A Candid Conversation with a Field Service Workforce Management Leader

TEC’s recent series of tutorial articles—“Navigating Between Service Management Scylla & Charybdis” and “The Magic Behind Planning and Executing (Optimal) Service Supply Chains”—have drawn solid interest and valuable feedback, both publicly and privately. The series on general workforce management (WFM) systems (i.e., not necessarily only in field service), entitled “Integrated Workforce Management (WFM) Platforms: Fact or Fiction?” ran along similar lines.

The software vendor whose work and solutions have largely inspired the first two series is ClickSoftware Technologies (NASDAQ: CKSW). With its recent acquisitions and internal development, ClickSoftware also has some connection to the latter series on general WFM considerations. Specifically, from its roots and expertise in field service workforce scheduling and optimization (i.e., via its flagship ClickSchedule product), ClickSoftware has evolved to become the leading provider of automated WFM and optimization solutions for every size of service business. Its portfolio of solutions, available both on-demand and on-premise, creates business value through higher levels of productivity, customer satisfaction, and operational efficiency.

Thus, despite the challenging macro environment, ClickSoftware has lately achieved strong growth across almost all metrics, such as increasing revenues, greater non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) net earnings, and expanding cash reserves. These results demonstrate the strong value proposition that the company brings to its customers in this service economy, enabling them to improve workforce productivity at a time when virtually everyone must find ways of doing more with less.

ClickSoftware’s patented concept of “continuous planning and scheduling” to cover the entire service lifecycle management (SLM) realm incorporates customer demand forecasting, long- and short-term service capacity planning, shift planning, real-time scheduling, and mobility and location-based services (LBS), as well as ongoing communication with the consumer on the expected arrival time of the service resource. Its Service Optimization Suite of products logically comprises multiple modules to cover all those bases (i.e., ClickSchedule, ClickMobile, ClickPlan, ClickLocate, etc.), and these products can be purchased stand-alone or bundled.

Q&A with ClickSoftware
For more information on ClickSoftware, see the company’s Web site, and look for an extensive article series, coming soon from TEC, that will analyze the company’s strengths and weaknesses. What follows here is our candid question and answer (Q&A) session with the company’s Senior Vice President of Product Strategy, Israel Beniaminy, and Vice President of Global Marketing, Simon Morris. Both individuals have been with the company for over a decade, and have become two of the leading experts in planning and scheduling technology in the service sector.

TEC: In addition to ClickSoftware’s support for all aspects of service planning and scheduling and to your well-known concepts such as “real-time service enterprise” and “drip-feed management,” are there any other particular capabilities that you offer that no one else has on the market?

SM: I can think of the following differentiating traits for ClickSoftware’s suite of products:

  • It covers a large variety of scheduling challenges—from simple tasks requiring one person for a part of one day, to complex, “project-like” jobs involving crews, composed of many steps over a number of days or weeks; from one homogenous workforce to workforces composed of different groups, each with its own business rules, or work that is fully or partially subcontracted to third parties; from proactive to reactive work; and much more. And now, we have also added shift scheduling (rostering) to the spectrum of challenges that we handle.
  • All its products are configurable via visual dialogs, designers, and wizards—which supports the suite’s high flexibility and expressive power and eases maintenance (e.g., changes to business data models and rules are made once and then propagated to planning, scheduling, mobility, and other modules).
  • We have the world’s largest groups dedicated to developing and delivering field service management. By our count, we have more people in our research and development (R&D) and professional services groups than any other vendor, by far, when looking at comparable roles and products. This indicates both the level of investment in product capabilities and quality as well as our large customer base.
  • The customer can choose between on-premise and on-demand deployment models.
  • Our professional services implementation methodology is driven by the principle of “When I See (it), I Know (it)” (WISIK). We emphasize using a simplified, visible, and best-practice approach. It streamlines the requirement-gathering and solution-building process to ensure it is done in a standard, structured, and efficient manner. By streamlining the way we gather requirements while using our configurable product, we will soon get to the WISIK point, where our clients looks at the application and say, “I see it, I know it, and that’s what I want.”

TEC: How far along are you in unifying your products on the same platform?

