Self-maintenance programs for PCs save money, but college IT managers say their real benefit is improved customer service.
When computers break down at A.T. Still University (ATSU), its Information Technology & Services technicians don't send them back to the manufacturer, an authorized dealer or a third-party repair shop. Instead, they fix the machines themselves and make money in the process.
ATSU is part of a growing league of higher education institutions enrolled in self-maintenance programs, which earn the schools money for performing their own in-warranty computer repairs.
About six years ago, the dental students were required to carry computers, and ATSU was having a multitude of problems with service and support, says Jean Varnold, manager of support services for the university, which operates schools for dentistry, health management and osteopathic medicine in Missouri and Arizona, as well as community health centers around the country. “The next year we switched to Lenovo machines,” Varnold says. “That's when we started with their self-maintenance program.”
Outsourcing repairs to a third party would “cost a small fortune” and take at least a week, Varnold says. “And with campuses and community health centers spread out across the country, finding qualified repair shops or authorized parts dealers can be a challenge,” she adds.
With Lenovo's self-maintainer program, the university's team of eight dedicated maintenance technicians can handle it all by ensuring that repairs are done correctly, the right parts are used and turnaround times are minimal. “Our staff actually earns back some of the costs of the work,” she says.
“Still, the money is secondary to the service the university can provide,” says Varnold. “The main reason we went to self-maintenance was because our dental and medical students don't have time to be worrying about computer maintenance. They need to be studying. We really did it as a benefit to our students and to our staff.”
With hardware manufacturers such as Lenovo and HP offering enticing discounts for self-maintainers in the education market, these programs are more attractive than ever, says Richard Doherty, co-founder and director of market research firm The Envisioneering Group. Paying universities to make repairs is less expensive than shipping machines back and forth, and it's a great way to boost customer loyalty, says Doherty.
“Manufacturers like HP and Lenovo are making special accommodations to meet the challenges of tight educational budgets,” he says. “They want to keep these colleges using HP or Lenovo machines. It's their way of saying 'Hey, stay with us.' And it's a unique opportunity for students to get some hands-on training with technology.”
Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts supports more than 8,000 student and faculty systems via self-maintenance programs from various manufacturers, says Steve Swartz, Fitchburg's CIO and assistant vice president for technology. He says the university's IT department receives several thousand dollars a year from each manufacturer for doing its own IT maintenance. But like Varnold, Swartz says delivering good service is the most important reason for signing up as a self-maintainer.
“The monetary compensation for the work is nice, but from the customer's perspective, the real benefit is much faster turnaround time,” says Swartz. “Rather than shipping everything out the door that needs to be repaired, we can fix the system and get it back to the user much faster. It's really about increasing the service you can provide, and your customers appreciate that.”
Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., became a self-maintainer in 2008 when it signed on with HP to offer notebook PCs to its 4,000 undergrads, says Dan Sheehan, director of client services for the school. Although Bentley receives less than $100,000 annually for doing the repairs, what the school really gets out of it is better service, he says.
“The key benefit to being a self-maintainer is that it allows us to be a one-stop shop,” says Sheehan. “In most cases, we can resolve warranty and nonwarranty issues within one day.”
Cutting Hardware Costs
West Chester University of Pennsylvania began a PC self-maintenance plan with Lenovo in late 2008, says JT Singh, assistant director of technical support services. Since that time, Singh's Technical Hardware Services operation has received support and reimbursements from Lenovo for the time it has spent doing warranty repairs. Most of West Chester's 3,200 Lenovo units are less than two years old, so as they age and require more repairs, Singh expects the program to result in more revenue back to the school, which will mean an additional reduction in total hardware repair costs.
But there are other advantages to being enrolled, says Singh. For example, West Chester's three Lenovo-certified technicians now have access to manufacturers' advanced knowledge bases, as well as the ability to bypass a manufacturer's basic support and reach advanced technicians immediately.
“We no longer have to spend a long amount of time on the phone answering questions when we call their support services about whether we checked this setting or ran that test,” he says. “They just ship out the part. Twenty-four hours later, we have what we need to fix the machine, and users get their PCs back immediately instead of having to wait a week.”
The program also makes it more economical to keep machines in service, helping the university get more use out of them by extending the period before they need to be replaced. In the past, the university typically purchased PCs with a three-year warranty, expecting to refresh them at the end of that cycle, says Singh. Now, because the cost of maintaining systems has been effectively reduced, the university has begun buying machines with five-year warranties.
Enrolling in a manufacturer's self-maintenance program isn't just a matter of signing up; universities have to overcome a few hurdles first. For example, HP requires organizations to purchase at least $100,000 worth of equipment annually before they can enroll in a self-maintenance program. Lenovo has no purchase minimum but recommends the program only for institutions with at least 1,000 Lenovo portables or 2,000 desktops.
Once they've passed the initial requirements, the operation must have its technicians certified by the hardware manufacturer. This usually entails paying nominal fees, having the staff undergo online training, and then passing examinations in each area of expertise, such as desktop, notebook, server or printer maintenance. Singh estimates it took about six months to get three of West Chester's technicians fully certified on the Lenovo program.
Eventually, the entire department will undergo an audit by the manufacturer, which will require careful records to ensure that every repair is actually covered by a manufacturer's warranty.
“This is a program that requires time and focus to get certified and keep up with the paperwork on repairs,” says Fitchburg's Swartz.
$326 to $401
The range in cost for repairing a typical PC that's more than three years old
Sheehan advises self-maintainers to keep a buffer stock of major components to avoid shortages and also keep very detailed records of all parts ordered and returned.
“Always check each claim to see if a part needs to be returned or if it is scrap,” he says. “Just because a piece of plastic was scrap for the past six months, tomorrow it may need to be returned.”
The other big side benefit: Self-maintenance programs allow schools more opportunities to offer computer internships to their students. For example, in addition to Bentley's five full-time technology staffers, the college also employs 12 students, all of whom must go through the HP certification process within the first two months of signing up, says Sheehan.
“Colleges have the opportunity to take students who want to know more about what goes on inside their desktops and notebooks and get them involved in the program,” says Doherty. “So their curiosity could lead them to a career path. It's a great win-win.”
Help for the Help Desk
Self-maintenance programs can add to the workload of a technical staff already pared to the bone by budget cuts. Here are a few strategies to lighten the support load.
- Help users help themselves. Publish FAQs or knowledge bases on the university website with answers to users' most basic questions, and drive users to them as a first option before contacting a live technician.
- Spread out your support options. Offering support via multiple channels over longer time periods can help avoid spikes in demand. For example, Fitchburg State offers 24x7 support via e-mail, live chat or phone, as well as four to 12 hours of walk-in support per day, from Monday through Saturday.
- Use preventive medicine. Universities such as Fitchburg, Illinois State or San Jose State offer malware scanners and security software that students can download for free — averting a major cause of end-user problems.
- Keep users informed. You can avoid needless support calls by keeping users apprised of technical issues as they arise. For example, Illinois State posts alerts.illinoisstate.edu, a web page that informs users about malware outbreaks, phishing scams, downtime or scheduled maintenance.
- Enlist the students. Some students know as much about technology as trained technicians and are generally motivated to learn more. Use them as a resource when the volume of support calls becomes too great for staffers to handle.
- Reward your techs. Support should be a career stepping stone, not a backwater for technicians with lesser skills or ambitions. Offer training and certification as part of their professional development.