The major issues facing service businesses with a predominantly mobile workforce are universal. They tend to be all about controlling costs and effectively managing job schedules and staff.

The major issues facing service businesses with a predominantly mobile workforce are universal. They tend to be all about controlling costs and effectively managing job schedules and staff.

A recent US survey of 100 small- and medium-sized business managers showed that the biggest challenges when managing a mobile service workforce were keeping operational costs in line (25.7%), scheduling and dispatching (20.8%), managing workflow and processes (17.8%) and hiring and retention (11.9%).

Here is our expert guide to beating those challenges, staying profitable and keeping a mobile workforce happy.

Managing operational costs

“Any business that does not have accurate accounting or an owner who understands the figures is destined for doom,” writes Andrew Griffiths in his bestselling The Big Book of Small Business. Griffiths says it’s a lesson that must be heeded by owners and managers of trades and services businesses, where a lot of work is done away from home office.

“It’s true of any business that struggles with the administration side of things,” he says. “They think they might deliver a great product or service, but the poor admin will ultimately let them down. It kind of comes back and bites them on the bum with lost revenue.”

Griffiths says technological advances mean there is no longer an excuse for poor financial management. “You can invoice or reconcile from your phone; you can do everything you need to do from your phone. It takes you two minutes. You don’t need anyone else to do it. In fact, there’s no reason for anyone else to do it.

Remedies: Cloud-based field management software has changed the way mobile businesses operate. Complete real-time job, customer and staff management is inexpensive, available to all staff on their mobile devices and integrates with other business software. Other options to consider are list management tools such as Asana, which can help managers assign jobs and manage workflow, or iAuditor for building checklists or inspection templates. The app Expensify is good for staff to keep control of work-related costs.

Hiring and retention

Finding good staff is a challenge for any business, and getting recommendations from trusted friends and colleagues can be the best way to find quality people. But the hardest aspect of managing mobile staff is keeping them motivated, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Griffiths believes the first thing managers need to think about is the age of their workforce. “It goes back to that generational thing,” he says. “If you look at Millennials [those born in the 1990s], what’s important is e-learning. Technology is important, and they want more casual environments and to be inspired. For them, it’s about being connected to the rest of the world. Baby Boomers in your workforce are a little bit more conservative. They think long term. They’re a bit more into on-the-job training: ‘Show me how to do this’.”

Griffiths says some owners and managers in small businesses who are good at what they do find it difficult to share their knowledge and let others participate. “They have to get better at systemisation, they’ve got to get better at technology, they’ve got to get better at communication,” he says. “They’ve got to have a better strategy around getting people into their business to work for them.”

Psychologist Gavin Freeman, who recently wrote the book Just Stop Motivating Me, says giving unhappy staff more money doesn’t make them work harder or be more loyal in the longer term. “What we know is that money is only motivating until it hits your pocket,” he says. “The minute it hits your pocket, it is no longer motivating.”

“A task that took maybe eight to 10 hours a week or you paid someone else to do it, all of a sudden it’s done in seconds, but you’re also in control of it. Technology is obviously a wonderful game changer, but only if you make the time to learn it.”

Remedies: There are a number of excellent accountancy software options available from companies such as Xero, MYOB andQuickbooks. By teaming one of these up with effective field service management software, such as GeoOp, all jobs, customers and financial information are in one place.

Managing scheduling and workflow

Companies that still use whiteboards and paper jobs sheets on clipboards have been left well behind in the efficiency race. There’s a fair chance they’re prone to making scheduling errors and their staff will be spending less time doing their jobs and more time doing paperwork.

These businesses are inefficient in other ways, too. Mobile workers are forced to head back to base more often and office-based staff tend to spend much of their time on the phone giving status updates.

Customer satisfaction levels also suffer because tradies or service technicians can’t tell clients if they’re running late (or if they can’t make it at all), can’t easily feed the work completed into a central database or order parts while onsite, and can’t send invoices for their work immediately. “There’s a strong correlation between efficient field service and customer satisfaction,” writes US technology analyst Aleksandr Peterson. “Your technicians and contractors are on the front lines, often in people’s homes. That means they are ambassadors for your brand in a very tangible way.”

Peter Poulin, CMO of US-based tablet maker Xplore Technologies, says technology plays a big role in keeping good staff engaged. “[Businesses have to get] out of the 1990s and provide modern tools to get a job done. Mobility often makes employee’s jobs easier and gives them more flexible work arrangements. If you keep good staff you have lower recruiting costs, lower costs to train and re-train, they retain tribal knowledge they can only ever learn from working with you, and they have a lower risk of customer attrition.”

Remedies: Many online training tools are available to help your mobile workforce learn job-specific tasks. Cloud-based tools such as GeoOp publish videos on YouTube to explain to users how to use their software. But not only do owners and managers need to provide the right technology tools for their workers, they need to invest time and money in training. They might need to do on-the-job training themselves or bring in specialist trainers, some of whom may be available through companies that supply tools and services. Retaining quality staff is not just about paying them more but providing greater work opportunities and responsibilities.