IB: All of our organically developed products are on the same platform. We acquired some rostering (shift management) technology (AiPoint) in 2009, which we’re now at the last stages of completing the merging with our organically developed rostering product development. We also acquired a multitenant software as a service (SaaS) solution for small service organizations (ServiceTycoon), which is currently running on a separate platform from our Service Optimization Suite.

TEC: Can you elaborate on whether your flagship suite will be going multitenant SaaS or on-demand?

IB: First, please note that for small workforces we already have a multitenant SaaS solution: ServiceTycoon (mentioned earlier).

We believe that our model—via virtualization and sharing of services such as database access—is the right solution for enterprises, which require significant configuration, guaranteed response times, complex integration, and security. In this case, there isn’t any significant cost penalty for not being purely multitenant, since most enterprises require at least the computing power of one server (and typically several servers). This is in contrast to the more familiar SaaS scenario where one server has enough power to handle dozens, hundreds, or thousands of customers.

ClickSoftware believes that the hosted single-tenant subscription model is a good choice for many field service management and mobile workforce management (MWFM) scenarios, and it is now more than mature enough to merit serious consideration by service organizations looking for such solutions.

TEC: Why has scheduling in field force thrived for all this time, which is not the case with advanced planning and scheduling (APS) in manufacturing?

SM: We’re not sure, but here’s one guess: Some (or most) manufacturing involves people and machines, which are dedicated to specific tasks for a long period of time. For example, a vehicle production line can’t switch several times a day between making passenger cars, sports cars, and motorcycles. Therefore the amount of scheduling decisions made every day is small enough to be done quickly and reliably by one manager.

In contrast, field service involves continuous juggling of thousands of decisions: which technician is assigned to which task, at what time, etc. Making these decisions and then changing them in real time as new information arrives (e.g., cancellations, delays, emergency jobs) requires sophisticated software.

TEC: What were the major highlights and messages from your recent user conference ClickConnect North America 2010?

SM: Firstly, we had record numbers of delegates at the event, which was pleasing. From the five customer presentations that took place, a clear message to emerge was the substantial return on investment (ROI) that is generated from our products. However, to achieve this ROI requires strong change management programs to be put in place in order to get buy-in from the field, as well as executive support.

One of the strongest themes was the depth and breadth of our mobility suite. Terry Stepien, president of Sybase iAnywhere, attended and spoke at the conference. Here are some of his comments on our recently announced partnership:

By implementing ClickSoftware’s mobile applications on components of the Sybase mobility platform, the service industry benefits from an integrated offering from two industry leaders: proven mobility infrastructure from Sybase and proven mobile applications from ClickSoftware. This partnership will transform ClickSoftware’s customers through highly productive enterprise mobility solutions. We look forward to growing this partnership into 2011 and beyond.

There was also a lot of interest in the launch of ClickMobile Professional, our Web-based client that combines online operations with offline capabilities using HTML5 technologies. The application runs on iPhone, Android phones, BlackBerry Torch, and more. In fact, we had our mobile application running on Apple’s iPad and iPhone at the event, which attracted a lot of interest. We are finding so many of our customers and prospects evaluating their mobility strategy, and we believe we are well positioned to capitalize on this interest and their requirements.

TEC: What is your mobility strategy (technology and platforms supported), perhaps in light of the SAP and Sybase merger and your strategic relationship with SAP?

SM: Around 2004 we made a key architectural decision for our mobility products, which is the basis for our strategy:

(a) For mobility infrastructure services (connection management, device management, data security and transfer, mobile data base, and so on), our mobile products will rely on products from industry leaders such as IBM, Microsoft, Sybase, and others.
(b) ClickSoftware’s own development will focus on what we do best: end-user business applications, including a set of tools to develop such applications by us and our partners and customers (ClickMobile Studio).

This decision makes it easy for us to support multiple infrastructure platforms. Today, our mobility products run on infrastructure platforms by Microsoft, IBM, and Sybase.

Our goal is to dominate the mobile business application layer for the service sector. You may recall that ClickSoftware is the pioneer of the two most fundamental concepts for running a modern service operation: service chain optimization and real-time service enterprise. With the broadest and deepest domain expertise for a wide spectrum of service industry verticals, ClickSoftware created mobility business applications supporting the needs of service companies of all sizes, and this we believe will enable us to achieve our strategic goals.

