When Gil Morales and his crew got the call about a loose dog, they sprung into action. An adult Webster University (Mo.) student had stopped by campus to buy a book with her dog, a rescue who had been abused by a previous owner, in tow. As her car door opened, the dog took off. "I think she called Public Safety, and they called us," says Morales, facilities operations manager. After a search and much to the distraught woman's relief, the dog was found safe, hiding under a car. The next day, she arrived at their office with a cake to show her appreciation.
While the reward isn't always that sweet, Morales and his team of about 13 skilled trades workers and five groundskeepers have been called upon to help in a wide variety of situations—from cell phones slipped into elevator shafts and keys fallen into toilets to birds inside buildings and "funny odors" in classrooms. While these may not sound dire, to the person making the call it's an emergency. "And guess what? You own it," Morales says of his role.
Top-notch customer service, which includes taking and handling facilities requests in a timely manner and with empathy, may have always existed on some campuses. Now it has become a priority for many of these departments.
Customer service was identified as a top 10 critical facilities issue during APPA's first annual Thought Leaders Summit in 2006. The report, "University Facilities Respond to the Changing Landscape of Higher Education," notes that facilities (as well as other departments) were not accustomed to thinking of themselves as being in the customer service business. But the summit participants recognized a change, driven at least in part by the rising expectations of students and parents.
"It's always been a part of the facility department's mission, but it definitely has increased quite a bit in the years I've been here," says Scott Schrage, assistant director of facilities management at the University of Denver. He began at DU in 1991. When David White was interviewing in the department six years ago, he says he could tell during the interview process that service "was a big mission." White, who is now the facilities business technology administrator, adds, "It's always been mine, too, in all my previous lives, even delivering newspapers. It's how you get tips!"
-Kevin M. Gaffney, Albright College
DU set the stage for better service across campus by implementing a quality balanced scorecard program. Having to report quarterly on factors such as measurement of service "gives you that extra motivation," Schrage says.
At The Ohio State University, improving customer service is a continuous goal, says Lynn Readey, associate vice president of facilities operations and management. "Customer focus may be our number one priority."
For OSU, a reorganization of maintenance, operations, and custodial services delivery has helped staff become more service-oriented. Resources were combined and then reallocated into three campus districts, each with four zones. Zone leaders get to know their assigned buildings and occupants, and each building has a point person so there's a primary contact for all facilities issues.
Student and family expectations help drive service efforts. When Kevin M. Gaffney, director of facilities services and operations at Albright College (Pa.), was an RA in college, parents would drop their kids off and hope they called a few times a year, he says. Today, of course, they're more involved. And tuition is in a different ballpark. "People [are] looking to get what they pay for, and this generation has in some way been protected by Mom and Dad," says Gaffney, whose team has about 65 members. "I get as many calls from moms and dads as I do from students-everything from 'it's too hot,' 'it's too cold,' (in the same room on the same day), to 'nobody cleared the snow off my daughter's car during that last 24-inch snowstorm.' "
Also setting the stage for better service is improved technology. Web-based work order systems allow anyone to submit requests. The University of Denver, for example, uses softWrench from IBM Maximo, which allows staff to track nearly every service and function the department provides. "We manage and plan our work tasks inside of the system and report internally on the response times, number of outstanding requests, as well as all time and material amounts for maintaining our buildings and property," explains White. "We have the functionality of a running dialogue within the system." That is, customers can be updated on progress, and the system includes a customer satisfaction survey.
In the past, work orders would get communicated via phone, fax, e-mail, word of mouth, even cocktail napkin, White says. Schrage notes that now they don't have staff saying they didn't get the work order and the customer saying it was placed.
Ohio State uses the Service2Facilities website, created internally. Although visitors are reminded it's best to route service requests through their building coordinator, they can submit them directly online or via a telephone helpline. The broader Facilities Operations and Development website has an FAQ list with general questions such as "What happens after I submit a work request?" and specific ones such as "What if I need recycling containers emptied?"
Webster initially had a homegrown work order system, which Morales says was "a little cumbersome," particularly in finding and maintaining historical data. Since June 2006, his department has been contracting annually with SchoolDude for its online work order management system.
Once a work order is submitted, facilities staff must prioritize and process it. Albright, which also uses SchoolDude, has a dispatcher (a former public safety officer) who determines each request's urgency and alerts the necessary people. "He knows pretty much what to do with almost any situation," Gaffney says, adding that they developed answers for a variety of situations. One rule of thumb: requestors should get some kind of response within 20 minutes.
Gaffney refers to weighing the needs of students versus faculty and staff when prioritizing requests as a balancing act. "You've got to look at it from the standpoint that these students live here. This is the only place they have and for the balance of college staff, they're here eight, maybe 10, hours and then they leave. If it wasn't for the students, we wouldn't have a job."
DU's White says prioritizing simply requires common sense. "If it's going to damage the building, if it's a health/safety issue, we don't ask for a work request but get right on it." And, he notes, "we respond to the chancellor's office really quickly."
