The Power of Knowledge -- Knowledge is Power (Part 1)




The title of this blog post might sound like a no-brainer: as clear and indisputable as the “motherhood and apple pie” adage. Yet how many times have you dealt with a seemingly not-really-knowledgeable call center person over the phone or a clueless technician that showed up at your door? To be fair, maybe those folks were knowledgeable in principle, but were still ill-informed about your particular problem, previously explained at a great length to someone else within their company.

Why on earth then did the call center agent ask you to repeat all those personal and problem-related details, or why did you have to explain yet again the problem and symptoms to the field technician, who then had to go back to the office to bring the (hopefully) correct part? In the do-it-yourself (DIY) self-service scenario, how many times have you had to plow through numerous pages, pesky hyperlinks, and/or an abundance of annoying questions (that endlessly branch into more questions)?

And all those attempts only to eventually give up on the self-service diagnostic adventure, and to yet again be put on a lengthy hold (with “sleepy elevator” Kenny G’s music being periodically interrupted with the annoying “please hold the line, as your call is important to us” mantra) in order to talk to a human being? And as Murphy’s Law would have it, the solution often turns out to be as asinine as you just needing to plug the machine into the wall or removing a lost sock from the filter.

Thus, it might seem strange (and disconnected from reality) that an estimated US$73 billion amount will be spent on knowledge management (KM) software by US businesses in this year alone, according to AMR Research. At least these forward-thinking companies know how vitally important it is to be able to collect, store, organize, and disseminate vital business information, whether in the service of internal brainstorming, collaboration, or operational efficiency, or as part of customer service and support efforts.

The Why and Flavors of KM

KM software solutions range from small software packages for individual use such as brainstorming software to broader, more enterprise-wide solutions. In the former, individuals and small groups can use KM software as a platform for brainstorming and analysis, and for cataloging, organizing, structuring, and searching disparate sources of information or data, and arranging them into an understandable  and useful format.

The next KM step up in terms of complexity would be more specialized enterprise software suitable for use by teams, as with various collaborative groupware applications. Groupware KM provides a virtual space where members of a company or project team can access key files, pose questions, and coordinate their workflow tasks. This collaborative style of KM software can be especially helpful to companies with remote workers or freelancers and the resulting need for a centralized repository where key information can be stored and accessed. Web-based groupware KM solutions leverage the flexibility, ease of access, and cost-effectiveness of the Internet as they facilitate information-sharing.

The most advanced options would be the KM solutions that can be used by hundreds and thousands of employees, as with some call center and customer service-oriented KM software programs. Many companies seek to bolster the quality of their customer service efforts by providing their call center agents with KM software. This can be particularly effective in the complex field of technical support, whereby a user-friendly KM software suite can help keep customer service agents confident, educated, and up-to-date.

Many KM applications thus integrate with call tracking systems which pre-populate questions, allowing an agent to move towards issue-resolution without delay and additional frustrations for already distressed customers. The call tracking system can automatically log the exchange, thus capturing valuable feedback data.

Some experts argue that service KM technology has been available for over a decade. Most knowledge bases utilize keyword searches combined with a range of algorithms that aim to improve the relevance of search results. While that may be true, the first generation “text search” solutions were neither efficient nor reliable.

Namely, not only were there overwhelmingly too many returned results, like one would find in a typical “Google”-like search, but if you entered inaccurate text, you’d likely never find the answer. This has been an enormous problem for inexperienced service workers who need to be guided through their search with a dynamic on-the-fly questioning engine rather than via hard-coded question trees.

Not unlike the manner in which a doctor performs diagnostics on a sick patient, today’s service-oriented KM technology walks the user through a simple and interactive process to identify the source of the problem and find the right solution. These nifty systems can even incorporate images and sounds to visually and audibly assist the user in matching the problem to the most relevant solution.

A service-oriented KM solution will not only reduce customer waiting times, but should also reduce the amount of service calls and service dispatches altogether if customers can  self-diagnose instead of calling. In fact, one multi-billion dollar high-tech company reported that after implementing a service KM solution, it transferred 79 percent of technical assistance call center volume to web-based self-support. For more on the use of KM for call centers, see TEC’s earlier article entitled “Bolstering the Call Center with Service Resolution Management Processes.”  

But KM use needn’t necessarily be isolated to the technical call center. For example, if the filed technician couldn’t diagnose the problem on the site based on his/her experience, he/she could conveniently access the service KM tool via a wireless device and identify the problem using case-based reasoning that handles problems’ descriptions. Some case studies have proven that service KM can reduce troubleshooting time by solving issues once and making the resolutions available across the service organization – almost like a collective consciousness aligning everyone in the service operation.

Enter Servigistics’ Service Knowledge Management (SKM)

This brings me to Servigistics, a privately-held company headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia (US), with regional headquarters in the UK, Japan, and India, and sales and service professionals around the world. The company lives and breathes in the post-sale service market, with the broad suite named Strategic Service Management (SSM).

Servigistics was founded in 1998, and has been the established leader ever since in the service parts management market in terms of the global install base and the product’s capabilities. Until 2005, service parts planning contributed to over 95 percent of the company’s revenues and it remains the company’s major breadwinner (with over 60 percent of total revenues). Currently, Servigistics employs about 200 people and has about 150 corporate customers worldwide.

