I had a huge problem this winter with the heating in my condominium apartment. It was made all the more unbearable because my engagement with the people who were responsible to fix it was way below par. I usually try to write a post that reflects positively on what to do – this prompted me to write a few basics on what you shouldn’t do.
The problem: I have a heating/cooling system in the condo that works by using hot water pumped from the hot water tank. The system had been working poorly most of January, which I initially put off to our unusually cold winter. Only to find, on waking one morning early February, that the whole system had failed and I had no hot water and the heating system was blowing cold air.
Six weeks later I finally have a resolution to the problem. (It turned out to be damage to the air ventilation extermination termination point that had to be repaired outdoors 3 stories up, exasperated by a poorly maintained heating system)
What I see as certain easily preventable failures and delays in the service support process that could have been avoided:
Poor Handovers between partners and 3rd parties
Thinking the problem was initially a problem with the tank, I called the Gas company partner. After a week of fully servicing the tank, they resolved the issue was with the ventilation and noted the end point damage. They advised me to alert the condo Corporation of the problem.
I passed the Gas Company’s written report and a picture on to the Management Company. However, this was never passed to the environmental expert. There was a scheduling wait to have that person onsite. Once he arrived, on looking at the damage he was able to identify the problem. Then there was a scheduling wait for the repair. Effectively the diagnosis step was repeated twice, with long waits in between.
A support case system that is accessible to all parties, or that you can attach documentation to would have provided this handover of information better. Better yet, build gateways between the systems of your biggest partners, so that information is automatically exchanged.
Establish information handover points between partners and 3rd parties!
Not listening to the real problem description and trying to find a quick general fix
It’s been such a cold miserable winter and ice had been forming on the external vents and blocking air to the water heaters. The condo management company hired a high-rise window cleaner to clear the vents of ice. When I first reported the problem, they didn’t listen to my description that there was damage, but responded by including my unit into this exercise. There was no cross-check done as to whether the generic fix resolved my problem, and I spent a week afterwards trying to escalate that my situation was unique and related to the damage.
We also see this problem in IT. Often the first-level support triage of the problem is done by a lesser skilled person, who is following a flowchart of questions based on previous cases. Even if this routes the problem in the wrong direction, there is often a way for the second level to highlight the mistake and route it more correctly.
The end customer shouldn’t have to be the one that steps in to notify you of your mistakes
Make sure your triage teams can adequately route the problems to the right experts!
Not responding to the customer
When I tried to report back that the generic fix didn’t work, there was a real muddle over who was the point of contact that I should speak with. There was simply no response to my repeated attempts at contacting the Management Company – via phone and email. The main point of contact at the Management Company went on leave and at the same time the second point of contact was changed to a new staff member. There were no “out-of-office redirection” messages in either voice mail or email.
Always keep the lines of communication open with customers. Make sure it’s clear internally who owns the communication and arrange for coverage and referrals when they are absent from the office.
Not having a clearly understood escalation path
During delays, I contacted the president on our board of directors. This escalation was ineffective and it was actually unclear what the Board would do as an escalation.
I’ve done a lot of work with Management Escalation procedures in IT. As a manager, when something is escalated to you I believe you first need to have a brief on the situation, find out what is blocking or stalling things, figure out ways to clear these or enable the people that are doing the work, and enhance the communications to the customer.
Understand what your escalation paths should be, and what should be done when something is escalated.
Not having enough staff to support your customer base
The Board of Directors engage an environmental contractor for repair and maintenance of the heating / cooling units in common areas. However, they do not have the same arrangement for the residential units, even though these are considered condo common elements.
Faced with a real problem with a residential unit, the Management Company called on the existing Contractor for help. However, not having previously scoped doing this type of work, this company had slow response times in getting the right experts out to actually diagnose and then fix the problems. They simply were busy with other bigger jobs.
Any good IT support department will do an assessment of potential support cases based on their existing customer base. They will then hire staff or contract 3rd parties to be able to meet their obligations. Any good IT company will do this because they need to be ready to meet service level agreements and manage costs. Other service businesses can learn from IT.
Know your scope of work and hire/partner appropriately to be able to fulfill it!
Working in the service support industry can at times be both frustrating and rewarding. Frustrating when you have issues that are challenging, and rewarding when you are able to final overcome them and leave a smile on the customer’s face. In the nature of dealing with unplanned events, there can be lulls and busy times. Why complicate all this further with process and communication failures. These should be the easy things to fix.