How to Lead 1600 BT Engineers & Deliver to Customers Nationwide
Field Service Management Podcasts
About this episode
Adam Neale, UK Field Engineering Director at BT, explains the challenges of presenting data-led actions to naysayers, gives tips on how best to manage a large team of engineers, and highlights the welcome advancements in tech from phone calls, PDAs, and spreadsheets to Service Management Software.
Matt (Host): Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the Comparesoft Podcast. Great to have you here as always. Today, our guest is Adam [Neale]. Adam is the UK field engineering director for BT.
Adam has worked with well-known companies including Arqiva, West Midlands Ambulance Service, and now with BT. Adam is responsible for the national field delivery of BT’s core networks, transformation and simplification within the field engineering teams. So it’ll be great to get his take on field service management.
Hi, Adam, welcome to the show. Thanks for coming on, sir. How are you?
Adam Neale: Yeah, very good thank you and yourself?
Matt: Very good, thank you. Should we just dive straight into things here?
Adam: Yeah, let’s go for it.
Matt: All right. So can you tell us a little bit more about exactly what it is that you do then?
Adam: Yeah, so I basically lead a large field organisation. I’ve always led, well, for the last 15, 20 years field organisation. Mainly, I love the element of being with people. So I look after big field teams nationally and ensure that we deliver for customers, wherever they might be. It doesn’t matter whether I’m BT, or when I was in Arqiva. It’s always about the delivery for people. I always look at my role as a way to help people become the best they can be, which then allows us to do the best service for our customers.
So whether that be an internal customer, depending on what your business is, or whether it’s a business-to-business, customer, etc., or it’s an endpoint customer, it’s irrelevant. My job is to lead people to be the best they possibly can be. We go above and low the different ways of giving people the insights they need, etc., which I’m sure we can go into throughout the lessons podcast.
Matt: All right, well, then jumping into our first question here about service management. How do you set a good service management culture?
Adam: Interesting. A lot of people historically have gone; “you have a roundtable and you bring some experts in and you talk about what the culture you want coming from their CEO and the MDS and the directors”. And then you kind of turn around and go, “We’ve created this. Look at this. Isn’t this amazing?” This is the kind of culture we’re going to have around our service management, and the way that we’re going to go about things. And then you don’t get the buy in. Why don’t you get that buy in? Because you haven’t included the end engineers. The people who, let’s be honest, [are] doing the hard job every day.
It’s easy to sign an office to the rest of us in the bad weather, but you want people to have this culture of, “we’re in this together, no matter what role you’re doing, everybody’s in it together”.
I always try to set the culture from the beginning with everybody being linked in on that. Whether you are brand new in the business, whether you’ve been there 30 years, whether you’re a field engineer, whether you’re somebody working in a 24/7 NOC environment, everybody’s thinking exactly the same thing and it’s about being a team. Because I’ve seen it far too often, where you’ve got one element saying, “It’s all about I’m going to do my job.” No, the culture you need to set in service management is the end to end. That end-to-end life. Soon as that false starts, nothing’s rectified until everybody’s done their piece, and it’s rectified.
So if you can get everybody in together to create a culture in the first place, and have everybody thinking in the same way, and acting in the same way, eventually, you’ll get a great coach where people just wanted to deliver for the customers. Yeah, a lot of it has to come from going back to basics for people, as well.
Matt: And so then, how do you recommend planning for field service activities?
Adam: Trying to get it right is probably one of those things that if everybody could do, you wouldn’t need people like me around. Yeah, it’s data. I’ll go into it quite a lot as we go through different questions, I suspect. Data for me is key on everything. It doesn’t give you all the answers, but it points you in the right direction. So when you’re starting to look at planning for what activities need to be done, you need to make sure your base data is correct. How long does it take to do it? How long does it take to drive somewhere? What’s the contract saying? What’s in? What’s out? You need to make sure that you’ve got all of that data correct, and that is accurate.
I’ve seen it far too many times. I’ve gone in somewhere and someone said, “Yeah, look at this. We’ve got far too many people.” When you start to go through the data, you go, actually, you probably haven’t got enough people. You need to actually have more because you’re saying that the average task time is three hours, but engineers are not knowing how to hit three hours. So they’re just triggering the data. And then at that point, then you’re in a losing battle.
