I get lots of comments from prospective customers about “going paperless” using tablets and smartphones.  In many cases, however, they are talking about simply making the technicians in the field type character information into digital forms that otherwise would have been paper.  Maybe if you are going to go “paperless” you should reconsider how you form your data as well.

Much of the data that technicians “report” from the field is unstructured – it is not a serial number, or a weight, or a model, or a date, or a length, or a dollar amount.  A computer system is not going to operate on it in the future – a human is going to review and react to it.  It is often a detailed description of a situation that affects the customer – or will affect them if left unattended.  Or it is a description of a difficulty they encountered that threw a wrench into the schedule for that day.

Picture of ServiceTrade application capturing HVAC system informationRather than have them enter that information on a “form,” consider how much cheaper (and richer, ironically) it would be to have them shoot photos and record audio describing the situation.  Anyone who needs to act on that information can now respond to the photo and audio (and maybe video), instead of reading off a report.

Why is this important?  Because talk is cheap.  Literally.  How fast can you type on a tablet or a smartphone?  If you are really good, that number is probably 25 words per minute (wpm).  On a good keyboard, I can type at 80 wpm, but I slow to about 25 on a smartphone and about 35 on a tablet.  But we can all comfortably speak at 120 – 150 wpm.  And the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words should be considered in this context as well.  So, why would you want your technicians to be typing stuff when they could be speaking and snapping to give you more and better information faster?

I did some calculations as well on photos, and an 8 megapixel photo is worth about 1600 words just from a comparative data perspective.  And while processing audio is equal to exactly the speed of the speaker (i.e. how quickly or slowly they speak), processing photos is fast and enriching.  People enjoy the color that photos add to the customer service experience.  Photos do not lie, and the customer appreciates the veracity that a photo of their equipment and your good work conveys.

If you are “going paperless,” consider what that means for productivity, and also consider how you might change your expectations for the data you use to run your business.  Asking people to “type” things that they could say or show is going to add administrative expense that could be used for new revenue opportunities when your technicians are struggling to enter information instead of hustling to the next customer call.

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