In the early 1990’s, I became the Vice President of Service for Oxford Instruments in the Western Hemisphere.  After taking care of some early logistics challenges, like where should I sit and on what, I set up a meeting for the whole team – remote engineers and in-house technical support. There were no other overhead people since this was a new organization.

At the close of the first meeting day, I threw out two questions that really resonated with many of the engineers.  I said, “What happens if the equipment never fails?  How do you continue to feed your family?”  During the dinner that evening, we talked a little about what I was thinking about.  And over the next years, I had that same talk with many of the other engineers (usually after they stopped carrying their soldering iron to service calls.)

About 25 years later I still keep in contact with many of these people, including most of that original team.  All are still gainfully employed, but doing things they never thought they could. They rarely fixed products; they installed very complex scientific instruments, trained Ph.D. level users, and provided on-site support showing these users how to use these instruments to solve their problems and collect new and useful data.  They haven’t touched a soldering iron in over 20 years!  And their group at Oxford Instruments has increased, along with a growing installed base, even though instrument failure rate has dramatically decreased.

Why did I decide to write this post now?

I recently watched a TEDtalk, Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The speaker, Professor David H. Autor, explained the concept of job growth in the age of automation quite simply.  I will attempt to do him justice in the rest of this post.

We all know this famous quote:

If the chain were to fail, it would fail at the weak link.  Therefore, there is no point in investing to make any link stronger than the weakest link.  Makes sense, right?

Now let us transition to support jobs.  Back in the day, the on-site engineer performed most troubleshooting and repairs.  He was the face of the company and was perceived by the customers as the official fireperson.  If he failed, the whole service organization failed.  He was the weak link in the support chain.  Hence, there was little value in improving the phone support function because the customer’s satisfaction with support was based on the on-site person.

Let’s zoom ahead to the present day.  When a customer calls the manufacturer with a problem, someone on the support desk remotely connects to the product, diagnoses the problem, and overnights a replacement part for the customer to install and return the defective part.  If the support person is effective, the customer is very satisfied.  If the product is still broken after installing the replacement part, then the customer is pissed.  Now the help desk is the weak link.

This transition occurred gradually over the past 20 years.  This meant that training the field people was valuable since they still had to repair the older products while the help desk supported the newer ones.  And the slow transition pace meant that the hands-on engineers could amass the more cerebral skills required to help the end user better use their product instead of fixing something.  And they were still being productive in their declining break-fix tasks.

As customers began learning how to better use their purchases, they wanted more hands-on training and consulting. The value being added by the field team quickly exceeded the value from the old style repairs. This value became addictive to customers.  They wanted more all the time. Even though most of the hands-on work went away, there was more customer training and consulting to be done than the displaced engineers could handle.  Applications engineers, who had more technical schooling than the original engineers, were hired into newly created jobs.  These new employees wound up training the engineers since the new hires wanted to share their workload.

And the Sales team began to see that having a very technical person, who was also a good communicator but wasn’t into selling, as part of a prospect sales meeting made a big impact on their close rate.  So, more Applications engineering jobs were created.  And so it goes.

Key Takeaway

As products get more reliable, and remote troubleshooting becomes more commonplace, the hands-on engineers skills must be supplemented so they can perform as Applications Engineers.  This skill upgrade will contribute to employee engagement, retention, and increased sales.  Everyone wins.