The competitive gestation period in today's environment is brief. The fleeting margins between losing, gaining and retaining a customer are measured in hours and minutes. The edge is defined by the ability to predetermine your customers' problems and be prepared to resolve them before they even exist.
But the challenges are great. Particularly in tech-heavy office equipment industries where the industry standard for turnover of product generations is down to about 18 months and shrinking. Selling "knowledge worker enhancement" tools in that atmosphere is hard enough; keeping up with support, service, maintenance and upgrade reports is practically impossible.
Or is it? One organization has learned to capture and distribute--efficiently, effectively and fast--the common knowledge that its field service force needs to provide the kind of satisfaction that keeps customers around for a while.
Connie Moore, an analyst with Giga Information Group (www.gigaweb.com), thought enough of this company's efforts to nominate it for our monthly Best Practices Award. Her nomination comments below describe an organization that faced a modern-day challenge with wisdom and authority. --the editors
Xerox (www.xerox.com) created a system now being used by more than 14,000 of its service technicians and support center representatives to share tips for fixing office equipment. Those technicians make approximately a million service calls per month to maintain printers, copiers, networks and other aspects of customer operations.
During those calls, the service technicians are constantly discovering new and innovative solutions to unique problems. Previously, the field-generated solutions were often shared in work group meetings in the form of stories, but under those conditions the solutions could only be shared among a few people at a time.
Complicating the problem, service manuals were out of date almost as soon as they were printed, and failed to include many of the creative, not-in-the-manual solutions that repair technicians had improvised in the field. Examples of that knowledge might include problems that result from aging machines, intermittent faults, different environments, network interaction or the quirks presented by new machines.
That often left technicians with no handy solution, requiring them to escalate the call to a technical hotline. Xerox is known for outstanding customer service, but to remain competitive it had to develop new ways of delivering service to customers.
Those environmental and social factors became the foundation for a remarkable new initiative. Xerox called it Eureka.
Eureka allows Xerox's support organization to create and reuse intellectual capital on a wide scale throughout the world … and for a bonus, significantly improve service to customers and enhance the financial performance of the business. The system builds on the service technician's work practices by creating a knowledge-sharing environment that improves customer service.
Xerox recognized that the work environment (e.g. work practices, incentives) is critical to the success of knowledge management and is much more difficult than implementing the technical solution. That alone is noteworthy. But Xerox also took the essential step of implementing such a large-scale system for a mission-critical business process. As evidence of Eureka's measurable effect, in France, where Eureka was initially field-tested, of the 1,300 service engineers, more than 250 service technicians have authored tips. Xerox France has lowered its parts usage and labor costs by more than 5%.
Based on the success of Eureka in France, Xerox has now deployed it to more than 14,000 users in Canada, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Mexico. Users can submit tips in their native language, and, if validated, they go into the system in English. The system will soon have a translation tool to help users with difficult or unusual phrases.
Today, Xerox is expanding the system to all customer support centers and field analysts. It is also bringing the insights in a meaningful way to the groups that produce documentation, manufacture products and make engineering and design improvements. For some products, people are mining the databases to rewrite documentation and they are beginning to engage manufacturing.
For example, in Brazil a customer had problems with a Xerox DocuColor 40 production color copier/printer to the point where the technicians were going to replace the $40,000 machine. Using Eureka, the technicians in São Paolo discovered a tip from Canada that suggested replacing a 90-cent connector. The technicians replaced the connector and fixed machine. That tip was sent back to manufacturing and the problem could be remedied at the source. A little knowledge, insight and experience went a long way toward the bottom line and customer satisfaction.
Work involves sharing
In the Eureka project, Xerox social scientists and computer scientists teamed with the service technicians to create a system that would grow community knowledge through a knowledge-sharing process. Within each stage of the process, Xerox had to understand the community of practice and design a system that honors the practice and makes sharing knowledge an intuitive part of the normal work process.
Technicians frequently invent new solutions, write up cheat sheets, incorporate solutions into stories, and quiz each other about technical problems. Using Eureka, service technicians around the world enter their insights into a database, creating documents that include the author's name, the context of the problem, and the solution that was developed. Peers review and validate the insights that are then used as new knowledge in the field. As the solutions are used, a success rate is developed for each. The success rates can be used to help find the most common problems and solutions.
Eureka started as a grass roots effort in France. But once the power of the concept was proven, it became a global program under the guidance of Worldwide Customer Services and Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). A complete knowledge management strategy (Knowledge Link) was created for the global customer services community. That strategy consisted of several guiding principles for Xerox. In its words:
- We should never create the same solution twice. If a solution already exists, it should be used rather than recreating a new solution. In addition, we should focus on continuously improving existing solutions.
- We should make knowledge easily accessible in real time to our people, customers and partners. Solutions should be made available to everyone as soon as they are created.
- We should create an environment where the organization highly values continuous learning and development for the future.
- We should recognize and reward people who benefit the organization by creating, sharing and reusing knowledge rather than reinventing known solutions.
Recognition breeds success
Eureka was challenging from a work practices perspective, requiring a full year to identify the right social setting to encourage and facilitate knowledge sharing. At first, the team tried financial incentives, but found the best way to foster sharing is to recognize people who contribute and validate the knowledge. Individuals are recognized through recording the contributors and validating technicians' names with the proposed solutions. Xerox attributes the success of Eureka to an integrated project team involving such diverse roles as technologists, sociologists, industrial psychologists, program managers and service technicians. Techniques for changing work behavior included:
- testimonials from colleagues,
- mentoring by colleagues,
- senior management buy-in.
The major impact of the Eureka program has been to create "virtual global work groups" where employees from different countries around the world can share their technical knowledge with each other. It has broken down the barriers between numerous technical communities who in the past only shared knowledge when it was requested from them. Eureka is creating a true feeling of "community" among the customer services employees.
Thousands of solutions
The success of Eureka is measured through many metrics, including the number of solutions available in the database, the number of field tips created, the time it takes to validate new solutions and the number of problems solved. The system currently holds more than 35,000 solutions representing more than 12 different countries, and the knowledgebases are growing at more than 400 tips per month. Each Eureka user averages 10 "solves" per year, which means the user went to Eureka, applied the solution they found and it fixed the problem. In total, Xerox estimates that 150,000 problems will be resolved this year using Eureka. However, the true measure of Eureka success will be determined by external customers and whether they feel that they receive an improved level of customer service due to increased reliability and reduce machine downtime.
Funding for Eureka has steadily increased over the last three years in the range of 60% year over year. The sources of funding have also increased as new communities have become involved in Eureka. Return on investment is in the range of tenfold, but most important is management support of the program at all levels of the organization. From the CEO to first-line managers, you can hear people singing the benefits of Eureka.
The technology piece
The umbrella project for automating field service incorporates remote diagnostics, service documentation and knowledge repositories. Key technologies include:
- laptops for more than 90% of service technicians,
- CD-ROMs of service manuals,
- Xerox-developed software for electronic bulletin board with a repository and mechanisms for updating it and SearchLite search engine,
- Xerox's own proprietary software SearchLite and the Eureka update mechanism that allows authors to search and author tips when they are not connected to the server.
All of those components were critical in creating a system that would operate with a mobile service work force.
Eureka was the first success story of knowledge sharing within Xerox. It has become the catalyst for creating a companywide knowledge sharing strategy and numerous knowledge sharing programs and tools. Eureka is viewed as a key project that will act as a role model for other such efforts. In fact the Eureka concept is now being expanded into manufacturing, supplies support and even sales.