NIU's Kinder, Gentler Housing Repair System

Northern Illinois University (NIU) has an enrollment of approximately 22,000 students, with 5,600 students living in seven residence halls on campus. The physical plant does all the repairs for the halls and, as you can imagine, there are plenty of repairs to be done.

The Problem

Until two years ago, students relayed their repair requests to their resident assistant, who relayed requests to the main desk office manager, who called the physical plant work order desk, where the work was then prioritized and assigned to the appropriate craft.

Custodians, physical plant, heating plant, housing and dining staff also could request repairs directly to the physical plant. No housing and dining staff approved or monitored repair requests. This was like offering all staff an open checkbook to spend with no accountability until work was completed and a lump sum charge appeared on each hall account a month later.

From discussions at facilities conferences, roundtables and forums, it is apparent that there are still many university housing and physical plant operations that have a similar working relationship. In decentralized systems with a physical plant as the primary service provider, housing departments find it difficult to review all work requests using consistent criteria before they are submitted to the physical plant or to monitor specific repair expenses after work is completed. Many times physical plants are not able to provide the data needed to allow housing operations to budget, monitor and prioritize expenditures.

At NIU, two reports were received each month from the physical plant, but neither provided all of the information needed. One report was a list of work orders that had not been completed, indicating the work order number, a short description and date submitted. The second report provided a list of work orders and their charges but no descriptions. Building charges were grouped together, and one total is deducted from the work order line item in each hall account. Tracking individual charges was time consuming, and information was not reported to any budget or planning staff.

Additional problems that the system created included:

- repair work requests were relayed through too many people,

- no one reviewed all repair requests before submission to the physical plant,

- no one prioritized or problem solved in light of other departmental projects and most-recently-updated information,

- there was no opportunity to observe recurring problems throughout the residence hall system and take the initiative to investigate solutions or plan funding to implement solutions,

- no one separated large repair items from capital projects,

- the physical plant gave no feedback to students or staff, and

- it was difficult to investigate charges for specific work done.

The Solution

In fall 1997, Student Housing and Dining Services opened a Repair Request Office (repair request being a kinder, gentler term than work order), implementing a centralized repair request system to provide students with more feedback, solve recurring problems, monitor work and track expenses.

A telephone line, appropriately named the FIX-IT line, was dedicated for call-in requests on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis. In order to inform residents about FIX-IT, brochures detailing the services of the Repair Request Office and uses of the FIX-IT line were sent to each student room. In addition, magnets with the FIX-IT number and services were placed on the MicroFridges in each student room.

How Does It Work?

The Repair Request Office is staffed with an office manager who supervises a graduate assistant and four student employees. All repair requests are submitted to the FIX-IT line. Repair requests are entered into an Access database and then sent via the computer network to the physical plant. The physical plant does not accept requests that have not been approved by the Repair Request Office. All repair labor and material costs are now tracked for each work order.

When the office is not staffed in the evenings or on weekends, students leave a request on voice mail, which is processed the next business day. For emergency repairs, students contact the residence hall director on call, who calls the heating plant staff to authorize an overtime work order for the appropriate craft.

All students who request a repair receive a postcard indicating their repair request number and the date it was submitted to physical plant. Previously, students had little assurance that their requests were entered because of the number of staff involved in the process. Students who leave a request through voice mail are also contacted. Students receive direct phone calls to clarify information, and those students who call during office hours get immediate feedback and information. The staff has found that students are understanding and patient – even if there is an extended delay – when they know why an item has not been completed and that someone is aware of the problem.

Physical plant crafts have been asked to leave job completion cards in a box located in each hall. The Repair Request Office staff collects the cards and also enters these into the database. This allows the staff to give students more updated information on the progress of a repair. The crafts indicate on the cards why a repair was not completed at that time.

With the centralized system, charges from the physical plant are downloaded from their database, converted into Access and integrated into the Access file of repair requests. Any charges not submitted through the Student Housing and Dining Repair Request Office are immediately identified and investigated. Also, information can now be searched and queried to provide statistics.

Another benefit of the centralized system is that the Repair Request Office staff - especially the office manager - has gained an immense knowledge of the condition and repair problems of all NIU halls, which has been invaluable in long-range planning and budgeting.

The system allows the office manager to:

- approve all repair requests,

- monitor spending,

- prioritize,

- problem solve,

- provide feedback to students and staff,

- assess trends,

- determine correct billing accounts,

- determine if some projects are already in future plans or if they should be capital improvement projects, and

- enter work completion card information in a database.

Assessment and Customer Response

The 1997-98 academic year was the first full year using the FIX-IT line. Several assessments were done near the end of the aca-demic year to determine effectiveness and customer service perception by users. Specifically, Student Housing and Dining Services is participating in and using the ACUHO-I Benchmark Resident Satisfaction Survey, which measures satisfaction with all areas of residence life. The form can be tailored to a university’s specific operations so, of course, the FIX-IT line was added to the NIU survey. Survey results show that the FIX-IT line received one of the highest marks in the department.

Surveys also were sent to all of the physical plant and residence life staff including full-time, part-time and graduate staff as well as all of the resident assistant staff. There were four customer service questions: staff was polite and helpful; it was convenient to leave a message; it was convenient to talk with a person; the response to my request was timely. The vast majority of the responses to these were excellent and very good.

The most common positive written comments included "convenient," "friendly and helpful," "like being able to call in and handle problems myself," "pleased with the service and information provided" and "timely response."

Written suggestions included "want more feedback," "response is slow," "think recurring problems are not being fixed," "unhappy with workers being able to enter rooms when we’re not home." Based on these comments, goals were set and strategies developed to improve the system. It was also found that many suggestions were related to physical plant performance, as students are not clear that Student Housing and Dining does not deliver the services.

Other statistics were tallied to help planning for the current academic year. Calls to the Repair Request Office were tracked on a weekly and monthly basis by calculating messages and calls to staff during office hours. Messages were highest on Mondays and Tuesdays, tapering off to fewer on Fridays. Actual calls were highest on Tues-days, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The busiest months for the Repair Request Office were August and January (when the residence halls are reopened for the semester). December and April were also heavy months because students wanted to get repairs done in order to avoid being charged for them when they moved out. The total volume of calls taken for repairs from October through May was 4,186.

NIU’s Repair Request Office has improved customer service for residents and allowed administrators better to assess repair needs, as well as plan and budget for the future.

Linda Tillis, Ph.D., is associate director of the Office of Student Housing and Dining Services at NIU, DeKalb. Rogene Montgomery is manager of the Repair Request Office.

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