Handling service requests

May 6, 2010
David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor, says it's evolved way beyond the primitive telephone help desk.

Industries that deal directly with the public always have relied on the concept of the service center in handling requests for maintenance. For example, property management companies were pioneers in developing a centralized call center for taking maintenance requests and dispatching someone to take corrective action. They also were among the first to benefit from a Web-based product, where instead of phoning into a call center, tenants completed a Web-based form to request maintenance services. For property managers, this resulted in reduced labor costs through automation and self-service. For tenants, the Web-based process provides an audit trail and allows online tracking of the service request status.

Over the years, other industries have adopted this service model, or at least Web-based service/work requests. CMMS vendors have responded with features and functions that facilitate the process of initiating work for an internal or external maintenance service provider.

Work initiation: Even the most basic CMMS packages sold today have the ability to generate a work request via the Web. Some vendors sell this capability separately from the main CMMS package at a fraction of the base package price. The fact recognizes that users of the Web-based work request are typically internal or external customers of the maintenance service provider and, as such, are interested only in a very small portion of the CMMS functionality.


Alternatively, service providers can establish a service center to deal with phone calls or e-mail requests for service. Many municipalities, for example, have a centralized call center that takes requests for service by telephone. Requests by citizens, local businesses or city employees for maintenance of roads, parks, facilities, water/wastewater service and transit vehicles are handled by a call center representative.

No matter what your industry, each demand for maintenance eventually funnels into the CMMS and becomes a work request. This is typical regardless of whether there's one person answering the telephone on behalf of the maintenance department or a large number of call-center reps answering many different types of calls, including maintenance service requests. In some cases, the CMMS vendor offers a separate module that tracks customers and service requests - customer relationship management (CRM) software. In other cases, a company purchases CRM software separately and integrates it with its CMMS package. The simplest approach, of course, is for the person answering the call to enter the work request directly into the CMMS.

Once work requests have entered the CMMS, they must be evaluated, approved and scheduled. For example, suppose several telephone complaints received indicate that one area of your building is too hot and, at the same time, complaints are received that an area at the other end of your building is too cold. It could be that of the dozen or so complaints received, there's really only one root cause — the HVAC system is out of balance. Thus, a single work order to fix the HVAC system is issued, approved and scheduled. The work order is cross-linked to all of the work requests that relate to it to facilitate status tracking.

Status tracking: The expectation of most people who initiate a service request is that they will be kept abreast of service status. Most CMMS packages have notification capability and the more sophisticated CMMS packages have workflow engines, both of which allow service requestors to receive notification whenever there's a change in status. Examples of status changes that might be of interest to requestors are:

  • Work request received
  • Work order approved
  • Work order scheduled
  • Work in progress (including percent completion or estimated date of completion)
  • Work completed

Every status change should be date- and time-stamped so that duration/queue time can be measured, analyzed and improved over time.

Pareto analysis: This is one of the simplest tools for analyzing service history, but also one of the most powerful. It's especially useful for identifying recurring problems, their root cause and the most cost-effective action to remedy the situation. Most CMMS packages have a field on the work request to identify relevant problem codes associated with a given asset. The most common output from Pareto analysis of problem codes is a bar chart showing the number of occurrences or dollars spent for each problem code. This allows you to focus on reducing the frequency and cost impact of the tallest bars on the Pareto graph. Similarly, Pareto analysis can be conducted for cause and action codes.

Once an asset is identified on the work request, the most likely problem codes associated with the asset are made available on a table lookup. When a service person is dispatched to troubleshoot a problem code (e.g. excessive vibration), codes for the root cause and action taken are then entered onto the work order (e.g. "shaft misalignment" and "replaced bent shaft," respectively). The latter two coded fields are tied to the relevant problem code and asset type, to generate a nested and hierarchical tree structure for problem, cause and action codes. Most of the high-end CMMS packages have this feature.

Depending on how many work requests are generated each day, it might be helpful to conduct Pareto analysis daily, summarized for the week and consolidated for the month and year-to-date. This systematic approach increases the availability, performance and reliability of your key assets over time, as well as the overall cost of maintaining them.

Service level agreement: Another useful feature of some of the more advanced CMMS packages is the ability to record and monitor service level expectations. For example, the CMMS might track response time between when a service request is made, when the service person is dispatched and when the problem is rectified. The CMMS can be used to record a service catalog, i.e. all of the services provided, service level expectations and the standard cost of providing each service. The CMMS can track actual costs and service levels for comparison to your standard.

IT specialization: There are five asset classes, namely plant equipment, facilities, mobile equipment, infrastructure (e.g. roads, pipelines) and IT assets. Although the service model can be applied to each asset class, IT assets are most relevant. For decades, help desks have been taking calls from users experiencing problems with desktop computers, laptops, printers and so on. Service level agreements are established with internal IT departments or external service providers, and service requests are typically taken by phone or via the internet using CMMS or IT help desk software.

Chargebacks: Some CMMS packages can accommodate chargebacks to internal departments or external customers to cover labor, spare parts and overhead charges. This is accomplished by turning work orders into third-party invoices for services rendered. A number of CMMS vendors are quite sophisticated in this area, offering advanced features:

  • Mark-up of labor, material and other costs
  • Rounding of time and cost values
  • Establishing a minimum and maximum labor time or dollar charge
  • Distinguishing billable work from non-billable work
  • Configuring billing templates with rate information for a specific job type
  • Associating billing templates to specific customers, customer class or on a one-off basis, including appropriate rates, mark-ups and charges
  • Handling split charges (e.g. for multiple accounts)
  • Allowing customer access to only their own service level and billing information

E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at [email protected].

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