TEC: Although many trends have lately been positive for ClickSoftware, what issues are keeping you awake at night? For example, are you afraid of large enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors such as Oracle, IFS, Lawson, UNIT4 Agresso, or Epicor eating your lunch? What about pure-play service vendors such as Servigistics, Ventyx, ServicePower, and Astea?

SM: Competition is always a threat, though merger and acquisitions activity in our market (most recently, ABB’s acquisition of Ventyx) has reduced this threat to some extent. One of our main challenges is scaling up to the next level: As we’ve shown repeatable growth of around 20 percent per year, we’re continually reviewing our internal workforce planning and structure as well as our ecosystem to make sure we can meet the needs of all our new customers and partners. This involves continuously improving products, raising our training capacity, and enabling partners to sell and deploy our solutions, among other challenges.

TEC: What can you say about your win/loss ratio in your competitive landscape?

SM: In our core business we believe that our win/loss ratio is around 40%. We see a deep dichotomy in the types of solutions offered for field service. Some solutions focus on managing the operation; that is, decisions are made manually, but they are made using software that automates the gathering and distribution of data and decisions and automates the workflow steps resulting from any decision made.

Other solutions both manage the operation and automatically make decisions—so any new data may automatically trigger algorithms that make new decisions and modify earlier decisions. A typical example: a technician reports that the current job will take much longer time than expected. As a result, the technician’s next job is in jeopardy.

Solutions of the first kind may do nothing, or may highlight the problem for a human to handle. Solutions of the second kind will look for another technician, check whether that technician has the necessary skills and parts, and if necessary find a way to get the required part to that new technician. This change may trigger a cascade of additional schedule changes. Humans just can’t handle such a cascade cost-effectively.

As always, there are gray areas—some solutions fall somewhere between these two types. For example, many scheduling products claim automatic real-time changes to the schedule based on new data. However, such changes are often quite limited—they may occur only at fixed intervals throughout the day, or may be limited in the options available for automatic change: Can they bring in low-priority maintenance tasks when a task is cancelled? Can they find a crew member assigned to a long-duration project who can step in to handle a small task, while not harming the productivity of the crew he or she belongs to? Can they step slightly into overtime? Do they consider the currently assigned tasks and expected additional workload when setting appointments, or do they use statically defined “buckets” of capacity? Can they modify earlier dispatching decisions to make room for a new appointment?

The list could be much longer, but the point is clear: If the automated changes have limited scope compared with what human dispatchers are routinely expected to manage, then most exceptions will be handled manually. The solution is “managing the operation” rather than “automatically making decisions.”

We at ClickSoftware believe that we are by far the leading solution of the second type, whether the comparison is done by technology, proven deployments, partnerships, or any other criteria. This focus on decision-making also appears at levels higher than operations, in strategic and tactical planning, via our analytics, forecasting, and planning capabilities. We also have a highly capable solution for customers who want to start with “managing the operation” before moving into decision automation.

We believe that ClickSoftware, having the industry’s largest R&D, professional services, and support workforces dedicated to field service, and the industry’s largest number of enterprise customers using optimized scheduling and dispatch (whether counting by deals or number of technicians), as well as large and active customer and partner communities, enjoys strong differentiators in this market.

The Inevitable Banter about the Competition
Many analysts, and even (begrudgingly) competitors, will admit ClickSoftware’s supremacy in terms of scheduling and optimizing field service workforces. However, competitors such as Servigistics, Astea, Ventyx, Oracle, and SERVICEPower, will point out that their offerings have a much broader footprint of strategic service management (SSM) or service lifecycle management (SLM).

In other words, ClickSoftware offers only a best-of-breed niche application within a full end-to-end SLM solution. Indeed, ClickSoftware does not address contracts, invoices, spare parts planning and pricing, enterprise asset management (EAM), customer relationship management (CRM), maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO), inventory management, and so on, unless, of course, it comes bundled with SAP or IBM Maximo.

