This article first appeared in the Winter issue of The Record.
The release of Microsoft’s Connected Field Service solution this autumn signalled a new dawn for the way that manufacturers serve their customers – giving them information about how their customers use their products so they can pre-empt what they need and identify when parts need to be replaced before something breaks.
“In the manufacturing space, our focus is on enabling connectivity – to customers of course, but also to the products that the manufacturer sells,” says Michel Putnik, worldwide director of manufacturing and resources at Microsoft. “Through this new solution, we are letting manufacturers and their staff identify how their customer uses their product, when they might need a new product, and giving them continuous feedback loops. We’re connecting the internet of things (IoT), with smart devices, so that manufacturers can move beyond customer relationship management (CRM) systems to a new level of service.”
Putnik describes the ability to use IoT for this purpose as something of a watershed moment.
“At its core, Connected Field Services is about connecting IoT with field service capabilities, and all the analytics that is required to tease out predictions,” he explains. “But it’s not all about predictions on the equipment – it’s more than that. It’s about filling the funnel for the marketing guy. It’s being able to say, ‘This customer doesn’t have a service level agreement (SLA). The wear and tear is beyond its ordinary life, and three months from now it’ll fail. It’s not economically viable to go in and replace it, so here’s a marketing opportunity.’ All these leads can come in, and a marketing campaign can be run against that.”
Data is ultimately revolutionising the dynamic of the SLA between the manufacturer and the customer.
“All this data from various customers allows a manufacturer to better understand benchmarking – why one company is thriving and another isn’t,” Putnik says. “This can have a major impact on the SLA, as customers want to know how they stack up. What are they doing differently? What steps in our processes are causing this? The entire SLA can be reinvented around providing insight and advice, and nothing will stop a manufacturer from having dynamic SLAs.”
Better visibility is also changing the way manufacturers manage maintenance. Previously, as part of an SLA, a representative may have gone in and carried out maintenance on a piece of equipment very regularly. But with predictive maintenance, that person will only come as required by the predictions.
“More things can be done remotely, so a manufacturer may be able to recalibrate or download a new software package or restart equipment without sending a technician,” Putnik explains. “Some critical situations can be avoided through remote working, but it’s important to still be able to show the customer, without physically being there, what they are doing with their equipment.”
Putnik believes that manufacturers – many of whom have been successfully built up over the years using tried and tested ways of operating – are now realising that they have to change the way they work, and it can be daunting.
“I was speaking with the CEO of a company looking to adopt Connected Field Service not long ago, who asked me ‘are we in the same boat?’” says Putnik. “I asked what he meant, and he said ‘I’m putting my career in Microsoft’s hands, and I’m putting a big stake of this company’s revenue future in your hands. So are we in the same boat?’ Of course, the answer is yes, but that just signifies the seriousness of a manufacturer who has done very well for many years reinventing how they work. This new service innovation is a big deal for many of these companies.”
But at the same time, Putnik says that what Microsoft can now offer in this space is creating a great deal of excitement in the industry.
“We get companies saying ‘we want that and we want what they have. How do we get there?’” he says. “For manufacturers it often starts around operations. So if it’s internal facing, we look at how to optimise and connect operations. Once that stuff leaves the factory and is in the customers’ hands, then it’s very much a connected field service type engagement. It could be either of the two, but it’s usually both that we address.”
Key to all of this is what Putnik describes as a ‘foundation of data’.
“Data can serve many purposes, with the obvious one being around services,” he says. “But what does that same data set mean for a manufacturer’s sales team or marketing R&D or human resources teams? There are opportunities to affect things like spare parts management, the supply chain, and the entire company ecosystem. There’s an opportunity to make huge advances and more and more CEOs are recognising this.”
Thanks in part to the Connected Field Service offering, Microsoft is able to offer manufacturers not just new technology, but a new way
“Customers don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, we want Connected Field Service!’” Putnik concludes. “But they know they need to think about things differently. They’re coming to us and saying we want a service and not a product – how do we think about that? What’s your experience? We’ve heard about other companies doing things, we understand you’re doing things differently with your customers and we want that relationship. How do we get there?”