The quest to differentiate in smart FM

There is no getting away from the fact that this year has been extremely challenging for the FM industry. But we should also take hope from the fact that whilst the pandemic will pass (in the hopefully not-too-distant future), the increased importance that businesses attach to FM and cleaning must surely remain. Business leaders have recognized the strategic value of their buildings, and hygiene and safety will become an enduring focus.

Contractors that can demonstrate a commitment to delivering first-class service delivery across the board, and especially within cleaning, can take advantage of this new focus on FM to win new contracts and establish closer, higher-value relationships with existing clients. And FM practitioners that have the vision and skills to consult with business leaders and find ways to accelerate the re-entry of staff and customers into their buildings, have an opportunity to position themselves as strategic partners going forward. 

The big question though is, how can contactors stand out in the market and demonstrate the innovation, strategic vision and services required by businesses today and over the coming months as the world emerges from the pandemic?

The difficulty in being different

So much has changed within the FM world over the course of 2020 but so many FM firms still face the age-old problem of differentiating in what has always been a largely cost-driven industry.

Businesses may finally be recognizing the value of FM and cleaning but many still don’t have a clear idea of what ‘good FM’ looks like. They’re simply not used to evaluating service providers on anything other than cost – performance, consistency, innovation, outputs and outcomes may have been discussed during tender processes but they were rarely the decisive factors when selecting a contractor.

The flip side of this is that many FM service providers have therefore struggled to create real differentiation in the market – why would they bother when the market has always been so cost driven?

In research that we carried out earlier this year, 85 percent of senior FM leaders around Europe admitted that providing a differentiated customer experience is a serious business challenge, citing it as their biggest strategic concern. Contractors are struggling to establish a strong identity but they’re acutely aware of the need to do so. 88 percent of FM leaders report that differentiation in the market is a top priority over the next two years.

Differentiation beyond cost

The default tendency for most FM firms when looking to create differentiation has been to invest in new technology as a way to demonstrate innovation and operational efficiency (and to drive down resourcing costs). Of course, technology – whether that’s machinery or software – is hugely important in creating a future-looking, performance-driven brand and operational model. Businesses want to know that they are working with an FM contractor that is investing in and deploying cutting-edge technology.

But technology adoption is only one way to deliver genuine differentiation in the market – and it must be accompanied by wider operational and commercial innovation in order to drive a strong and sustainable identity in the market.

Increasingly, clients are leaning on contractors to support and accelerate their efforts to create connected workspaces. Businesses recognize that connected, smart buildings are critical in attracting and retaining high quality talent. The pandemic has made this even more important, as organizations look to navigate huge shifts in working patterns and behaviors to create an optimal workforce for the future.

In line with this towards connected workspaces, businesses are looking for contractors to provide more robust, outcome-focused measurement; performance-based contracts with shared risks and rewards between contractors and clients; and more strategic use of data and insight to measure performance and optimize service delivery and building utilization.

This appetite for more rigorous measurement and reporting, along with more agile and responsive service delivery and resourcing, is putting pressure on contractors to adapt their commercial and operational models.

Contractors need to look beyond technology and review their entire proposition – are they really delivering the services that clients need at the current time and are they doing so in a way that is most appealing to business leaders?

The cobotic difference

Over the past six months, and largely in response to Covid-19, increasing numbers of contractors are turning to cobotics to drive operational transformation and create real differentiation in the market. By adopting cobots (collaborative robots that work alongside frontline staff to take over repetitive tasks and free up staff to focus on higher value tasks), FM contractors can improve performance and deliver enhanced service delivery.

Cobots such as Whiz, our own cobotic vacuum sweeper, demonstrate a commitment to innovation and new ways of working that are completely in tune with the current challenges that businesses are facing during the pandemic. They free up time for staff to focus on the tasks that make a real difference to clients who are looking to improve hygiene standards and encourage re-entry into their buildings. And the adoption of such innovative technology raises the profile of cleaning and makes it more visible to staff and customers, instilling confidence around the safety of buildings. Cobotic cleaning teams just look different.

But beyond the technology itself, cobots allow contractors to differentiate in other ways. For a start, the cobotic workforce model means that FM providers can offer clients far more flexibility in when and how frequently services are delivered. Contractors also become much better able to manage staff absence and churn by scaling their use of cobots, meaning that any impact on clients is minimized and service levels are consistently maintained. And as we all know, that really is different to the current status quo.

Linked to this, the data that cobots capture allows contractors to measure performance in a consistent and robust way, and to continually optimize performance based on real-time insights. This paves the way for performance-based contracts and fees, something that has long been called for across an FM sector which is still dominated by traditional time or input-based models.

This is the point at which contractors really can start to differentiate themselves in the eyes of clients (and would-be clients). The shift from commoditized time-based services to output and outcome-focused contracts changes the entire narrative around FM.

Very quickly, FM contractors can establish themselves as strategic partners to their clients and trusted advisors to business leaders desperately looking to get staff and customers back into their buildings, safely and hygienically.

FM contractors recognize the potential for cobotics – not just in terms of improving their own operational efficiency, but in driving stronger, more strategic client relationships and increasing revenue and profit. More than three quarters (77 percent) of supply-side FM leaders predicted that the introduction of cobotics will enable them to win new clients through proof of performance and innovation, and 82 percent predicted cobotics will enable them to increase the size of contracts and broaden their scope of work with existing clients.

These figures speak for themselves. With the right cobotic strategy and well-defined implementation, cobotics can provide contractors with the genuine differentiation they need to generate cut-through and take advantage of new opportunities in a dynamic and unpredictable market.

Nils J.van der Zijl, VP Sales & Marketing, Softbank Robotics EMEA

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