I try and ensure that the data is accurate. It has to be 100% accurate. At that point, then when you do the planning, everybody’s confident that you’re saying, we can deliver this today, because the data is great and the data shows us this. We’ll have some anomalies along the way and that’s fine, but 99% of the time, you’re going to get to a position where you go, “We can deliver what we’re doing because the data is creating the safeness of the plan in the first place.”
Matt: Well, you’ve obviously worked for some massive companies. There’s a lot of data involved there. How do you go about knowing that the data actually is correct?
Adam: If my camera is working and you see I’ve got no hair left these days. It’s normally from pulling all my hair out. We’ve had to I think, over the years learn that when people tell you, they don’t trust the data, you know something’s wrong. You’ve got to listen to people. So you then need to take that step back and take a real deep rest on where to go.
How are we going to get this data right? How are we going to prove what is right and what’s wrong? I quite often find, if you look at a field team, there would normally be some of the engineers, everybody looks at, you know they’re the best. And we all know they are. Why get them to go and do a job? From start to finish, explain how they’ve done it and explain the time it took to do it correctly, everybody would then buy into why. When I put my times in, I know I’ve got to book it correctly. Because I won’t be in trouble if I’ve gone over to standard time. It just shows people that I may need a little bit of extra coaching so they can help.
Again, you’ve got to get people to buy into the data, and it’s really just stripping everything back and going, “Okay, let’s take a spread. What do we need to do? We need to do this activity, let’s see how long that will actually take when we do it the right way.” At that point, it makes it easier for people to understand that.
You’ve also got to do a lot of due diligence on the data. You can’t just give people 10,000 spreadsheets. You’ve got to give somebody really quick and simple and easy to see that they can then take the highlights and go away and do something to make that difference or change. But at the same time, listen to people and they go, “I found this error in the data.” No problem. Let’s rectify that now. You’ve got to be very quick in rectifying the errors when may come up.
Matt: Linking on to that, then, what’s your viewpoint on implementing an effective field service plan?
Adam: Yeah. When you’re trying to implement them, you have to make sure that the plan can be delivered, first of all. You’re looking at those pinch points that you know you might have, and ensure that you’ve covered those off. So if someone in your team is telling you, “We’re going to struggle to deliver, I don’t know. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland, we’re going to really struggle to deliver on our SLAs because of getting to the island in winter months.” Okay, let’s plan now then, to make sure that that’s correct. So when you start doing your implementation, you’re already bringing up all the problems that you will hit, you need to get people focused on the what-ifs.
A lot of people just say, “Oh, forget about the what-ifs.” No, the what-ifs are the ones that will catch you out at one o’clock in the morning, when it’s freezing cold. You need to plan upfront, and you’ve got to ensure that you’ve ticked all the boxes. It could be 20,000, or 30,000 boxes sometimes, but once you’re happy you’ve ticked every single box, on the incompetent, actually, you then implement it as something which can last effectively, that plan will work. There’s no point implementing something if you know it’s going to fail because people turn off from it. They’re not interested. You start to lose the morale of people.
It’s very hard to come back from that actually, that may be the one that you failed on one contract. But once people go, they’ve implemented them. They didn’t know what they were doing, and that then spreads out across the industry quite quickly. So people will look at your company, maybe, “Do we give them a wide berth? They’ve got that wrong over there, didn’t they?” Not realising it may be one or two things just went wrong because you didn’t check every single thing and you didn’t ask everybody, “Does this work for you? Have we covered everything off?” Yeah, it’s really about covering off 1000 boxes along with whatever has to be that make sure you’ve got everything sorted and ready for that plan.
Matt: Talking more about data. What do you think about software tools? And do you think they’re useful for managing field service activities?
Adam: Let me go back a little bit, too. Once I left the army and joined my first field team, they were still getting a job every day via text message or phone call. Now, they were some great engineers. I loved working with them. They were really good fun. However, I know that most of those were only doing two jobs a day because they were saying they couldn’t get a phone signal. Everything was going wrong. Four years later, they got the first PDAs. These were big chunky things, by the way. They’re not like an iPhone. Now, these are the old-fashioned PDAs. But all of a sudden, that meant that they could part jobs more often. Actually, they could see when it landed on the device. They couldn’t believe that I’d got a black spot. Yeah, people turn them off. And so they had a black spot. It meant the software started to advance, and this is back in the early 2000s, to help.
