Three steps to improve service call scheduling

Here are steps any IT consultancy can take to better schedule service calls and better position itself to accommodate clients' emergency requests.

 When clients ignore your advice and delay replacing aging servers, hold off on upgrading critical software applications, and fail to purchase quality routers and network equipment, you'll inevitably get a service call (usually at the very end of a business day). The client explains he must complete a critical project or task before the next day in order to avoid significant trouble involving a business partner, a supplier, or a government agency. The project can't be completed now because the only workstation upon which the data was stored is six years old and won't boot.

Your office needs to dispatch a technician; the problem is all your engineers are booked with on-site calls for the next two business days. So, how can an IT consultancy maximize a technician's billable hours without leaving vacant time on their schedules to accommodate such common emergency calls?

Years of experience have taught me you can't. However, there are steps any IT consultancy can take to better schedule service calls and better position itself to accommodate clients' emergency requests for assistance. (This list assumes you budget sufficient time when scheduling service calls to enable engineers to safely drive between client sites, navigate parking garages, grab lunch, and take a few breaks.)

1: Schedule before lunch and after lunch appointments

IT consultants aren't the cable company; we typically don't need the client to remain at the service site awaiting our arrival. Most clients are businesses that maintain regular office hours. When scheduling service calls with commercial clients, I can tell them we'll have a technician on site before lunch or after lunch. The client's going to be in the office anyway, so it's no inconvenience whether a new printer, for example, is installed at 9:00 A.M. or 11:00 A.M.

By providing the technician with schedule flexibility, he is better able to respond to emergency calls that might arise that morning. In such cases, that tech might be able to repair a non-booting system at 9:00 A.M. and still make the printer install at 11:30 A.M., which meets the client expectation of a before lunch appointment.

2: Have a manager monitor dispatch schedules

It's important that a manager is at the IT consulting firm's office to maintain pace with the day's ever-changing schedule. My office schedules a half-dozen engineers for approximately three to five projects daily -- that's 15-30 appointments a day, which often changes to 40 or more appointments as other, unscheduled client crises arrive in-person, by email, by landline, and by cell phone.

As additional service calls must be scheduled, it's best to have a centralized operations manager coordinate, book, and assign those calls. Your best Windows Exchange administrator may be 30 miles away from a client whose email suddenly stops working (along with remote connectivity); but that doesn't mean the Exchange engineer needs to spend an hour in traffic making his way across town. Instead, another tech closer to that client (even a tech with just desktop certifications) may be able to step in and determine why email and remote connectivity have failed (e.g., a network switch may have been disconnected, the power could be unplugged, the Internet circuit may have failed, etc.). A centralized manager familiar with staff's skills and with access to all schedules and current technician locations is critical to effectively absorbing the steady stream of emergency calls.

3: Schedule the most complex calls first

The most technically complex calls should be scheduled as the first stops of the day. Technology professional Thomas Limoncelli, writing in Time Management for System Administrators, notes a fact that many of us already know, at least subconsciously: "the first hour of the workday is usually the quietest hour in an office." That means fewer users will be disrupted by any systems that must be taken offline.

Also, fatigue is a significant issue in IT consulting. Trying to program routing tables is much easier after a fresh night's sleep and a good cup of coffee, compared to trying the same task after a stressful day of troubleshooting routing failures, recovering live email servers from active virus infections, juggling multiple phone call crises, and skipping meals. Starting the day with the most technically sophisticated calls helps ensure an engineer completes those tasks as accurately and efficiently as possible, which reduces callbacks and keeps the day's remaining appointments running on schedule.

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By Erik Eckel

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...