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September 6, 2023 | 15 Mins Read

Balancing Today’s Business Needs with Preparation for the Future of Field Service

September 6, 2023 | 15 Mins Read

Balancing Today’s Business Needs with Preparation for the Future of Field Service


In a session from the Future of Field Service Live Tour stop in Dusseldorf, Sarah talks with Jan Helge Bruemmer, Global Field Service Manager, Global Service Operations at Alfa Laval about striking the appropriate balance between investing in the future with what’s required for today’s (short-term) performance, especially when those two things seem to be at odds.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So, the real question of the day is, how do we balance today's needs with innovating and preparing for the future? This is the tightrope back to you all are walking. So, before we get into that, tell everyone a little bit about yourself, your role, Alfa Laval, and we'll go from there.

Jan Helge Bruemmer: Yeah. All right. So, Alfa Laval is a Swedish machine building company focusing on heat transfer, mechanical fluid separation, fluid handling. So, that's the traditional way of explaining that. That nowadays comes, of course, with a big focus on sustainability, energy consumption, water consumption, waste, heat recovery, and so on and so forth. So, that's that. I am then responsible for our global field service operations. My background is also a bit from the sales side. So, I've always been in service, but then also responsible for both the commercial side of things, but also the execution. Moved around a bit, lived in South America for five years, then in France for three years plus, sometime now in the new role. But working now centrally for our headquarters.

Sarah Nicastro: Excellent. So, I think everyone here to some degree has the challenge of balancing short-term business objectives, hitting the numbers, reaching the goals of today with thinking ahead what will service look like in two years, three years, five years. And I have a lot of respect for that balancing act, because it's a really, really tough one. What do you feel are the biggest barriers to striking that right balance? What do you find most challenging?

Jan Helge Bruemmer: I mean if you look at a company, a manufacturing company as a whole, I don't even think it is a challenge as such. I mean, we have senior managers everywhere that... I mean you have the macrotrends and so on, and you try to be in advance and I mean be on those sustainability trains, for example. I think the tricky thing with service then, and we talked earlier about service being its own business entity, profit center. Service as such is very profitable. It is then also very short term. I mean, the moment you start investing in service, you add service salespeople, you invest in service capabilities, as such, you have an immediate result. And that, of course, when we look on that as a business, I mean we also go into certain investments with that mindset, that they pay off quite fast. And that maybe sometimes makes us lose patience when it comes to the really long-term service related investments.

Sarah Nicastro: So, what are some of the things that you feel have a faster payoff versus some of the things that are more of a longer term objective?

Jan Helge Bruemmer: I mean, if we split a bit like the service, I mean we have all the spare parts business, like the traditional after sales. And we have maybe then the service execution part, and here we have this huge people aspect that goes into that. So, I think, again, focusing on service sales is normally an immediate payoff. I mean, I know from my times being responsible for commercial things, I mean you visit a customer, you talk about service and spare parts and maintenance and those more standard things. You always walk away with a bag full of opportunities. And I mean the conversion rate is pretty high, the hit ratio is pretty high. So, that's a very easy thing to do when it comes to investment.

I think then building up that backbone, because everything you sell at some point, of course, you have to execute. We talked a bit about spare parts inventory now, but it's also the pure execution. And for a company like Alfa Laval that does rather complex technical things, for us, that is a challenge to really build up that backbone that will then really support that front sales side of things. So, I mean, investing then in field service capabilities, investing in competences, investing in the right amount of people, that is the more long-term a thing that I feel sometimes gets a bit neglected, because we have this dollar sign in the eyes and think about the short term profitability.

Sarah Nicastro: So, what do you think then, how do you fight against that? I mean, what's the mindset companies need to have to make those investments that are more on the midterm, the longterm?

Jan Helge Bruemmer: Yeah. I think it is really about getting away from this services just about fixing stuff for customers to keep the business up and running, but really to make sure that we have the long-term view and that we invest in those capabilities with a much more long-term approach. And that, of course, because services then also to a certain extent, of course, reactive. I mean we have customers calling us and they have breakdowns and problems. So, that already puts quite a big workload on our organization. So, finding that time and those resources to think more long-term is I think what's key and it's probably easier said than done.

Sarah Nicastro: So, one of the aspects of that has to be recruiting and hiring new talent. We talked today about how that's really challenging. So, how do you think doing that needs to change to fit where the industry is headed?

Jan Helge Bruemmer: Specifically talking about field service, I mean I think we all agree. I mean field service undergoes a massive transformation. I mean the way field service used to work five, 10 years ago, doesn't have a lot to do with how we're going to work in the future. So, I think the first thing is being very clear about that in the recruitment phase. And that comes, of course, with a lot of opportunities for those people that you're going to recruit. But it also comes with that clarity that you don't, I mean, promise the ideal world going forward. I mean, field service is a tough working environment in many cases. So, I think it's very important to be clear about that.

