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Closing the Gap

15 July 2006

Many of the problems that occur between FMs and service providers are the result of differing expectations. Mike Proctor explains how the principles of 'gap analysis' can keep everyone singing from the same hymn sheet

In the June issue of PFM I looked at the key considerations when selecting an M&E maintenance contractor. (see PFM June 35) During that selection process, and once the contract is up and running, the key to maintaining a smooth and productive relationship is to ensure both parties have a clear understanding of each other's expectations.

In our experience, many perceived problems arise when the client and the service provider have different expectations - essentially there is a 'gap' between the understandings of both parties. Applying the principles of 'gap analysis' used widely in marketing and other business areas can help to nip any potential misunderstandings in the bud. These principles can then be embodied in an account management plan that documents the key processes.

As such, gap analysis is an integral part of business-focused account management, where the service provider evaluates the client's business and then fine-tunes the contract to provide the best fit for their needs. And this can go beyond M&E maintenance to incorporate full asset management, energy condition-based monitoring and maintenance and even training for staff. All of this should lead to cost reductions for the client, whilst improving quality and still ensuring compliance.

Defining needs
It is important to identify where the key gaps may appear by understanding how expectations are formed. The FM's expectations are often influenced by past experience, word of mouth from colleagues and internal customers and, possibly, their own personal agenda. On the other side of the relationship, the supplier may assume they know what the customer wants based on what they think should be done and experience of other client organisations. This is adangerous assumption to make, and the service provider should make an effort to understand your key business drivers and build the maintenance strategy around that.

Clearly, this is the first gap to close. Needs must be clearly identified and agreed by both sides and these must be conveyed down the line to field staff so everyone knows exactly what is required.

The underlying principle here is that one size doesn't fit all. For example, where a managing agent is involved in the contract as well, they may have different needs and expectations from the end client. The answer to closing the gap is for the service provider to invite and welcome constructive criticism from all parties and to proactively seek other feedback through mechanisms such as customer surveys.

Another common gap we encounter is where misunderstandings arise through interpretation of the contract. Quite often two parties can read the same contract and come away with different expectations. This gap can be avoided by working together to establish clearly defined KPIs, with targets for continuous improvement and milestones to ensure the rate of progress is in line with expectations. When all parties are involved in defining the KPIs right from the start, they should all then have a clear understanding and identical expectations.

Detailed documentation of key areas is also valuable in narrowing the gap between perception and reality to give a true picture of performance. This is a gap that will rarely be fully closed because the perception of internal customers can be very subjective. However, documentation and measurement provide a true picture of performance so that steps can be taken to address the perception issues.

For example, a common dilemma faced by FMs is a group of staff who complain the space they occupy is too cold (or too warm), even when the thermometer says otherwise. Contractually, if the temperature is maintained at the pre-agreed set point the service provider is under no obligation to adjust the thermostat. Indeed, if the service provider is combining maintenance with energy management, there is a disincentive to adjust services that will increase energy consumption, even minimally. However, in a 'narrow-gap' relationship where the service provider recognises the headache this scenario causes for the FM, there is greater flexibility and willingness to operate within the spirit of the contract rather than the letter.

Similarly, relatively minor considerations such as the politeness of help desk operators, can have a significant impact on perception of service. A service provider that understands the importance of this will ensure that all staff are also aware and, if necessary, receive the training to deliver the required performance.

This enhanced understanding also operates at a more strategic level, where the service provider needs to be aware of the impact of its activities on the client's business systems. If the client is required to reduce costs, for example, the service provider can pro-actively work within the team to achieve this.

Her Majesty's Court Service (HMCS), for example, is required to achieve year-on-year efficiency improvements and is also committed to improving comfort conditions and building performance. By working flexibly and responsively with HMCS and managing agents EC Harris, Cofathec has been able to reduce its M&E maintenance contract value by 15 per cent while achieving a higher level of profitability on remaining revenue. This achievement is the result of close collaboration between the three parties, ensuring that any gaps in understanding have been closed and each party's expectations are aligned.

Coming together
The most effective way to address all of these areas is to work within an account management plan that provides a framework for continuous improvement and ensures that requirements are clearly understood, communicated and implemented. Such a plan should also be adapted to suit each client's requirements, defining measurement criteria that will help to identify areas for improvement and allow these to be fed back into the plan.

Clearly, any such plan has to be tailored for each specific project, rather than being an offthe-shelf-document, and it should incorporate a high level of flexibility and scalability. It should also be subject to regular review so that it evolves in line with experience - and any such experience needs to be documented so that it doesn't just reside in an individual's head. In this way, new knowledge is shared throughout the team to ensure continuity and consistency.

Communicating these requirements and responsibilities is equally important as is feeding information back to the FM department in a way that enables meaningful analysis and reporting. To that end, communication channels need to be established and as clearly defined as the requirements and responsibilities themselves.

Armed with this information, auditable criteria for overall contract performance are easily established so that assessment is no longer based on individuals' expectations and perceptions. Instead, the evaluation of the contract becomes a scientific process based on real measures. In our experience, the result of this is that less time is spent on discussing contractual specifics and more effort is applied to getting the job done, finding areas for improvement and linking these to the client's business drivers. In this way, both parties move forward within an interactive business partnership that meets everyone's expectations - with no gaps.

... Mike Proctor is London Regional Manager for Cofathec. His third article to be published in the next issue of PFM will look at the key differences between running a maintenance contract at a single site and across an estate that covers a wide geographical area

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