Where are we now? Wow, well, without software, if I’m honest, I don’t think you would see half of the delivery that you see in the UK now. Software helps to define what people can and can’t do as well. It’s not just thinking yeah, maybe we can do this. The software will quite often predict what can happen.
Now, we’re moving into a world with AI. It’s becoming even better as well, because the AI would quite often look at it and go, “We know the M42 ran by Birmingham Airport is gridlocked between three and six normally.” So that engineer might look like he’s only five minutes away. But truth be known, he’s going to be two hours. The software tools can then start to really help you manage your activities. Without them, I think now we will probably be needing four or five times the amount of people, which means obviously your cost goes up to the customers. And that means the end customers obviously pay more. Software tools, if they’re implemented in the right way and you’ve got the right culture, the people trust in using the software.
Matt: Talking about technology and connected technologies. Have you had to help colleagues get used to these new technologies and help some of the people that haven’t used them before to realise just how beneficial they are?
Adam: Yeah, I think one thing I have noticed is, a lot of the industries I worked in, there’s been quite a high age demographic. In the field people, for instance, have been the field industries. That’s not a problem, because they’ve got a wealth of knowledge. But when you try and bring in something digital, you try and bring a bit of machine learning and you say, “We’ve actually noticed now that this happens.” You’ve got a lot of people who are very pessimistic about it. A lot of naysayers. “No. No. No. I need to change that grommet once a month because for the last 30 years, I’ve done it and it works.” But when you start to then say, “Yeah, but we’ve actually seen it elsewhere, we’re not changing that grommet once a month. And the failure rate is actually better. But when you’re changing it, we’re kind of touching the real old piece of equipment again.”
You do get a lot of resistance at time. I always try and go into any conversation with real examples where I can go, “But look at this, didn’t this make a difference?” And when you’ve got a real example, people can’t hide away from it. They have to say, “Okay, I get it then.”
Matt: And continuing on with technology. Do you have any advice for people that are using these technologies or new to using these technologies about how they can fully take advantage of them, and get the most out of that ecosystem?
Adam: Yeah, number one, buy a system for what it can do. And then don’t try and bastardise it for what you want to do for your company. I’ve looked at it once and I won’t say the company, but they said, “Well, we’re going to take your system on, and it’s going to be great.” Around a fair few years later, the company who they’re taking this bit of software said, “We can’t support it anymore. We don’t recognise it as our product anymore because you’ve put so many changes in there.” So just take it out of the box. Take it for what it is.
If you look at a field Shetland tool as an example, they’re normally created and you’ve got millions of users across the world if it’s a global system. Why do you suddenly, you’ve got a company out of nowhere, say 100 people in it. Why would you suddenly think that actually, we know what we need more? No, take the advice of millions of people. Actually, just take it out of the box, and you’ll find it will work 10 times better than when you’re plugging things into an ecosystem.
The one thing you don’t want to do is to then try to go, “Well, I’ve got this system and that one, but they won’t actually integrate properly. So I’ve got to build a bridge.” You don’t want that. The two need to be absolutely seamlessly handshaking. Otherwise, you’re going to get problems along the way.
Matt: Okay, and so what about connected technologies then? Do you see that changing the way that we work in the future?
Adam: From field services, yes, it will do. Not potentially, as much. It will probably depend on what we talked about connected technologies. I think we can all see now, technology is advancing very quickly, and that’s making a big difference to how a, for instance, how a field engineer works. From a service management point of view, if you can use your technology, for instance, let’s go down to where you’re in a building and you’ve got to make conditioning in there. You’ve now connected that up to the telemetry from that building coming back in as well, which is now connected to a management service system. You can start to see quite a slight increase in the air condition. Why is that increased? Okay, the temperatures got hot outside. We understand that that’s fine. But then the AI starts to kick in now and go, “I’ve also noticed that as soon as your spark fan starts to speed up to a certain RPM, for a period of time, six weeks later, you get a failure. I can see that that’s been happening. So you may want to send an engineer tomorrow, whilst they’re already on site, to go and look at this as well.”
By having those connected technologies come together, you can better predict what’s going to happen, which means ultimately, you can give better customer service. One thing everybody doesn’t want is outages. If you can predict and be ahead of the game, that will help. Now, the one thing a connected technology will never change so if you physically have to go and change a card. Just to pull it out and put it in, you still need an engineer to go and do that. However, it’s better to do it in advance if you’ve got the contingency there, rather than waiting till it’s actually failed. Connected technologies can help, but you still need a human to go and do the physical activities sometimes.