That's I think an important factor. And then, also, we talk so much about attraction and being relevant for new talent, but of course, it is also a lot about retaining the people we already have, many of those with lots of experience and coming a bit from the old days. So, how do we take those people with us on the journey? Because I mean the labor market is tough, we mentioned that several times today. So, we cannot, even if we ran by when we recruit and we attract, if we have a leakage, then in the existing organization that's, of course, also something we really have to avoid.

Sarah Nicastro: So, from a retention standpoint, if you think about the technicians that have been at Alfa Laval for quite a while, what do you think you need to be doing in terms of, you mentioned competence building, so upskilling and preparing them for the more modern day service of tomorrow?

Jan Helge Bruemmer: I think also here, I mean there are parts of the organization that has the capabilities to develop further into new roles, into new functions that represent more the modern way of field service, and then there are others that are not. Then we also need to be aware that we will not fully transform a field service, at least in our case. I mean we will always have a certain percentage of jobs that we will do on site, and that's probably, I mean even on the very long term, more than half of what we're doing. So, then it is, of course, about identifying those that want to do more. It's about showing up the career path also for those people, showing them that they have a future in field service.

I mean, so far, you're a field service engineer, you either become the team manager or the team leader, or you go into a sales role. I mean, that's basically the career path for field service. But with all those new possibilities, I mean we've been talking a lot about remote service, we've been talking about also this more advisory role for our customers. Not just go onsite, fix the machine, leave, but also I mean discuss potential sales opportunities, upgrade opportunities. I mean that is a bit where we are trying to lean into and try to build up that competence accordingly.

Sarah Nicastro: I was going to mention earlier during Nina's session and we ran out of time, when we talk about remote service, I think like you just said, there will always be onsite work. And I think that's true for most organizations. So, I think there's this misperception that when we talk about remote service, we're thinking that we should do all service remote. And I had a podcast interview a few weeks ago with a gentleman from Mettler Toledo. And I found it particularly interesting, because he said the nature of the work they do, it's virtually impossible for them to get to a point of remote resolution. That's not their goal at all.

However, they have invested in remote capabilities, because until very recently, they've had almost every initial visit just as a triage visit. So, it was almost every initial truck role was the technician just going to see what was going on, then come back, get what they need, et cetera, et cetera. So, his point is just I think sometimes we think narrowly about the capabilities that exist and don't necessarily think instead about how to apply them to our own circumstances. So, in their situation, his goal is really not at all remote resolution, it's just to understand what they're getting into when they go on site.

And if you think about the vast majority of their visits being two, just to diagnose, then to go and repair, you're eliminating 50% of those, which is tremendous when you think about resource utilization, cost savings, all of those things. So, I think that's a really important distinction. And then when we think about what could become possible with the segmentation of work, what you're talking about, and we talked a bit in one of our breakouts of with more remote service, then you think about different roles and what that could look like. You think about the trusted advisor role.

Or I've had some conversations with folks that think that it's almost a redefined customer success manager type of role. At our event in Paris a few weeks ago, we had Ravichandra Kshirasagar from Schneider Electric. And we were talking about what the company envisions the role of the frontline worker to be in 2025, 2030 and beyond. And this is going to sound super simple and it is, but it really struck me. One of the things that he pointed out is that they've just recently changed the terminology they use from field technician to service technician. And the whole point of that is because they think that in fairly short order, the technicians are going to be doing some of that remote diagnostic type of work, probably from home or maybe from an office and only onsite part of the time.

So, there's so much to imagine in terms of what these changes can look like for any given organization. I mean, the idea of coming together here isn't that anyone's going to come up and be able to give an overall blueprint. But just to think about these things, talk about these things, and get you all thinking about what's coming and how to be thinking about it, preparing for it, et cetera. One of the things that I find most exciting about how service is evolving, and when we talk about the creation of new roles and how it will shift from being less break fix, less mechanical to more of these other things, it really gives us a lot of potential to bring more diversity into the workforce. Because the nature of the role is changing and it opens it up to people that maybe haven't been a part of it before. I don't know what your thoughts are on that.

Jan Helge Bruemmer: No. And I mean all this remote service has, of course, two aspects, two sides to it. I mean, we actually started thinking about that more from a customer perspective. And I mean, reducing cost of service, travel time, increased response time and all of that. I mean, eventually, uptime, of course, customer satisfaction, but it was really from a customer perspective. And I think the other side of things is actually nowadays, I don't know if I can say more relevant, but it has definitely a very strong impact now on our thinking about going forward with remote services. And that is actually what you say the role of the field service engineer and also how that will evolve even further.

I mean, if we look at our organizations and the people that leave field service, either to external companies or also inside the company. I mean if we look at the reasons for why they want to do something else, there is always the comp and ben issue. But the number one reason for that is actually work-life balance. And I mean, the guy that has been fighting for a weekend job 10 years ago or five years ago because of the extra hours and the overtimes, well, people don't want to do that anymore.

