, it could be exactly what sets them apart and keeps them viable.

Tom Paquin

Contributor, Future of Field Service