Centralised helpdesks speed crisis management

Copyright: David Lawson – FM 2003

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The problem is obvious. The sound of water coming through the ceiling is clearly audible over the helpdesk operator’s ear set. But where is it coming from? Who is reporting it? Is this covered by the service agreement?

  The problem with centralised helpdesks is that you can’t just pop upstairs – or even across town – to check it out. The information has to be noted down and passed on for others to assess. But who to? If it goes to the wrong people, the work takes that much longer to get sorted out.

  Centralised remote servicing has certainly transformed facilities management, raising standards and cutting costs. But helpdesks rely on accurate information which clients often cannot provide. Fast response times are also critical for service providers whose fees are set by service level agreements. But even accurate information can be useless when it has to be transferred through several levels before reaching the guy  in the boiler suit  carrying the tools.

  ‘Chinese whispers’ is how Susan Marchant, operations manager at Mapeley, labels the problem. At each level there is potential for the information to be distorted or even lost. Off goes Mr Boiler Suit to fix the piping in the wrong building. Down go the potential fees.

  When Mapeley took  over responsibility for 600 Inland Revenue buildings a couple of years ago, it made clear the intention to change perception away from bare property management to customer service. It should be judged – and paid – on that basis. But within the first year flaws in the information management system began to threaten that stance.

   ‘It was a long chain which went through the helpdesk and then passed on to regional teams,’ says Marchant. ‘Key information was being distorted or lost – just like in Chinese whispers -  as it passed through four or five layers.’

  The helpdesk also belied its name, as the setup did not exactly help operators. ‘The interrogation of clients was flawed,’ says head of technology Clayton Johnson. ‘Often they could not pin down problems because they were asking the wrong questions, or they were too technical for clients to understand.’ 

  The water coming through the ceiling might be coming from a broken radiator, but the client would not know how to diagnose this. It might be a leaky roof. It might be from a leaky hand basin. That might be on a different floor. That floor or roof might not be part of the service agreement. The caller might not even give the address matching that on file.

 And all this could suffer misinterpretation as it filters out to contractors. The wrong type of craftsman could be sent to the wrong address. And if it was not fixed, there was a chance the helpdesk would not know until another, much angrier call came through threatening all kinds of retribution.

  Mapeley’s solution was deceptively simple. Strip out the layers of management and beef up the intelligence of the helpdesk. Yet Marchant sees it more evolution than revolution. From the start, Mapeley aimed to cut out the intermediate layers of  building-centred management. This just goes one step further in the path towards a  ‘virtual operation’.

  The Milton Keynes helpdesk has been transformed from a ‘post office’ which sorted and passed on messages into a real centre of management, she says. Managers have been upgraded to take more responsibility for solving problems. Seven regional teams with around 10 staff each have been disbanded. The helpdesk is now closer to service providers, eliminating much of the ‘Chinese whispers’ threat.

  ‘It is no longer about just taking calls. It is more about owning problems and, at times, following them right through,’ says Johnson. His job was to come up with the means to do this.

  ‘First you have to remember this was not primarily a technology exercise,’ he says. ‘It was a management exercise which made use of technology. You can lose track of what should be involved unless you realise it consists of people, the process and the technology, each matched to work together.’

  Mapeley spent several months looking for packages that would suite this matchmaking, ranging from off-the-shelf software to customising its own systems. The selection team settled on Help Desk & More, a package provided by Intelligent Information Systems. It suited them for several reasons.

 Firstly, it eliminates a lot of free text – the information typed in by the old helpdesk operators when they received information over the phone to pass on to the management teams for interpretation and action.

 Second, it was much more user-friendly. ‘Remember the key aim is to reach a solution quickly and accurately with as little stress on the customer as possible,’ says Johnson. ‘Customers are not technical people. Helpdesk operators, even now, are not technical people. But they need to provide the right information without ambiguity.’

  This is not a diagnostic program. Nor can it provide stock answers  Mapeley provides a huge spectrum of services and an equally large variety of service agreements ranging from whole buildings down to parts of floors. It just aims to get the right information to the right experts as quickly as feasible.

  Both operators and software had to be trained to meet these demands. ‘We  were able to feed in a year’s worth of experience of answering questions to top up the  data,’ says Marchant. That gave a flying start educating the system how clients normally communicated as well as the range of problems and service inquiries.

  Training the staff was critical because they were being brought up to a new level where they took more responsibility for queries. But this had to happen without any interruption or degradation of service, so they were taken offline in a way that the gaps could  be covered. They each received up to six weeks training but this was spread over a long period. ‘It was probably  between three and six months before clients would have noticed any difference in treatment because we wanted to make this as seamless as possible,’ says Marchant.

  A good deal of use was made of skills from the disbanded regional teams and staff were brought in to ‘mentor’ those on the helpdesk developing specialities. It has not been compartmentalised so particular people, say,  answer all security questions while others do all the plumbing calls. Anyone can answer most calls but if they realise it goes beyond their competence it will be passed to someone more specialised on the desk. In the past, this would have gone outside to a specialist, lengthening the response time and raising the threat of distortion.

   Customers also needed retraining, as the new system is not just phone-based. It involves a lot of on-screen reporting. ‘We obviously can’t retrain 90,000 people, but we work with a select few such as the facilities representatives of each building and they go off and work with their staff,’ says Marchant.

  A similar pattern has been adopted with management teams and service suppliers. One of the critical benefits of the new system is that reporting can be done in real time over the internet. Anyone with access to the system can track progress of their query or order.

  In the past a contractor would phone in to ‘sign off’ a problem. Now the helpdesk, management team, contractors and clients themselves can track that in real time rather than waiting for a final report. Contractors have also praised the new setup because it is much simpler, says Johnson, with far fewer steps to negotiate on the computer. This tracking system also facilitates the new helpdesk role where managers can ‘take ownership’ of big problems and follow them through to completion.

 It all comes together to  boost efficiency. Despite the rationalisation of regional centres, the number of helpdesk people has actually dropped to around 40-50 as the system has evolved over around a year of gradual migration. ‘And we are still training and developing as part of the ethos of improving service,’ says Marchant.

Next Steps

Mapeley is already looking forward to the next stage of its helpdesk development – one that could shake the industry to its roots. Within a couple of years, Marchant hopes there will be no helpdesk. The aim is to develop the system and software to a level where clients can talk directly to service providers. ‘It is technically feasible,’ says Johnson. ‘We have already taken the first steps down that path by making the interface with the helpdesk more user-friendly. It is just a matter of continuing to improve the decision tree.’

  Marchant does not see it as a revolution – more an evolution towards the fundamental  Mapeley ethos of providing a service with as few barriers as possible. The first stage has involved stripping out intermediary levels of management. The next will completely eliminate them. 

Inland Revenue

Mapeley’s association with the Inland Revenue was one of two major projects involving government outsourcing of property sealed in the closing years of the last decade. Called STEPS, it involved the firm taking total control of the IR and Customs & Excise estate. But this involved far more than the property deal which has been rediscovered by the media recently because of complaints that the new landlords are based offshore. It was, and remains, a comprehensive agreement covering services ranging from ordering stationery, through catering, childcare and security to building maintenance.   

  The Inland Revenue contract involves handling all facilities management functions for 90,000 people distributed through 600 buildings totalling 15m sq ft of leasehold and freehold property.  It replaced a system where each building handled its own facilities management. A centralised helpdesk in Milton Keynes originally acted as a message centre for seven regional centres but the new arrangement is between a more ‘intelligent’ central control linked to management teams.  The relationship is driven by service level agreements on areas ranging from whole buildings down to sections of floors.