Matt: A lot of our users are looking at making a digital transformation. Do you have any advice for those people who are looking to make that transformational change to the way that they manage their field service operations?
Adam: Yes. Number one, don’t go at it Big Bang. I’ve seen people, they’re bringing a consultant in and I’ve witnessed it once. The consultant said, “you’re going to bring in the brand new system, it pretty much assists a management system, and you’re going to implement and we’re going to do this.” I went, “You do realise, if you try and implement all of that in one go, you are going to have disarray in the field, which means we’re going to be fading for our customers and it’s going to go wrong”.
You’ve got to do it as fast as you possibly can, obviously. But do it in steps. If you try and do a Big Bang effect, it’s just going to fail. It’s absolutely going to fail. Yeah, think about it. Make sure you have a really robust plan, as well. I am a terrible person for putting things pen to paper, and writing stuff down. It just comes out in my head. I have to gather for me, but I’ve always said we’ve got to get this plan. So let’s draw it out. Either the drawing is really bad if I do it. But let’s show where we are, where we got to get to and how we’re going to do it. But actually, make sure that you don’t ever have two or three elements of a system going live at the same time.
Matt: All right. Absolutely. Yes. And so going back from that, then what’s your take on using spreadsheets for service management? Do they still have a place or not?
Adam: I suppose I could say too busy. Yes and no. No, mainly because I’ve seen it too often. We all hear about burnout with people. You’ve got a service delivery manager, and he’s given 30,40 different spreadsheets. From there, they’ve got to pull together some kind of presentation to give to the customer. And they’re cutting, chopping in different directions and the spreadsheet crashes because the laptops aren’t powerful enough to take the size of it, where you can build a dashboard now and you can just take the extract from the dashboard straight out. You’ve just saved a huge amount of time. I’d rather that service delivery manager not be wasting three hours a week trying to make a spreadsheet work. I’d rather them invest that three hours per week helping us go through the problem tickets.
Understand where we’ve got issues and where we can improve our service, rather than just trying to mess around with a spreadsheet. Are they still needed? Yes, sometimes they are still needed on the odd occasion, I think. But in the background, the data needs to be off the back of that, but they shouldn’t be used as your one and only tool. They have to just be something that deduces from normally a one-on-one perspective for someone trying to go off just want to look at this and do it a different way. But not to actually run your service. Not at all.
Matt: Right. Yeah, so it’s an accompaniment. They’re not a dinosaur just yet? They do still have some sort of some use?
Adam: I would say They are 90% A dinosaur now because there are so many decimals out there.
Matt: Spreadsheet, dinosaurs.
Adam: Yeah, but there’s that 10% where you just needed to do the quick piece itself to understand something. Well, you’re not going to implement an entire dashboard for it. I think eventually they’re going to be weaned out slowly but surely.
Matt: Sure. And so then, how do you use service management as a competitive advantage?
Adam: Yeah. So let’s look at Amazon. To this day, now, okay, we all did lockdown buy and we all did that. We’re all guilty, I think of buying lots of things in lockdown that we really didn’t need. To this day, no. I know that if I order from Amazon, with Prime, I would get 9 times out of 10, the piece I need the next day, because the way they run their service is impeccable. They make sure that a customer goes, “if I’m going to buy anywhere, it’s going to be there because I get what I want”. When they have a problem, their service management kicks in and resolves the problems quickly and efficiently.
Yes, people get angry with Amazon. Highly less than normal politics, etc. But ultimately, we all pretty much, most people in the UK, have an Amazon account for one reason; because they deliver and they deliver really well.
I’m not talking about the delivery to your home, the service is there. The way that they use their service management, the whole wraparound everything. Having that piece, they’re looking to go, “Well, where are problems? Where’s the problem management kicking in? Let’s get into these quickly.” That’s where you can use its competitive advantage.
It’s becoming more and more competitive in the market these days in a lot of industries and a lot of the services that we all run. It’s trying to figure out, what’s that one extra thing I can do on top of somebody else? If you’ve got your service management running end to end, you’ve got a great culture, you’ve implemented your whole processes, your procedures, and everything is working correctly. You’ve got good service management, looking for any issues as they pop up. You’re always going to be head and shoulders above the others who haven’t done that due diligence. They’ve let the little bits just slide through.