I mean, the younger generation that comes in, I mean this free time, the regular working schedule, again, field service will never be 100% like that. But going a bit from the total chaos, from the not knowing where you're going to work tomorrow, not knowing whether you have to work the weekend to something halfway there, halfway acceptable for everyone, that will already be a big step. And I think that's key also in this ongoing talent war.

Sarah Nicastro: I think it's also important in terms of change management to frame to employees the positive ways we can use technology that will benefit them. So, it isn't just about how we can reduce cost to serve or how we can increase efficiency. We should also be looking for the lens through which we can communicate the positives to them. We had our event in the UK about a month ago, and there was a gentleman there, Adam from Mighty, and they are using IFS's planning and scheduling optimization tool. So, very AI-based, self-learning scheduling tool. And I had never heard this and I absolutely loved it. He said that one of the things that they've done, because the tool self adapts to whatever changes are happening in the inputs.

So, they've allowed each technician to choose their start and end time for each day. Simple thing, but they were saying some people want to drop their kids off at school and they don't mind staying a little bit later in the day. Others want to come in really early, but maybe be done by the time their kids come home or whatever the circumstances are. And he talked about how much that simple thing has lifted the mental health and spirits of the staff. And it's a very practical way of giving them not all the flexibility in the world, not you can work from home every day. So, it's not necessarily on par with what someone's competing against in a different type of job.

But it's taking what we have, what constrictions we have from a customer service standpoint, but also what capabilities exist to make the equation work to everyone's advantage. And I thought that was a really, really good example of framing the technology change in a way that really has benefited them personally and helped with acceptance, but also helped the employee value proposition a bit. So, what about the role of leadership in all of this change?

Jan Helge Bruemmer: Yeah. I mean, of course, as in any change process, leadership is key. It starts there. I think when we look at our landscape and our leaders in service operations, and as I said before, it's very often its former technicians that grow into that leadership role, or at some point they were just the best technicians. And then, I mean, logically they become the manager, right or wrong. But what they're very good at, and this might bring us back a bit to the topic of the conversation, I mean they are really experts in handling the daily activities, all the emergency, all the chaos, everything that's happening. I mean, historically, they're problem solvers, they're firefighters, and that's what they're good at.

What they're sometimes lacking then is, of course, the long-term vision, again. And really, I mean the preparation of the future and looking ahead and try to get on the way those things that we need in order to still be competitive. And again, I mean that externally with customers, but also internally with our people. So, I think then going one level higher, maybe the senior management's responsibility in that sense is that we need to make sure that whatever leaders we have in service operations, in field service, actually can set aside some time and some resources to really reflect about what's needed for the future, instead of just being buried in daily activities.

And whether that's the same person or if we need to bring in other people, also with really an outside perspective, I like the idea to not only have people with a field service experience and a field service leader position, but why not bring people in from sales? Why not bring in people from marketing or whatever area? But we need to be aware that in order to prepare the future, it's not possible to do that in five minutes here and there. We really need to increase the focus on that long-term. And then also, I mean the acceptance that the long-term for field service is investment and mainly in people.

I mean, we're not buying any super machines, we're not investing in R&D, we're investing in people. And that's a number of people. But that's also the awareness that learning curves are long, at least in what we are doing. So, also making sure that we give those people the time to really be prepared, to really be comfortable when they go on site, when they're in the cold water, so to speak. And that is something, again, coming back to the barriers, I mean service, short-term profitability, it's sometimes a bit of an issue there, I think.

Sarah Nicastro: I think when we first talked about this session, what you said is very true and true for a lot of folks I talked to, which is a lot of times what we say we need to do and know we need to do is at odds with what we have to do today or what we end up doing. We know that it's important, but then you get caught back in the day to day or the short term, et cetera. And it can be hard. But I think Nina said it very well this morning, which is to some degree the business case is that if you don't do some of these things, you're just not going to be in business in a few years. So, it's also, I think reminding people of that and making sure that you're not being too shortsighted. It's a balancing act, but also you can't skew too far in either direction.

Jan Helge Bruemmer: And I think here it's really about setting the right structure. I mean, again, we need to take care of the short term, of the day-to-day in service. I mean, our customers, they have issues, they have problems. They need our help to fix that. And then it's more, again, as I said before, we need maybe an additional level, an additional part of the organization thinking then more about the longterm.

Sarah Nicastro: And I've seen companies handle that different ways. I've seen companies that do okay with having their leadership set time aside and not have it be cannibalized by whatever the day's fires are. That can work for some. I've seen organizations that have a parallel innovation function that works alongside the business leaders to take some of that pressure and weight off. I've seen companies that have a center of excellence or that idea where it's more of the thinking happening there and then being communicated out and people giving feedback.

So, I don't know that there's a right way to do it, but I absolutely agree that you can't just allow yourself to be so consumed by the day-to-day that you don't put the time and effort into thinking ahead for sure. Good. And that's it. So, thank you so much. We're going to have some drinks at the bar and networking for the next hour or so. So, feel free to stay and hang out if you can. And thank you again for having me.