Show of Support
- 05 May, 2005 12:37
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!"
Tried, Tested and Taught Solution
In an effort to solve the problem, AMP took a detailed look at what it was offering, with the aim of re-engineering virtually everything. Diamond joined in 2001 as part of this refocus. His background includes 11 years with IBM in systems engineering and its US laboratories, and more recently 10 years with ANZ Bank, with relevant experience in the funds management industry.
After a few months, Diamond brought in Miller, who has a somewhat less typical CV. He had trained as a geo-statistician in South African deep field gold mining. He and a team had come up with findings on how to predict where to find gold. "But no one wanted to program it," he says, "so I put up my hand." That's how some people get into IT. You could say he is still digging for gold, only this time it is for customer satisfaction.
The transition, which AMP titled "Evolution", was to take place over three years beginning with the technology and then re-engineering the support. Evolution was project managed by Sharmini Sivathas.
The changes to technology included an emphasis on Web-based systems (Diamond admits AMP had been slow to take this up) as well as what he describes as "sharp-end financial planning-type solutions". Between 60 and 70 percent of the Web-based systems were internally developed. Desktop applications were in the main purchased, with maybe some level of modification in financial planning, client contact, general ledger and so on. AMP now offers a choice of applications, including support for Moneywise Technology, as well as VisiPlan - in total, more than 30 different technologies, systems and applications, compared with the less than 10 they offered only a few years before.
Over a one-and-a-half year program, running from mid 2001 to the end of 2002, the company set about implementing a new standard technology environment. Since then, there have been further iterations of Evolution, all implementing the same initial plan. However, that standard technology environment remains a problem. Because of the diversity of the planner base, configuration management is difficult to manage.
"We do not mandate the PCs our planners buy; we mandate the minimum capacity," Diamond says. "We have a program where they can source [their needs] through us, but if they have a relationship with a local PC store they can buy what they want. We mandate a particular configuration and design applications to run on that environment and we support those applications. But the planners may have other applications that are not fully supported by us.
"So our level of configuration knowledge will never be that of an internal IT shop. There is some encouraging work that Steve's team has done to get a better feel of the heterogeneous environment that we have out there, but it will never be a lock-step control or locked down standard operating environment."
Because they are dealing with independent operators, they are loath to cut someone off - "That's not a terminology we would use," Diamond says - if they do not comply. "We can advise and tell them that for those applications we support, we now support them at a certain level. Our levers are more what level of support we can give to a particular operating environment," he says.
Certainly they try to influence planners, and the signs throughout the AdTech office saying "Win XP, Lose 98" are an indication of the lessons they are trying to teach. Virus management, security and firewall issues are, however, one area where they are a lot more robust. "We mandate and control that centrally. There we don't go in softly-softly; it's a very firm policy we manage," Diamond says.
The 18-month changeover entailed replacing the previous technology, which was no longer supported, migrating data from the old to the new, plus detailed education on the new components. "Especially those components that were really different in a business sense, like far more robust financial planning software, which meant a lot of education at the business level on how one utilizes this software," says Diamond. "We put a lot of effort in the implementation and education. This is not an environment where you throw out an application to a group of 1000 users."
Mike Williams, co-owner and co-director of Perth-based Excel Financial Group and president of the AMP Financial Planners Association, agrees that technical support, and training in particular, has radically improved. From a time when training in the applications on offer was in his words "limited", Williams now extols AdTech's extended support to one-on-one training, virtual classrooms, telephone and online resources. He cites as examples, the benefits of technicians in Sydney able to remotely enter the planner's computer to investigate and resolve common occurring problems as well as assisting with training.
Diamond feared that Web-based coaching would be a much harder proposition to get across the line than it turned out to be. In fact, planners have taken to it readily. Two-hour sessions are conducted with coaches online, which at the very least saves planners unnecessary travel to a central training location. Technology consulting also takes place via a group of field technicians, who now not only rectify existing issues but also proactively consult with planners on ways they can use the technology to improve their businesses.
Ultimate Alignment: Ask the Customer
Doing what the customers want and need has been at the core of all of the Evolution activities, Diamond and Miller say, and they have established a number of mechanisms to ensure they are on top of requirements to align with the customer.
First, there are advisory bodies. Originally called Agents Board of Management (ABOM) but now changed to the less explosive ARB (Adviser Representative Board), this comprises a 10-person central board to advise on a range of business issues, as well as an IT subcommittee made up of one member of the central board and representatives from each state. "We worked very closely with them in terms of planning and designing [Evolution]," Diamond says. "We'd also go out to broader groups of planners both formally and informally. And we piloted extensively."
AdTech also regularly survey planners, questioning a different sample group every three months and probably reaching a quarter of clients over a six-month period. Diamond suggests that the level of polling, interaction and piloting they undertook was "certainly larger than you'd do with a group of internal users, but this contact with the user base is pretty much a tradition at AMP. This group may choose not to use your system and you have to be aware of that."
A further part of the new activities to assess client satisfaction was the so-called Planner Experience. "We got the message that the systems weren't as reliable as they needed to be to service clients' immediate needs," Diamond says. "Diagnosing the problem and understanding exactly what's happening in this heterogeneous network is not too easy."
The response, Planner Experience, was to set up a process that would automatically poll the system every half hour across a range of standard planning transactions.
"We'd go to the point of enquiries and going all the way to a new sale, without consummating the actual sale. We monitored up-time, the performance, the stability and so forth," Diamond says. "What we didn't want to do was find out we had a problem from our planners, which was the previous model. We wanted to know before the planners called us."
