Obtaining long life for a high-reliability system requires action in ten touchpoint areas.

Maintenance is often perceived as a necessary evil, something to do if we have time. Right? But the perception is wrong: maintenance is key to prolonging the productive life of support systems critical to your business mission.

How does the facility manager select the right company to provide this important service? I recommend leveling the playing field by subjecting all potential service providers to a standard set of questions. Here are ten:

Question 1: How are your service technicians selected, trained, and qualified to work on my system? Some companies service a broad range of products, so the person arriving at your site may not be fully qualified to repair your system. Increased service “bundling” has resulted in the melding of various manufacturers’ products in a single offering. For example, in the emergency-power industry, engine-generator manufacturers have partnered with or acquired other manufacturer’s products to round out their bundles. A large electrical equipment manufacturer could provide automatic transfer switches (ATS) and circuit breakers along with other products. Who provides the service? Technicians equipped to service circuit breakers often answered calls for ATS service. These technicians were not equipped with the parts or the knowledge to service the ATS; however, the manufacturer had fulfilled the letter of the contract by responding

Question 2:How large is your staff? No one ever has more staff than they need. The question to resolve is really how well does a potential service provider manage their human assets? Meet with the managers and have them explain how their staff is structured, who will typically respond to your service calls, what contingency plans are in place during heavy demand, and how they will escalate requests.

Question 3:Do you provide 24-hour service? Have the provider explain call handling, escalation, and response procedures. A good escalation plan provides for uniform steps and involves escalating levels of management empowered to make the necessary decisions. Too often, companies have cumbersome policies that restrict their staff’s ability to make necessary decisions on your behalf. Do you want a company that believes in the ability of its management team or one that defaults to policy? The service provider you select must be ready, willing, and able to commit all the necessary resources to solve a situation regardless of the date or time. Demand to meet key staff and the management of your potential service provider.

A hospital engineer once told me that that the company his predecessor had contracted to do maintenance was unable to respond in an emergency, and that no one in management could be reached. Of course it was also a weekend. Upon resolving the emergency, further conversation revealed that the maintenance provider in question had not done proper maintenance but had produced a report that indicated they had. They had been the low-bid contractor but considering the life-threatening situation created for the hospital and the lawsuit that followed, what were the real savings?

Question 4:Is your company authorized and/or trained by the manufacturer? No big deal right? Wrong. Make sure your prospective provider is properly trained. Untrained personnel have negatively affected more than one facility. Take, for example, the technician who tried to operate the manual bypass mechanism of an ATS. He found that the handle would not turn freely due to safety interlock mechanisms so our hero took great care to select a pipe of the proper dimensions in order to gain leverage. This broke the mechanism, caused a major electrical fault, and ruined a fairly new unit. Of course when help arrived, no one knew what happened, and blame was shifted to shipping damage or poor quality.

Question 5: Can your company train my staff? In the middle of the night, the building management company or your staff will likely be the first responder. If they have a clear understanding of the operation of critical systems, human error that could compound the problem will be less likely. Competent service providers will provide comprehensive training to your staff, so they have a through understanding of the operation (automatic and manual) of critical systems and can work with your maintenance provider over the phone to control or mitigate a situation. Take, for example, the large communications company that wanted their staff trained as UPS technicians in lieu of manufacturer’s service. Soon a small problem occurred. Of course, the trained staff was directed to troubleshoot and repair the problem and never contacted the manufacturer. Over 24 hrs later, the staff had succeeded in compounding the problem until the entire system failed and crashed the data center.

Question 6:How do you support the technicians who will be on my site? Translated: What happens when the technician on site can’t figure out the problem? Does the prospective service provider have help available 7x24? Or are technicians on their own? Make sure your prospective provider has the ability to support the people dispatched to your site. Ask to see the organizational chart and identify contacts and phone numbers of those who will be available in time of need.

Question 7:How does your company become aware of product changes and technical bulletins from the manufacturer? You will want your provider to be aware of anything affecting your system. How well they stay connected makes a huge difference. Many third-party providers are simply not tuned in. Lack of knowledge of important technical procedures or information may place your facility at risk.

I’m not suggesting that the OEM is the only source for maintenance; however, you must understand the answer to this question and weigh your decision accordingly. If you’re not dealing with the OEM, make sure your service provider has a relationship with it.

Question 8: What type of maintenance agreements do you offer? Take the time to understand the types of agreements that are available and select the one that best meets your requirements. Many agreements have specific limitations. For example, do they limit response to certain hours? Do they provide preferential treatment for certain types of customers? Some equipment is relatively simple and very dependable. So it is possible to get by doing little or no maintenance. This “dust off and test” philosophy is dangerous. Will you be able to negotiate terms and conditions? If you employ a building management company, this can be a huge problem. These companies have very stringent terms and conditions. At times it is hard to reach an amicable agreement. Take a close look at these negotiations. Some companies will sign anything and simply declare chapter 11 if something goes terribly wrong. Ask yourself “Is it more important to contract with people who know and can support my site or simply a company willing to accept my terms and conditions?”

Question 9: What is the average experience of your field force on the equipment I have? There are many companies that have only general knowledge or are not qualified. Make sure you understand the qualifications of your prospective maintenance company. For example, one major manufacturer advertises thousands of “feet on the street” to provide service to critical gear. The truth is that large staff consists of folks who service various products; they can comply with response requirements, but the person responding to a call  may work on circuit breakers while the problem lies in the automatic transfer switch.

Question 10:What spare parts do you carry for my equipment? Some service providers do not invest in spares. Spares are inventory, and inventory has a value subject to taxes. So they may bank on the manufacturer in an emergency or depend on parts depots around the country. Imagine your UPS has a problem. Your service provider arrives and quickly identifies the culprit as a bad circuit board. But the service company stocks parts at depots around the country rather than carry van stock or local office inventory. So an order must be placed and the part flown in while your critical system remains down.

Without your critical systems, you’re out of business. The old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” has no place in today’s business lexicon. Be sure you carefully consider what you’re getting for your money.