Matt: Okay, well, you’ve given us some fantastic information so far, Adam, and thank you for that. But moving on to our top three tips, or your top three tips, what are your top three tips on effective field service management?
Adam: Number one, because I’m a people person, always engage with everybody. In the end-to-end cycle, you need to ensure that everybody is clear on what you’re doing and where you’re going, and why you’re doing this. That engagement with human beings, the people should be your number one thing.
Number two, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Those people who say, “I’ve never made a mistake in my life.” Quite frankly, are liars. Everybody has made mistakes. And you need to learn by those mistakes. I’ve seen before myself, many, many years ago, turned an entire control room off. I didn’t turn it off actually, the audio swapped. One operator said it was a different person. I just saw his eyes looking at me. The fallout from that the next day I thought was “I’m going to lose my job”, but actually, no. The manager at the time, Joe, came to me and said, “Well, let’s look at what went wrong.” As we went through it, we got to the point of going, “Wow, that mistake you made can easily be made. So you’ve done it, someone else will do it. So let’s do something to stop it from happening again.”
Sometimes use those mistakes as your knowledge and to make you wiser. Don’t use them to say to somebody you’ve got it wrong. You haven’t got it wrongly. Something’s happened and let’s learn from it.
I suppose my last one as well, is to make sure you’ve got your understanding of what the output should be. It’s really easy to say to an engineer your KPIs to hit this within three hours. But actually, no, it’s not. It’s, we want to make sure we’re on-site within three hours, but the output needs to be this. So you’ve got to clearly define the outputs for every single person. That means they come to work every day, knowing exactly what is expected. And actually, you will become more effective anyway because people were doing the best that they possibly can every day, knowing what the output needs to be. I suppose really your output. Make sure everybody understands what the output needs to be.
Matt: On another note, I was looking at your LinkedIn and it was very impressive because at BT, you are managing 16,000 people. Do you have any advice for people looking to manage massive projects like this?
Adam: Yeah, so you added an extra zero on there. We have 1600, not. 16,000. Thankfully, 16,000. I’ll go check my LinkedIn profile. I’ve got that wrong, in that case. Yeah, I think some of the bigger things is trying to get your head around it. Sometimes you can’t be there for absolutely everybody all the time. I thought at first, “Yeah, I can do that.” No, I can’t, and it’s fine. I’ve seen it myself. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got really strong managers around you, who can help you be human with people. Massive. You need to be human. People need to understand who you are as a person.
I used to send out weekly columns to the field, talking about my wife, my children, what we’ve been doing at home, as well, plus what I’ve been doing in work, so that people understand I’m not just somebody. I am somebody’s father. I’m someone’s husband. Actually, sometimes I may not feel very good, because I’ve had a bad weekend or something, and let’s expect that. I think you’ve got to be human with people. You’ve got to have really strong teams around you and leaders who are going to take some of that burden at times. Get out there and talk with people. You can’t just sit behind an invisible wall 10,000 miles away. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to be there face to face. You’ve got to communicate.
Matt: Wrapping it up, then what’s your favourite saying or quote, on field service management?
Adam: Whatever we’ll say because I can use language on your research, but it all revolves around: “it’s going to get better tomorrow than we were today. But we’re not going to be as good as we will be the day after”. For me, it’s about continual learning and trying to get people to understand that today we’ve done something. Tomorrow will be even better. But today, we may have made some issues, but we’re so much better than we were yesterday because we continued learning.
Once you get people into that mindset — I say quite often to a lot of people, don’t worry about yesterday, because tomorrow is going to be even better. And the day’s going to be even better than that. The day after will have better soil than that. That for me is what drives me to go we’re going to continually evolve and improve.
Field service management shouldn’t just be about going, “This is what the customer wants. That’s what we’ll deliver.” You actually want to make sure that every day you are continually improving. Finding tiny little bits. Just might give you that extra minute on a job, which might actually ensure that you get a service or customer back on that much quicker. And it’s then taken all of that learning to make sure you implement it, and so every day you are getting better.
Matt: Amazing. Well, there we go, everyone. You’ve heard it from Adam, there. Some incredible advice. You’ve been a fantastic guest, Adam. Thank you so much for coming to the show and sharing your knowledge with us.
Adam: Yeah. No, thank you. Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it. It’s great fun as well. Thank you.