Mobile computing in field service operations – TCO due diligence

By Tim Eusterman, Sr. Director, Industry Marketing, Intermec.

There is no doubt that the rise of the smartphone and tablet consumer product categories are causing field service IT and operations leaders to rethink their mobile computing strategy.  These consumer-oriented devices combine a new capability of form factor and user interface, changing how people perceive mobile computing ease-of-use, convenience and personal productivity.

But for all the buzz today around "BYOD", allowing mobile workers to "bring their own device" to the job, according to Aberdeen Group's Field Service 2013, Workforce Management Guide, the bottom line remains how to deliver customer satisfaction, retention and profitability performance.  Aberdeen's study cites that "80% of revenue is driven from current customers on existing products or new products and services".

Given the critical nature of these key metrics to service business performance, one need only look to the performance of the mobile computing solutions, the real-time interface between service technician and the field support infrastructure and back office systems, to understand why choosing the right mobile computing solution is so important.   It is in this context that TCO as a means to evaluate the mobile computing investment should be applied.

Many people think that mobile computing Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is a simple and straightforward measure of the cost to own and operate a given device and maybe the added software licences.  But cost can and should be interpreted in several important ways.  The most common way to measure cost is the 'hard' cost associated with purchase or lease price, maintenance fees, data and voice plans, time and material repair costs per incident, batteries and replacement costs, chargers, accessories, etc.  These measures of cost are the easiest to compare side-by-side for given devices, accessories and associated services.  But they tell far from the whole TCO story.

Another area of cost to contemplate, admittedly a little harder to compare and generally requiring side-by-side real-life testing, are those underlying system performance costs associated with time-centric workflow measures.  Examples of such operating or workflow costs are things like first time scan read-rate, signature capture time, mobile system to host application data transfer (upload/download) response time, image focus/capture response time, battery recharge cycle times, etc.

These areas of performance related costs are often very closely tied to the underlying mobile computer technology architectures and how well it is built to match specific use case needs.  They impact user workflow performance in many ways, but often only seconds at a time.  The downside to seconds at a time is they add up to minutes, hours, days.  As Aberdeen Group points out in the above mentioned study, best-in-class performers had an "increase of 11.4% in workforce productivity over the prior 12 months."  This is why seconds matter to workforce productivity.

This workflow oriented view of service level performance above suggests another important factor of TCO – that of opportunity cost.  Opportunity cost in this case is based on understanding and assessing the value of an incomplete service call, a late or missed appointment, or the lost productivity of compiling manual logs sheets, time-and-attendance or other workforce management related activities.  Aberdeen Group's assessment of 'Best-in-Class' service companies found that these leading companies achieved an 89% first time fix rate, a 78% workforce utilisation rate, a 92% compliance with stated response times, and are 35% more likely than companies who are not best-in-class to have automated multiple workforce management capabilities.

A primary source of damaging costs in the above categories can be directly attributed to device reliability.  Or put a different way – device reliability and the costs of unexpected damage or down-time including time to reboot a device, or reload software, and/or the physical repair and/or replacement of a device needs to be a 'hard number' assumption in the TCO analysis.  All these factor into the very real costs of lost opportunity that impact customer satisfaction and retention, top line revenue and overall profitability.

And finally, considering that one of Aberdeen Group's primary recommendations in the above noted study to companies not yet in their 'best-in-class' category is to "empower field agents with mobile tools and devices and real-time access to information", it is clear that other support related costs will be critical in this TCO calculation.

Understanding the impact of deploying and supporting the operating system, browser, host application, client-side application, predictive device health monitoring, help desk, and other real-time management of field-based mobile computing solutions is no trivial matter.  Yet, it is critical to add to the TCO calculation.  There are simple questions like – how often does one expect the operating system of the mobile device to be upgraded and how will that impact my host application and database integration and client-side application?  How will one redeploy the upgrade when it happens?  And this does not speak to new workflow specific applications that companies will need to deploy within the lifetime of the mobile computing devices.  These costs are especially important when field technicians rarely if ever visit a company location where IT services can be provided and in companies are using independent agents or other contract labour.  So carefully understanding the interdependencies of all these elements on the overall IT system and support costs as part of the TCO is a critical and often underappreciated calculation.

In summary, TCO needs to be treated as a complex, but ultimately powerful investment decision tool – alongside other considerations like technician preference/acceptance, change management processes, vendor expertise and support, etc.  But ultimately, the decision on a mobile computing solution has to address the bottom line - delivering customer satisfaction, retention and profitability performance – to be successful.

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