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Running on a full tank

Running on a full tank

The New Zealand Automobile Association trades in its redlining network for a faster, newer model.

It’s dusk and you’re driving along a country road in Blenheim when suddenly your beat-up but faithful Holden ute breaks down. You’re clueless: Battery? Transmission? You want to kick yourself for not getting it tuned up as you’d planned to do prior to the trip. Somehow, you never quite got round to it. You whip out your mobile phone and call the New Zealand Automobile Association for help …But what if you have to wait in a queue for 10 minutes because the operators are busy with similar requests for help? After all, it’s a Labour Day weekend and half of the country’s population are out for a drive. Many others like you are off the beaten track and requesting roadside assistance.

These were the kinds of concerns David van Kampen was pondering after joining the NZAA four years ago as national road service manager. For, while the NZAA may have diversified, the AA Road Service, a 24x7 operation, remains its “core service”.

He says the NZAA attends half a million “breakdown call-outs” each year. The requests – coming in from mobile phone, landline or fax – constitute about half of the total calls handled by the association’s contact centre in Penrose, Auckland.

The NZAA, he observed then, was “suffering issues” due to the sheer volume of the increase in demand, which was also overwhelming the call centres in Auckland and Christchurch.

“On 80 to 85 per cent of the days, we could meet member requirements and services demands. But it’s those 15 to 20 per cent of the days when it all turns to hell,” van Kampen recalls.

“Our operators were getting overloaded. We were becoming inefficient, because we had a lot of what I call relatively minor and short-term system failures. It would fall over and crash.”

Paul Wykes, project manager – road service, says the old system ran at 99 per cent capacity almost all the time – it was the times it hit 100 per cent that were the problem. “It was not so much that it crashed, as the staff was very adept at getting along without it,” Wykes points out. “But, every time it did fall over, it took about 40 minutes to get back to where we were prior to the crash.”

While on the majority of occasions its members would never even notice, says van Kampen, AA staff did. Meanwhile, usage of the mobile phone as a primary means of contacting them had just “gone through the roof” and provided more challenges to the call centre staff – the platform itself was about 12 years old. “It had been an excellent system and it was pretty much a home-grown, home-developed proprietary system from ECONZ and the system had served us very well.

The issue was, it was getting old, getting tired and it didn’t have enough capacity left. We had a couple of what I call relatively minor enhancements along the way to keep it ticking, but quite clearly it was beyond its usefulness if we wanted to start looking after our members – and, more importantly I think, looking after them for the future.”

This was a valid concern for the AA, with membership now reaching 950,000 and growing by 3 to 4 per cent each year.

He says all these “provided a pretty strong foundation for a good business case to the CEO and the board”.

Two years ago, van Kampen, working with John Gresham, general manager information technology, began the rollout of the new network system that included the ECONZ computer-aided response and despatch (AutoCARD) system, and interactive voice response (IVR) facility to the call centre.

Calls to the AA now go through the IVR system, and the staff can pull out membership details faster. Staff members rely on a full electronic mapping system to pinpoint the caller’s location nationwide (the old one had a mapping system but was not nationwide, so staff had to refer to printed maps) and relay the details to the despatch centre, which matches them to appropriate service providers for roadside assistance.

The organisation conducted a thorough assessment of what they needed to upgrade, van Kampen explains, based on the feedback from business units, the call centre staff and members.

His department worked closely with Gresham on the different issues that cropped up.

The AA sought request for proposals from a list of vendors but chose existing supplier ECONZ in the end, because of its track record in the business, “competitive pricing” and good working relationship with the organisation.

Aversion to failure

The project team members came from various departments. However, while all of them have been involved in diverse projects, none had worked on a “pure IT project” of that scale, says van Kampen. “So we took a fairly classical approach to it, a really by-the-book approach.”

The first step was setting up a formal project team structure with the CEO Brian Gibbons as main sponsor, and van Kampen and Gresham as joint owners of the project. A full-time project manager was also appointed from one of van Kampen’s staff. Paul Wykes had knowledge about call centre operations and was responsible for helping keep the old system “alive and ticking over”. “While he was not from a specialist IT background, from a business perspective he was very IT savvy,” van Kampen notes.

He further required all team members to study “in depth” the ‘Why Projects Fail’ section of the Standish Group’s Chaos Report, published in 1994, “so we could identify what I thought would be the obstacles involved before we even started”.

He researched the systems upgrade projects of the AA’s counterparts overseas. A step van Kampen adopted from this research was the appointment of an independent, external auditor. “He sat outside the project team but worked closely at three levels.” He provided project management support to Wykes, interacted with van Kampen on a reasonably frequent basis and wrote regular reports when the project reached certain milestones, a copy of which would be sent to the CEO.

“He was reporting to the CEO independently, just saying, ‘How is it going? Is it on track? Here are the things you need to be aware of,’” van Kampen explains. “I think that process really worked well for us. It just gave us that external independence.”

