Field technicians, the front line between customers and their service provider, are gaining new tools and technologies designed to help them more immediately resolve problems, improve quality of experience (QoE) and reduce operator costs.
As part of providers' overall revision of their organizations, they're investing in new network access technologies, big data analytics and automation to reduce customer truck rolls. But field technicians remain a crucial component and training, retention and the right equipment are critical to providers' success in an increasingly competitive market.
Operators' field forces are changing, Sameh Yamany, chief technology officer at Viavi Solutions, told UBB2020.
"The current aging field force is not being replaced one for one, largely due to pressures to reduce opex costs, and those who are being replaced do not have the same skill set. There will be fewer highly skilled technicians with more deep knowledge in different technologies who will be mainly deployed for troubleshooting and complex deployments," Yamany said. "The majority of others will have more general vanilla skills with some IT background, and will be used mainly for initial deployments and activation, managing steps in an increasingly automated process. As such, operators can increasingly outsource their field tech workforces to contract firms."
On the Job
Field technicians are equipped with new diagnostic and testing tools, and encouraged to collaborate with off-site experts to reduce time-to-solve and truck rolls while increasing customer experience. (Photo source: EXFO)
Added Mark Mullins, one of the founding members of Fluke Networks
and manager of Americas Field Marketing: "One thing we hear from our customers is that more of them are getting involved as subcontractors to service providers. So you might say they move back and forth from inside to outside."
That's the case at MetroNet, a rural provider of Internet, cable TV and phone services. Some operators' work is completely contracted out to fiber-optic cable specialists like MetroNet, said Tom Maher, an Electronics Technicians Association International-certified (ETA-I) fiber optics installer (FOI) and field operations technician at MetroNet, via email interview. That's partly because service providers experience high turnover and at times are understaffed, he said. It's also difficult for some operators to maintain enough technicians to meet their workload, Maher added.
"[MetroNet] is 100% fiber optic and does its best to make sure there are either a) enough splicers in a market to keep up with demand, or b) make sure everyone has a working splicer," he said. "[We] either keep one splicer per trailer unit or one per technician. Coax is almost completely gone. Out of the five coworkers I work with every day, I am the only one that has coax wiring or termination/testing equipment. Cat5 is being used for TV, Internet and phone."
New age, new tools
New technologies demand new tools and new approaches including cloud, automation and integration.
"There is more automation in the tools," said Fluke's Mullins, citing tools that deliver automated pass/fail results or automatically grade fiber based on the IEC 61300-3-35 standard.
Technicians need automated products that integrate into the back office and include automated testing and simulation capabilities, added Viavi's Yamany, referring to the vendor's FiberChek Sidewinder.
"This not only enables faster time to market for the growing number of fiber deployments, but also supports the complexity of the services running on these fibers," said Viavi's Yamany. "For example, greater network virtualization has created the need for virtual test and activation, enabling repeatable, standards-based test methodologies on all network layers. Technicians require fully autonomous inspection and analysis solutions. Otherwise, without testing, they risk dirty connectors, bad splices and other issues that add to signal loss, leading to poor QoE and customer churn."
Complex networks demand testing solutions that explore multi-fiber connections across the entire infrastructure, said Stéphane Chabot, EXFO vice president of Test and Measurement, in a statement earlier this year. "Service providers want simpler, faster and more reliable solutions to drive down operating expenses in a highly competitive and rapidly transforming industry," Chabot said. "In other words, ‘good enough’ network testing just isn’t good enough anymore."
Collaboration also is key. But rather than deploying multiple technicians to the same address -- a process that costs money and typically irritates the customer -- technicians increasingly use video, messaging and photo tools integrated into the testing solutions to work with off-site experts, said Yamany.
"This not only reduces truck rolls to minimize costs, but also shortens mean-time-to-repair to limit customer complaints," he said.
For their part, using Fluke's LinkWare Live cloud service, technicians can upload test results via WiFi so managers can monitor job progress and results, drill down into the customer call and help with complex or unusual issues, said Mullins. The service also integrates with other workforce automation solutions, he added.
Of course, technicians have depended on colleagues in the past -- and continue to do so, with or without specialized tools.
"We have an abundance of resources in terms of necessary information which could be vital to a task. At my job, they want us to do our utmost to make sure we get everything that needs to be done in as few trips as possible," said MetroNet's Maher, who gets work orders on a tablet each day via ETA Direct. "This is simply more efficient. If an issue arises, one technician will likely contact a co-worker who might have a better idea, our testing/repair department, or a supervisor if the first two options don’t pan out."
While service providers' revenue depends, in part, on reducing costs, improving customer experience impacts individual technicians too.
"We are graded on our customer feedback surveys. Regardless of initiatives, it is each technician’s professional duty to make sure each customer has a positive experience," said Maher. "I wouldn’t say an initiative would directly impact my performance. I try to do the best job I can at each location."
— Alison Diana, Editor, UBB2020. Follow us on Twitter @UBB2020 or @alisoncdiana.
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