With the acquisition of ProfitScience in 2004 and TransDecisions in 2006, Servigistics is currently the only company to offer, as a "one-stop-shop," spare parts pricing while also being able to combine parts and field workforce management. In other words, the company is the only software vendor that targets the post-sale (aftermarket) service market with a targeted set of solutions that work together on a single data model. This unified set has enabled many user companies to transform their global service operations in terms of increasing profitability, cash flow, and customer loyalty.

Service as a Strategy

While the four stages of service business maturity (which starts with service operations only enabling firefighting, then providing operational control, then performance maximization, to finally a growth engine) deserve their own lengthy article, it suffices to say that Servigistics is close in its quest for “integrated service management” that enables

  • multi-enterprise collaboration (dealers, suppliers, partners);

  • integrated part and technician dispatch;

  • integrated parts, labor and pricing optimization;

  • integrated returns and warranty analysis, and planning;

  • contract and market profitability analysis;

  • integrated service offering planning; and

  • remote diagnostics.


The idea behind SSM is to alleviate common service process and/or technology challenges, whereby disjointed processes across service, sales, marketing, and manufacturing teams, inadequate technology infrastructure to support processes and decision-making, and insufficient performance metrics all lead to unsatisfactory performance in terms of perfect service/order delivery. These combined issues translate into real losses for business.

For example, service level agreement (SLA) violations lead to financial penalties; lack of availability (whether parts, personnel, vans, etc.) leads to lost sales opportunities and dissatisfied customers; misguided pricing leads to either lost sales (for too high a price) or lost profit (for too low a price), while unresponsiveness leads to brand degradation and loss of repeat business.

Servigistics’ Service Knowledge Management (SKM) module is the latest addition augmenting the SSM suite, which also includes Parts Planning, Parts Pricing, Workforce Management, and Commitment Management or Command Center. The SSM suite attempts to address ambitiously broad service needs starting with helping with both long-and short-term decisions.

For instance, in terms of KM, long-term decisions are about gathering content and information versus diagnosing particular problem issues in short term. When it comes to parts planning, in the long term, one has to decide how to order, deploy, return, and repair them versus locating and delivering individual parts in the short term (for a particular work order). As for workforce, how to staff, equip, and train them in the long term versus immediately assigning, scheduling, and dispatching technicians? Last but not least, the long-term pricing decisions are about setting prices and analyzing performance, as opposed to tactically managing complaints and allowances.

Furthermore, these broad service needs have to be addressed across the entire service value chain that starts with customers and then goes either through direct aftermarket service and support personnel or via dealers, value added resellers (VARs) and other channel partners, via original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and distributors all the way to the components suppliers. The SSM suite also attempts to tackle many other complex dimensions such as

  • multiple geographies;

  • diverse customer segments;

  • all product types serviced;

  • varying types of service agreements (e.g., time and material-based, contractual SLA, etc.);

  • varying levels of customer commitments (e.g., next day, same day, two-hour response);

  • centralized vs. localized/on-premise offerings; and

  • company-owned and third-party resources.


To that end, the spare parts planning module aims to optimize parts inventory to meet commitments at the lowest possible cost, risk, and capital, while workforce management aims to maximize customer satisfaction and service workforce productivity. As depicted in my earlier blog post, spare parts pricing management can optimize customer loyalty and the service company’s profitability. KM, which is the focus of this blog series, is used to equip technicians, partners, dealers, and customers with resolutions to the problem.

Command Center, which can be sold separately (as can all other SSM modules, for that matter), tracks and optimizes service delivery performance. The abovementioned Commitment Management pertains to the SLA, and includes the customer, supplier, partner, and anyone else involved in that service delivery. Command Center is primarily a visualization tool (versus being able to perform complex on-the-fly optimizations and what-if scenarios à la ClickSoftware’s ClickSchedule offering) that serves as a glue to other modules.

Namely, for problem resolution, the Command Center solution uses Servigistics’ Parts Management and Workforce Management solutions to expedite problem resolution, efficiently route service parts, and direct expert technicians to a customer’s site. For companies with global service operations, the center offers global, country regional, or even individual service operation views. Bruce Richardson’s blog post describes an interesting scenario  in which all these SSM pieces work well together.

Zooming Into SKM

In a nutshell, Servigistics’ SKM solution provides easier and faster access to known product-repair problem/solution sets and enables manufacturers’ service organizations to improve first-time-fix rates, avoid unnecessary dispatches, and enable customer self-service, all with the idea to increase profitability and enhance customer satisfaction. KM has been a concept around the industry for a while, but it hasn’t really been geared toward the field service end of the business.

More widespread use of KM has been around things like creating intellectual capital, conduct social planning, information theories, value networks, and so on. According to Servigistics, its customers have been asking for (or inquiring about) KM as part of the holistic service delivery piece, to better do their own self-service diagnostics (instead of plowing through tons of documents, hyperlinks, etc.) and/or to also not bother to deal with clueless technicians that show up on site, and ask the same questions over and over again about the problem.

Part 2 of this blog series will delve into bells-and-whistles of the SKM solution. In the meantime, what are your views, comments, opinions, etc. about the Service as a Strategy (another SaaS of sort) in general and about its individual components? What are your best practices for aftermarket service as well as experiences with particular applications?
 
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