Chicken-and-egg

One of the key benefits of the systems upgrade is the consolidation of the organisation’s two call centres. “That was a little bit of a chicken-and-egg, because we had to have the new technology to be able to do the consolidation,” van Kampen says.

“We made the call that maintaining two call centres was unnecessary from a member service point of view. In fact, it led to some inconsistencies in service delivery.” Prior to the upgrade, when the Christchurch site went down, Auckland could handle all the calls. But when the Auckland site went down, “we couldn’t quite handle all the national calls, and could probably get 85 to 90 per cent.” Upgrading the two sites would also mean higher costs.

The phased rollout required the new and old system to run in parallel for a time. Wykes says this initially required him to double handle a number of jobs until full implementation was complete, and to focus on both systems. After implementation, Wykes and a number of the core training team spent the first two weeks in the call centre, assisting the operators through any issues that arose. “By the time we went live, a slightly different system version was released than that which they were trained on and there were some slight modifications that differed from training,” he explains.

A “minor issue” that ensued was the fact some of the team had no experience of Windows, so a significant training program had to be put in place to ensure the staff received grounding in the new system, says Wykes. “The biggest change to the operators was the requirement to provide an exact match on breakdown locations using the mapping data supplied by our vendor, as opposed to using the manual map books to enable job completion. It was also a bit of customer re-education as well, getting the locally known location details correct, versus the current information held within the mapping data.”

The AA also took the opportunity to combine this training with the upgrading of the telephony switch just prior to going live on the new system. “Ideally, you wouldn’t be putting in two new major systems side by side. However, the system training also included the use of new telephony equipment, so they were rather demanding training sessions.”

Wykes says tight specifications agreed with ECONZ in the early stages ensured no major problems arose during the rollout. “Throughout the design and build stages, the team came up with a number of changes they would have liked implemented. Because none of these were critical, they were deferred until phase two.”

No excuses

With the consolidation of the two centres, the AA had to set up a disaster recovery site about 10 kilometres away in the ECONZ headquarters. Wykes explains the Penrose centre is fully backed up by diesel generator, so power failures do not cause a problem within Road Service. “Luckily, we have not been called upon to utilise the back-up DR site, other than for regular planned testing.” However, van Kampen points out, having this redundancy is important for the ongoing reliability of member services.

“If you work 24x7, that’s when the members need you and there are no excuses for not having a back-up. I suppose that was where we found the old system wanting on occasions.”

On an average day, van Kampen explains, the centre would get 2000 to 2500 calls, and do about 1400 jobs. On a busy day, he says, calls could number up to 3500, and over 2000 of these would be breakdown calls. The busy days of the year are likely to occur during winter or the three to four weeks of Christmas and New Year, “where absolutely everybody is on the road, everybody is travelling”. A bad day is when flooding occurs and call volumes increase by 50 to 60 per cent.

“Under the old system, the members wouldn’t notice 85 per cent of the days when we were good, but very definitely they would notice it when we had bad days. Now, it is has to be an exceptionally bad day for the members to even notice.”

On a recent drizzly afternoon, van Kampen recalls going to the AA office in Penrose, where one floor houses the consolidated call centre. Most of the operators are tied up on the phone.

“It’s quite a busy day for us. It’s the start of winter, it’s cold, it’s wet.” Despite the heavy traffic, figures on the huge computerised monitor above show zero abandoned calls or roadside works.

“Our service stats are really good,” beams van Kampen. “If we were here 18 months or two years ago, we’d be running around and saying, ‘sorry we have no time for interviews today’.”

Rate your challenges

When interviewing business executives, MIS asks them to rate the most challenging elements of managing a project. Here, David van Kampen, national road service manager, rates his challenges in implementing the systems upgrade for the New Zealand Automobile Association:

Most challenging

Managing vendors

Getting support of board and CEO

Managing emergencies

Keeping projects on time and on budget

Selecting vendors

Strategy and planning

Getting support of other company stakeholders

Finding and motivating the right staff

Least challenging

During the actual development work and rollout, van Kampen says, staff issues did not rate high in his list of challenges. “Everyone felt they were part of the project and somewhat involved. Therefore there was quite a lot of shared responsibility.”

Managing vendors and getting support from the executive committee, however, were major concerns, because of the nature of the project. “It was probably the single biggest amount of money that the AA had spent on an IT project in recent years.”

Yet, he says, the project was completed “on time, on spec and within budget”. He reckons there aren’t many IT rollouts that can make this claim. “We managed the budget very tightly and I think that’s critical in any major project,” he points out. “Some of the things you commonly hear about IT projects is that the time frame blew out and the budget blew out.”

He says the NZAA escaped this fate because, “We were very clear on what we wanted from day one. The business managers actually drove the project but worked very closely with the in-house IT department and equally closely with the developer. It was not a disjointed approach.”

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