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AMP's IT support department does more than fix problems - it sits right on the front line of the company's customer strategy.

IT support departments are not strategic. Combining the functions of help desks, online resources and onsite technicians, they are the epitome of tactical response groups. Their job is pure reaction: if it is broken, they fix it. Job done. Next job.

Finding one that not only thinks proactively and sees itself on the front line of IT strategy, but also puts into action the mantras of align with the business, understand the customers' needs and do more with less, is a bonus.

Finding one that has done this so successfully that it has dramatically improved both customer and staff satisfaction simultaneously, broadened its offerings while reducing downtime, and increased productivity while reducing costs and head count - is a real bonus.

Add to this a customer base that is a diverse range of a couple of thousand independent businesses, ranging from solo operators with broad, high-level technical requirements to multi-user groups of highly specialized individuals with specific niche requirements, that makes thinking strategically and acting proactively that much harder, and you add another gold star to the mix.

But things were not always this good.

Four years ago, the picture at AMP Adviser Technology (AdTech) was far from rosy. Customer satisfaction levels were below 20 percent, there was a 56 percent annual turnover in help desk staff, and the IT support department was basically committed just to keeping the wheels turning without offering clients what they actually wanted.

AMP relies on a troupe of nearly 2000 independent, self-employed financial planners, who in turn offer advice and solutions to customers on their superannuation and long-term finance requirements. AMP has been offering the planners a suite of software to make their jobs that much easier since the early 90s, and with an increasingly complex tax environment and compliance issues growing ever more burdensome, they need all the help they can get. And that help better make their lives easier not more difficult.

"Someone who becomes a financial planner doesn't do so because of a predisposition to technology. They are relationship people, they understand the technical nature of superannuation legislation and so forth, but the tools need to be very usable for them," says Mike Diamond, IT director for AMP's Advice Based Distribution. "There's no latitude for arrogance in this space. When your client base is roughly 2000 self-employed businesses they can vote with their feet and choose not to use your offerings."

Which is why Diamond admits it was a problem that, back in 2001, the company's technology offering was essentially a very technical one. "It was still a major investment by us," he says, "but it was essentially just keeping the hardware and software vertical, keeping it working, without a lot of focus on how it helped their businesses." Technology support manager Steve Miller puts it more bluntly: There was no standard operating environment and a "clunky, complex client/server Planner workbench application".

Downtime was a major issue, and 80 percent of calls to the help desk were of the "It's broken. What do I do?" variety, which meant that help desk staff were also under pressure, leading to the high churn rate.

These were particularly tough times for AMP. The company was in the process of divesting itself of the underperforming GIO (which it had only acquired two years earlier) as well as the rest of its general insurance business, its share price was low, UK operations were not up to scratch and CEO (and ex-CFO) Paul Batchelor was under constant siege. It did not particularly need a confused and disgruntled group of financial planners at the front line of its Australian business.

The very nature of that front line was itself a problem. Ranging from large practices with as many as 30 or 40 planners and staff, perhaps specializing in one particular area, to much smaller practices, sometimes sole operators, that have a broader focus, there could never be such a thing as a standard operating environment (SOE). "While it would be a lot easier to provide the services in an SOE, because they are independent businesses, you can't," Miller says.

"In some areas your tools and capabilities have to be very, very deep," Diamond says. "In others they need to be much wider and much more accessible. The calls you receive will be incredibly detailed, from: 'How do I use the financial planning software to construct a financial plan in this sort of tax environment?', to other more straightforward queries."

Actually, that is the sort of query they are getting now. A few years ago, it was mainly: "It's broke. Fix it!"

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