As a result, ClickSoftware has been driving its success by partnering with SAP since 2008, with SAP reselling its applications as the “SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization application by ClickSoftware.” ClickSoftware has also been partnering with Microsoft Dynamics for its prepackaged midmarket ClickIMRS solution. In the long term, SAP and Microsoft clients have to be concerned that at some point in the future SAP and Microsoft may choose to go in another direction, and their upgrade rights will force clients to follow that decision. There is also the very real potential of ClickSoftware being acquired, by SAP or another larger provider (but when is there not for a niche company these days)?

Another line of caveats might come from the relative nascence of ClickSoftware’s Mobility Suite of applications, as compared with those of Ventyx and Syclo. Let’s tackle these concerns piecemeal.

TEC: For example, Ventyx Service Suite has many thousands of users (more than 100,000 users) reliably using Ventyx’s system over many years and many releases, as opposed to ClickMobile, which is just a year or two in existence. In other words, potential ClickMobile customers should ask themselves, “Is the solution proven, reliable, and practical where the rubber meets the road?”

SM: Well, I can’t comment on Ventyx’s numbers, but here are some numbers of our own: From the end of 2008 (when the offering started being offered in earnest) to the end of 2009, ClickMobile added 15,000 users, representing 16 new corporate customers. The first couple of months of 2010 saw an even higher rate of users being added. As far as we know, no other competitor experienced such a rise. In fact, some of the new ClickMobile customers made their decision after shelving the solutions they had acquired from ClickMobile competitors (e.g., because their mobile platforms are old and/or proprietary, whereas ClickMobile is flexible in supporting a range of devices), so a correct calculation should deduct those users from the number of customers claimed by our competitors.

Also, 15,000 users at 16 customers is almost 1,000 users per customer—surely not mere pilot projects. Please note that for many of those customers, these are initial orders, which we expect to be followed by additional deployments to other mobile workforces within these companies.

TEC: Some folks believe that your nascent service dispatch and mobility solutions (and, therefore, your clients) will encounter major scalability issues as the numbers of dispatchers and field technicians grow.

IB: The key point here is that the existing deployments already prove the scalability of our solutions. Moreover:

  • This scalability was not achieved by counting on luck. ClickSoftware has made large investments in teams, equipment, and rigorous processes (externally audited and certified to meet International Organization for Standardization [ISO] 9001 quality standards) for scalability and reliability testing. When prospects visit our R&D labs, they are invariably impressed, and it is our understanding that no competitor meets such standards of scalability verification. We will be glad to host analysts for a tour of these facilities and a demonstration of our quality and scalability testing. The test facilities are also used by customer deployment projects in preparation for the actual deployment, so there is a high level of confidence that the solutions will maintain their performance as the load grows.
  • ClickMobile uses the same infrastructure as the other components of our suite, such as ClickSchedule, so it builds on over a decade of field-proven, scalable architecture with high levels of scalability robustness (e.g., even when one or more of the servers fail, the load is immediately and automatically balanced across the other servers).

TEC: What is your answer to the assertion that you are not an “end-to-end strategic service” application suite?

IB: In terms of providing a wider SSM or SLM footprint, we do that via strategic partnerships with SAP, IBM, and other partners, where our interoperability helps. But we beg to differ with any insinuations that ClickSoftware does not have proven products for all of the components of an enterprise MWFM solution (such as scheduling, dispatch, mobile, wireless, and reporting and analysis). We will be glad to refer you (and anyone else) to our many customers that use all of those components supplied by ClickSoftware.

Further components along this dimension, which as far as we know aren’t offered by competitors, include systems such as ClickContact (for enabling self-service in setting appointments and “push” and “pull” notifications to the customer regarding the expected arrival time of field technicians and more); support of a large range of mobile devices (laptops, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and smart phones; note that some of our competitors still don’t support newer versions of Windows and Windows Mobile); support for many types of work, even when performed by the same workforce (from large jobs requiring crews, specialized equipment, multiple interdependent steps, and days or weeks, to quick one-person tasks; combining proactive and reactive work; scheduling and dispatching asset management, inspection, installation and repair tasks; and so on).

In addition to the above dimension, ClickSoftware also has end-to-end service across the planning, scheduling, and execution stages, via a closed cycle of forecasting, planning, scheduling, dispatching, execution, and analytics. ClickSoftware holds a key patent for this, and many of our customers have deployed the full end-to-end processes to maintain optimal balance between their workload and their capacity—for today, next week, or next quarter.

