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Choosing a Field Service Management System Vendor

As published in Service Management magazine.

Deciding which vendor to buy your field service system from is as important as the system you choose.  What you buy now is probably not going to do what you need in the future, so supplier flexibility and alignment is crucial to a achieving enduring ROI.

In a previous article, “Choosing a Field Service Management System”, I wrote about the complexities of selecting computer systems for Field Service Management (FSM), covering some of the considerations involved because there are so many different approaches and strategies for FSM that no single software package can cover them all. That article was written from hard-won experience, having had to replace a FSM system which we had used successfully for several years, because the vendor's development priorities had diverged from our emerging needs. This article also arises from that experience, but concentrates on vendor selection instead of system functionality.

Flexibility & Future-Proofing

One of the universal constants in business is change. Our business environment morphs continuously. New competitors emerge, existing competitors change strategy, customers make new demands, and in consequence we change strategy. We introduce new offerings, wider response times, custom service level agreements (SLAs), special tariffs and contracts by asset or by customer. Each time we change our service offering we are faced with the challenge of implementing the new product in the FSM system, exploiting features that we haven't used before, needing more consultancy and training from the vendor. Perhaps we require new add-on modules, or if the functionality we now need doesn't already exist we may need to commission new functionality to be added, at a price. Unlike the purchase of a word-processing package, our relationship with an FSM vendor needs to be an ongoing one, with the vendor providing continuous support and attention to our needs. If this doesn't happen then one day we are going to need change that isn't available, and we will find ourselves looking at the prospect of buying anew.

Future Development

Perhaps the most important element in selecting your FSM system – what will you need in the future? Of course you cannot know, you can make some intelligent guesses, but crystal balls tend to be rather murky. So the first and most important question is “Can I work with them, and will they work with me, now and for the next few years?”. If the package looks great but the vendor fails to inspire confidence you should be very wary. Ask yourself if the vendor has a product roadmap, and how committed they are to that. If they have their own vision of the future and are determined to create it, what capacity will they have remaining to address your needs for features that aren't on the roadmap? If their vision of future customer communication is Twitter, and your business is based on providing service to the elderly, are you going to remain compatible with them?

How do they approach the business of including new features? Do you have to wait for the next release (in nine months), or will they create a patch or custom extension for you at short notice? Jam tomorrow is rarely satisfactory; having to report to the MD that the new initiative from the board cannot be implemented for another year because of “the system” is rarely a formula for career success.

And what about cost? Writing code costs money, lots of it. Budget on c. £900 per programmer per day. Will they share the cost burden with you? Are they going to sell this add-on or change as a new feature to existing and prospective customers? Will they charge you for it and then include it free for everyone in the next release? Cost should be negotiable, if the functionality you need is unique to you then it will be expensive, if other customers could benefit it should be a shared investment.

Join the User Group

If there is a user group for your chosen system, join it. You will be able to discuss common problems with other members, establish common desires for new features and enhancements, and apply collective pressure to the vendor to ensure that your voice and requirements are heard. Many vendors welcome customer input and set up the user group themselves, sometimes the user group is set up independently by other users. Ask the vendor if there is a user group. If there isn't one, consider creating it. For the small expense of hosting 2 – 4 meetings a year (which some other members will be keen to share), you can establish a forum that not only gives you a powerful channel to your supplier, but will also give you the opportunity to learn how other users are making the most of the system, including the tricks and techniques they have learned or invented to make it more efficient and effective, as well as a community in which you can discuss more general service management issues.

Size Matters

Software authors come in all sizes, from small businesses that might have two or three developers, up to the large multinationals with many thousands of programming staff. The natural reaction of many software purchasers is to go with the big boys, but that's not necessarily the best bet. It is often the smaller vendors, with fewer customers to serve, who can be most flexible in accommodating your emerging needs. Field Service Management is still a minority application in the UK, many service businesses operate without a dedicated computerised system, and there is no standard way of doing things. If your needs are going to change then you may be best using a smaller vendor, with fewer customers, who will have more reason and time to pay particular attention to you.

Vendor Stability

Having established the need for a long-term relationship, one has to ask “Are they going to be around in five years?”. With a large vendor a positive outcome seems more likely, but a small company that has been growing successfully for a few years may offer just as much stability for the foreseeable future. Check the business credit agency reports, are they small but successful, or on the brink of collapse. Talk to the directors, are they confident, secure, happy, enjoying their business, or are they struggling, evasive, or desperate to close the deal (at almost any price)? If it is a small business with the product you want you may need to support it, the options range from the relatively painless hosting of customer reference visits (assisting them with future sales) through to taking a strategic equity investment in the vendor (and securing their future and your future influence).

Protect Yourself

If you want to buy from a vendor who seems small, potentially unstable, but has the right product and attitude for you, protect yourself. You may require that the source code for the system is placed into “Escrow”, a legal mechanism where it is kept secure by a third party to protect the developer, but may be released to you under certain circumstances, such as the supplier becoming insolvent. The National Computing Centre in the UK is a major provider of Escrow services, there is a small annual fee, but using an Escrow service would provide you with the option of maintaining the system if the vendor is no longer able to. In parallel, get to know some of the vendor's development  / support team, so that you would be able to contact them if the vendor ceases trading. Just having the code for a complex system is little use of you can't maintain it, but if you have the code and are able to approach one of the (suddenly unemployed) developers when the vendor has gone bust you may be self-sufficient for years.

Technology Platform

If you have an IT department, they may want to put in technology constraints – “must run on Windows Server 2008 and the database has to be Microsoft Sequel Server” etc. While such requests should be ignored, you need the best application for the business not the IT department, technology is still a consideration. You need to ask why the authors have chosen the technology they have used to create the system, and what will cause them to change it. Are they intent on keeping up with the latest Microsoft products, thereby forcing you to upgrade your IT infrastructure each time they provide a major upgrade to the system, or are they more flexible, supporting older technology or non-Microsoft platforms. Each upgrade should bring welcome new features that enhance the flexibility of your business, but the nature of technological evolution introduces obsolescence which may affect the IT you use for other applications, generating extra and unwanted IT expenditure. Establish that the vendor will be flexible in supporting older releases of technology so that you upgrade your IT when you want to, and not when they demand it of you.


A FSM system is likely to be complex, and complex computer systems go wrong, it's a fact of life. In my experience Friday night is the most likely time for failure which, when the vendor's help desk has shut for the weekend and you have engineers to dispatch and emergency jobs to do on Saturday and Sunday, is another instance of Sod's Law. You also probably don't want to be upgrading the system in the middle of a working day, if you're like me then you do it late Sunday, when all the engineers have finished their shifts. Either way, whether you are dealing with a software bug, a systems crash, or a tricky upgrade, you need to know that you can call the vendor for help, out of hours (the way your customers call you!). Establish with your supplier an out of hours support policy; if they're big they may run a 24-hour helpdesk, otherwise you can ask for the mobile phone numbers of a couple of technicians who you can call on if desperate – this is the difference between having a working business on Monday morning or a team of engineers sat at home drinking tea and waiting for you to get the system fixed.

In summary, investing in a Field Service Management System is probably not, however it is presented, an off-the-shelf purchase. Hopefully the system you buy will serve you for many years, through business and technological changes, and in order to help ensure the longevity of the system, and to maximise your return on investment, it is necessary to consider the future, the unknown, and how you and your supplier will cope with the challenges that time will bring.

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