Once a week, all interested stakeholders - from the applications systems people, the business owners and outsourcers (CSC is used for AMP's IT activities generally), to the training and IT people and, occasionally, the planner advisory groups - get together to analyze everything that has gone wrong and try to minimize it.
Miller says that they are very pleased with the results. "We understand everything that happens on [clients'] desktops. With spending very little money, we've been able to decrease downtime by 90 percent and achieve 99.5-plus percent availability across all of our systems, and that's been done by understanding all of these processes and getting people together on a regular basis," he says.
Ultimate Alignment: Be the Customer
Apart from looking outward through polls, advisory groups and system trials, AdTech has looked inward to its own people to ensure they understand customer needs, and has taken the ultimate step: trained them to be customers.
Ten AdTech staff were put through the basics of financial planning, completing three or four of the eight modules that comprise the Diploma of Financial Services. So successful have they been at this, in fact, that several could have left to set themselves up as planners, and Miller actually topped Australia in the exams. Most of these were volunteers, Miller says, although admitting that a couple had to be nudged into doing it to make up the numbers. "But they all thanked us for it in the end."
Certainly it makes them more aware of the needs of the customers, and customers can talk to help desk personnel who now know perfectly what the planner is talking about.
"We've extended the same formula to our IT developers, our IT professionals," Diamond says. "Frankly, it's been equally well received. We've promoted the various financial services and financial planning type of courses in terms of product and legislation and had a lot of interest from our IT people. We have also run three or four courses from the Securities Institute in-house.
"It's no secret that business alignment is critical and IT professionals who understand the nature of the business you're in and can talk business with our business clients are an absolute bonus."
Speaking of bonuses, AMP has also instituted that dramatic way of ensuring alignment with customer needs: salary at risk linked to customer surveys and planner technology experience scores. That includes all employees of AdTech. There's nothing like the possibility of losing part of your pay to focus your mind.
In addition, Diamond's budget for Adviser Technology comes from the business, while the budget for systems development and support of Adviser systems comes from IT. This is mirrored in his reporting lines - one to CIO Lee Barnett, and the other to the head of distribution, Steve Helmich. "To be responsible to both organizations ensures the business alignment you're after," he says.
Keep Raising the Bar
Today Miller's technology support group comprises 24 help desk people, 14 field agents/consultants, five coaches and two service managers, supported by an IT infrastructure group. Staff numbers have actually reduced from a few years ago, even though the technology on offer and the number of help calls received have increased (see Things Just Keep Getting Better, above).
The improvements have been dramatic - 90 percent reduction in downtime, average speed to answer calls down by 70 percent, number of calls resolved within 20 minutes up by almost 100 percent, and that high help desk churn rate of 55 percent is now down to virtually nil. And all improvements on a budget which, while Diamond and Miller are coy to give actual figures, is less than $10 million.
"The budget for Evolution was certainly not as large as some investments in this marketplace," Diamond says. "It's been economical. The challenge wasn't to develop a new system from scratch; it was to get a workable solution out there."
And the future? For the next few years, basically it is more of the same. A lot more.
The challenge now, as Diamond puts it, is to maintain a level of excellence with an ever-growing technology offering, because they are adding components to the offering on a yearly basis. Williams, on the receiving end, says there is still room for improvement, suggesting solutions that reduce process replication and streamline delivery of the planners' advice to their clients.
"This job is about continuing to improve the proposition," Diamond says. "The bar keeps being raised. Compliance is getting more onerous. The need to have more productive back offices, greater complexity of products is growing as is the client servicing needs, so we and many of our competitors are looking at what the next generation will be.
"There are elements of this business where you go into major overhaul in six- or seven-year cycles. Pieces of it are technology driven, pieces are business process driven. I'm not looking for quantum improvements in the support proposition. I'm not sure what a quantum improvement would be," Diamond says.
"The broad element is that we just automate more business functions in planners' offices. We're looking at practice management software, which is workflow management and workflow monitoring, so we're getting more sophisticated in the business processes, automating the back office and cutting down the costs so the planners can spend more time face-to-face with their customers. The systems we're deploying this year we wouldn't even have been considering three years ago."
And three years ago AMP's AdTech was a very different place from what it is now. Three years from now, it may be another place again. That is the burden every IT shop faces, but Miller and Diamond know that what they do is both vital and appreciated.
"It's nice to work in a support area that is actually seen as strategic," Miller says. "It's not always the case."
SIDEBAR: ITIL Tools
AMP Adviser Technology support manager Steve Miller has been a user of ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) for some time.
ITIL, developed by the UK's Office of Government Commerce, is a widely accepted approach to assessing and developing IT service management. It provides a set of best practices, drawn from public and private sectors internationally, supported by a qualifications scheme, accredited training organizations and implementation and assessment tools.
"It's increasingly widely used," Miller says. "I've been aware of it since before I left South Africa [more than seven years ago]. I'd say if you went to a conference now around service management or help desk you'll find dozens of vendors, but it's at an introductory level. People are getting trained up on it and using one or two of the processes.
"We've taken it perhaps a little more broadly here and now we're actually looking at some software that will integrate it into our operations. There's a range of processes - 10 common ones. We also look at security and knowledge. I think you'll find organizations typically have implemented one, two or three. We'd be focusing on maybe five or six."
He warns, however, that there is a danger of seeing complying with ITIL as an end in itself. "I think that's the wrong way to do it. I think it's been very useful to us, but as a supporting mechanism.
"I wouldn't say it's part of our language that we actually use here; we've embraced those processes and used them as part of getting there. But we still focus on what we're trying to do business-wise.
"We like to think you have a business focus and somewhere along the line your supporting processes will support that. And when you do define those processes, why not use a proven practice," Miller says.