TEC: Given that ClickSoftware develops its scheduling and optimization software for a wide variety of industries, aren’t you diluting your effectiveness in industries with very specific requirements, such as utilities and communications? Coming back to the example of Ventyx, it develops applications solely for the utility (especially nuclear power) and communications industries, and its applications cover a wider footprint than any of its competitors. And, these solutions cover all field service work, top to bottom: construction, inspections, maintenance, outage/leaks, customer/meter service, etc. (See TEC’s previous blog post on the exacting needs of electric utilities.)

SM: We are proud of the fact that we succeeded in building a configurable architecture that has met the needs of more than just one or two industries. We would go even further and claim that if a solution isn’t configurable and flexible enough to allow its use in a similar industry to the industry it was planned for, then soon enough it will probably fail to meet even the needs of that industry it was planned for. In any case, we believe that our long and extensive track record in utilities and telcos proves our domain expertise in these verticals.

This applies not only to our scheduling solutions but also to our mobility and dispatch solutions. In fact, utilities and telcos account for over half our installed base for ClickMobile. In each of these deals we faced competing solutions, and it is hard to imagine that the customers awarded us these deals without satisfying themselves regarding our domain expertise.

TEC: Not only competitors and analysts but also some ClickSchedule users have claimed that the product is complicated and difficult to understand and work with, at least initially. (Certainly, your implementations take several months on average.) What is your take on that assertion?

IB: We normally are praised for our ease of use and intuitive processes, so I am not sure where this criticism is coming from. In any case, let me try to break this issue into the following two subissues:

  1. Ease of deployment: It is true that deploying an enterprise-class WFM solution, whether focusing on the scheduling side, the mobility side, or both, is a project involving change management, integration, configuration, testing, training, etc. We have reasons to believe that we excel in helping our customers deploy such solutions quickly and reliably. We’ll be glad to compare our track record with that of our competitors. In fact, we believe that our advantage in this area is even more distinctive when comparing mobility deployment projects. In some of our recent deals, we replaced competing products when they were found to be too expensive and limited when it came to customizing them for user requirements.
  2. Ease of use: Again, we believe that we deliver excellent user experience, especially with the latest advancements in that regard. For example, we recently launched a new set of Web clients for our scheduling and dispatch solutions, with highly dynamic and configurable workflows; and our widget-based mobile user interface has enabled us to keep adding useful features while making the most frequently used operations just a click away. Another remarkable new functionality is the intuitive schedule policy tuning tool we recently introduced. Generally, and also specifically for our mobility solutions, we often hear from prospects and customers that this is one of our strengths. We’ll be glad to demonstrate and provide references.

TEC: Conversely, at the lower end of the market, there are products such as ServiceMax (formerly Maxplore, which embeds the Salesforce Chatter collaborative social tool) and Epicor Mobile Field Service (following the Spectrax acquisition in 2009). Will these solutions give you a run for your money?

SM: I don’t think so: It is certainly possible that they will compete against us on the lower end of the market, where the need for advanced scheduling, optimization, mobility, forecasting, etc. is lower. However, this competition is likely to expand the number of deals rather than have the competitors fight for a limited number of deals. One item of evidence: Gartner has stated that the growth of the MWFM software market is hampered by the lack of companies focusing on this area. As for the mid to high end of the market, the bar is being set higher every year. Over the past five years we have seen consistent increase in the sophistication that clients ask for in their requests for proposals (RFPs)—e.g., real-time optimization that integrates data from hand-held devices, global positioning system (GPS), and other sources, or, for instance, the ability to run under one application the full spectrum of job types with a mix of resources, such as multistage jobs requiring multiperson teams for jobs of variable duration (days, weeks, or months).

TEC: In parting, can you volunteer any information on the company’s future moves, such as new functional scope (e.g., EAM or MRO or repair depots) or new vertical markets?

SM: We aim to capitalize on our assets by executing the following actions:

  • Expanding our geographic presence
  • Enhancing our mobility solution
  • Expanding into the shift-planning market
  • Marketing our SaaS solutions (cloud computing)
  • Continuing to support and expand revenue generation through partners

The methodology for all of the above remains intact: both through organic growth and via acquisitions.


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