As Morales points out, there are certain "creature comforts that you've just gotta have. ... We have to provide an environment that's conducive to learning." His department views students as "paying customers," but he notes that everyone trying to perform their jobs on campus must also be comfortable so they can be productive.
"I recently submitted a work order to have a problem with my desk fixed, and in a matter of one hour it was complete," shares Krissi Timmerman, communications coordinator for Webster. The facilities team members, she adds, "are constantly working with a smile on their faces, and many of us know them by name."
For large universities, instantaneous service and that personal touch are greater challenges. Readey describes Ohio State's facilities response line as "a small command and response center" that's staffed 24 hours a day. Work order requestors get an e-mail confirmation, and while the average response time for non-emergencies is currently three days, the department is working to bring that number down, says Readey. After emergencies, customer requests (e.g., leaky pipes, door jams) are the next priority level, followed by preventive maintenance and then billable services. Those are services, such as minor renovations, equipment installations, and space conversions that are not covered by OSU's operations and maintenance funding model, which allocates resources based on factors such as building condition and anticipated energy costs.
-David White, University of Denver
DU's Schrage has found that it's important to remind customers of the need to provide enough information so his team can prioritize. For example, once someone put in a work order to fix a door. "That can mean the door is dragging, a little stuck. In this case the hinge was hanging and she didn't say that. We told her if she had explained, we would have been there immediately," he recalls. Their current work order system has a data field to explain the general issue and another that asks for a better description and the exact location. White says orders aren't passed along to the shop if the person processing the order isn't confident he could find the problem himself. "You don't want someone wandering out, maybe in the wrong building, taking the wrong tools with them," he says.
A reliable work order system is just the beginning for facilities departments focused on service. Continuous communication, both within the department and across campus, is one key. OSU's zone leaders meet regularly themselves and also with building coordinators, Readey says. Building coordinators have their own listserv, which keeps them talking to each other and allows her department to get out information regarding, for example, what to be on the lookout for with their buildings as winter sets in.
At Albright, Monday morning facilities meetings cover outstanding work orders, completed work orders, public safety log items, and general issues, Gaffney says. And then meetings with major campus users help identify problems before they occur. He sees communication with his colleagues in public safety and residence life as especially important to his job. "The three of us are in this together. If one of us fails, we all look bad," he says. "We try to be on the same side all the time." A facilities supervisor or manager is always on call, so a public safety or residential life colleague can call day or night.
Other service boosters include:
- Staff coverage on a 24/7 basis. Gaffney has worked on this issue in the three years he's been with the institution, which formerly had "virtually no evening or weekend facilities presence." It's about "trying to match our service levels and staffing capability to what the community really needs," he says. This has involved hiring generalists and spreading out staff hours.
- Direct student contact. Albright's resident assistants get a special presentation from facilities during their two-week training period. The one-hour session covers, for example, the work order system and the basics of heating and cooling systems, which the RAs can pass on to other students, Gaffney says.
- Regular building audits. Ohio State is close to implementing a new system that will enable staff to evaluate each building as a whole as well as in parts, Readey says. It also will be able to list, say, the 15 worst roofs on campus. Knowing your building's roof is only the 10th worst may not ease your pain, she notes, but being able to share with campus customers that sort of information can help them understand the facilities department's challenges.
- Customer surveys. Both Ohio State and DU have contracted with the company Sightlines for customer satisfaction surveys. Between fiscal year 2008 and 2009, shares Readey, OSU went from meeting and exceeding expectations of under 60 percent of respondents to doing that for more than 80 percent of respondents. Schrage notes that for DU's initial survey year, satisfaction scores were very low. In the most recent survey, 98 percent of customers felt their expectations were met or exceeded. Sightlines also allows clients to benchmark against other, similar institutions.
- Willingness to change. DU's custodial services used to handle campus event set-up and breakdown, which Schrage says made sense because it's got such a large workforce and events require clean-up. "The problem is, our custodians work evenings and events happen all day long," he says. Plus, "custodians are not necessarily used to setting up tables. They weren't hired for that." In addition, daytime set-ups for evening events often meant too much time in between, and students were known to take advantage of the tables for studying. A conversion crew at the university's athletic center was expanded so that team could take over for event set-up. "That's been a big success with our customers," says Schrage.
- Internal feedback. DU's annual survey of facilities employees contains questions addressing all areas of operation, including customer service, Schrage explains. The staff is asked how much they agree with statements such as "In my work unit, we routinely talk about the needs of our customers" and "I believe the quality of my work is important to the overall success of facilities."
- Post-work feedback. After a facilities job is complete, customers at OSU are asked to answer six quick questions about the work so Readey's department can get a sense of how the work was done and if there were any issues. Monthly scores are tallied. Whether it's through a survey or a phone call, that feedback is welcome. "We all consider ourselves open door in every way," Readey says, adding that when there's an issue, "we want to hear about it."
To read a training manager's perspective on stellar service received from the facilities department at Davenport University (Mich.), see the UB Buzz post "Now That's Service," at http://blogs.universitybusiness.com.