Staying In Touch

Online and on the phone, departments explore technology advances to communicate more effectively with customers and operate more efficiently

By Chris Johnson  

Maintenance and engineering departments have long used e-mail and cell phones to cut down on paperwork and streamline services. Departments still rely on these technologies, but as organizations grow — along with the number of responsibilities that departments must handle — so do communication needs. Thus, an increasing number of departments are using centralized Web-based or call-in systems as part of their core customer communication systems.

Taking it to the ‘Net

Large departments with thousands of customers find that online work-request systems save them and their customers valuable time.

Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) recently started using an online system. The district implemented a local area network (LAN) to support district-wide e-mail and shared software, and the maintenance branch has taken advantage of the LAN, implementing its own on-line repair request system. It has proven most effective for the custodial staff, which is part of the maintenance branch.

“We have found that response times are dramatically reduced when compared with the old alternative — filling out paper request forms and sending them via interoffice mail,” says Clifford Davis, maintenance manager for LBUSD. “Over the last few months, we have completely phased out the mail-in request in favor of the online system — and the productivity and capability of our customer service reps have increased. In short, we can do more with less.”

LBUSD, the third largest district in California, serves 97,000 K-12 students. The maintenance branch, with about 200 employees, maintains 8.5 million square feet on 96 campuses.

The online system is streamlining the work-order process for maintenance technicians, as well as for custodians. When requesting new maintenance work, customers still must submit a paper form, which begins the estimate and funding process. But customers now make routine maintenance requests via an online ticket submission system, a Web-based system located on a dedicated server wired into the district LAN. Customers also can phone the branch directly, but the department discourages phone calls in all but emergency situations.

LBUSD used federal grant money to install and upgrade network wiring and equipment throughout its buildings, including the classrooms. Every campus has full access to the Internet, and thus every employee of the district has access to the Web-based repair-request system. Yet implementing the system was not easy, Davis says.

“Originally, our slow and outmoded token-ring network system made this software sluggish and unresponsive on end-user systems,” he says. “This gave the software a bad reputation among our employees.” The district installed a better server, which increased the software’s speed and performance. Employees are warming up to the software slowly, Davis says. In the meantime, the maintenance database has room to grow, one bonus of a Web-based system.

“In addition to the improved technology, as the size of our work-history database grows, we are able to draw on far more accurate work-history information,” Davis says. “Supervisors, managers and field technicians are only now beginning to appreciate the wealth of data we are continuing to gather.”

Maximizing a Web Site

The online system for the 420-acre University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), campus has been in use so long — three years, for parts of it — that lead operating engineer Henry Guzman now takes it for granted.

“It’s really simple,” says Guzman. “You go to the UCLA Web site, and there’s a link for our site. Click on it, and you can request whatever you need right there.”

UCLA’s online system for the facilities management department, which works off the department’s Web site at www.fm.ucla.edu, includes an online billing service, a facility-service-request form for complex or detailed trade work, and a trouble ticket form for routine and non-emergency maintenance work.

Once customers submit forms online, a trouble call center processes their requests. The center is staffed around the clock and handles calls for maintenance, including emergency calls. Guzman says the system is even simpler to use on his end than it is for customers.

“We get called out by the call center,” he says. “We now don’t have to deal with our customers at the beginning, but we continually communicate with them through the whole work process.”

Guzman is part of the university’s North Campus operations for Energy Services and Utilities, which includes preventive-maintenance engineers and facility mechanics. Engineers carry two-way radios and pagers so they can receive dispatch calls. Most recently, the department purchased several cell phones that feature two-way-radio capability.

“The (engineers) like them,” Guzman says. “The only problem, really, is the money. It’s another expense, but it might be worth it.”

Going Mobile

Online communication is not necessarily every manager’s top priority. The United States Postal Service (USPS) in Framingham, Md., uses a small in-house maintenance staff — a mechanic and six custodians, complemented by hired contractors — for facilities that house 250 employees. The site’s maintenance manager, Dianne Boyd, says her department still uses cell phones, portable pagers and an overhead paging system to stay in contact with customers.

“We have been using cell phones on a big scale since ’95,” Boyd says. “But we’re in a low-lying area here, and we had a lot of reception problems. The phones would cut out — usually in the middle of an important phone call, of course. The regular cell phones just weren’t cutting it.”

The department switched to cell phones that offer two-way-radio capability. The phones are as powerful as any two-way radios, Boyd says, making communicating with staff and other USPS facilities more efficient.

Boyd oversees three leased retail spaces totalling about 30,000 square feet and two USPS-owned buildings covering 100,000 square feet. To maintain the facilities, the department relies on a call-center system to bring in contractors for repairs. Operators at the regional maintenance call center take the information from Boyd via phone and contact a project manager, who in turn hires a contractor.

Project managers shop around for the best deal when hiring contractors, especially in small towns where post office maintenance staff might not have the resources to do so themselves. Boyd says the system has cut costs, though it is frustrating at times.

“The people who answer the phone (at the call center) aren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable in terms of maintenance,” she says. “You have to be very careful what you say to make sure that the project manager hires a contractor to do what you need them to do.”

Boyd says she would like to see the USPS rely more on video conferencing to cut down on miscommunication. The USPS already uses the postal service training network (PSTN) to provide centrally developed training courses to employees nationwide. Four channels broadcast a regular schedule of training courses to 800 downlink sites via transmissions on the dedicated PSTN satellite network. Boyd would like to see something similar implemented for more general purposes, such as maintenance.

“We’d be more productive because everyone would be hearing the same thing at the same time,” she says. “I wouldn’t have to translate for my employees. Now it’s like the old phone tree problem: one person tells another, who tells another, who tells someone else. And in the end (the message) is totally different than when it started.”

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  posted on 10/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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