Show of Support

AMP's IT support department does more than fix problems - it sits right on the front line of the company's customer strategy.

IT support departments are not strategic. Combining the functions of help desks, online resources and onsite technicians, they are the epitome of tactical response groups. Their job is pure reaction: if it is broken, they fix it. Job done. Next job.

Finding one that not only thinks proactively and sees itself on the front line of IT strategy, but also puts into action the mantras of align with the business, understand the customers' needs and do more with less, is a bonus.

Finding one that has done this so successfully that it has dramatically improved both customer and staff satisfaction simultaneously, broadened its offerings while reducing downtime, and increased productivity while reducing costs and head count - is a real bonus.

Add to this a customer base that is a diverse range of a couple of thousand independent businesses, ranging from solo operators with broad, high-level technical requirements to multi-user groups of highly specialized individuals with specific niche requirements, that makes thinking strategically and acting proactively that much harder, and you add another gold star to the mix.

But things were not always this good.

Four years ago, the picture at AMP Adviser Technology (AdTech) was far from rosy. Customer satisfaction levels were below 20 percent, there was a 56 percent annual turnover in help desk staff, and the IT support department was basically committed just to keeping the wheels turning without offering clients what they actually wanted.

AMP relies on a troupe of nearly 2000 independent, self-employed financial planners, who in turn offer advice and solutions to customers on their superannuation and long-term finance requirements. AMP has been offering the planners a suite of software to make their jobs that much easier since the early 90s, and with an increasingly complex tax environment and compliance issues growing ever more burdensome, they need all the help they can get. And that help better make their lives easier not more difficult.

"Someone who becomes a financial planner doesn't do so because of a predisposition to technology. They are relationship people, they understand the technical nature of superannuation legislation and so forth, but the tools need to be very usable for them," says Mike Diamond, IT director for AMP's Advice Based Distribution. "There's no latitude for arrogance in this space. When your client base is roughly 2000 self-employed businesses they can vote with their feet and choose not to use your offerings."

Which is why Diamond admits it was a problem that, back in 2001, the company's technology offering was essentially a very technical one. "It was still a major investment by us," he says, "but it was essentially just keeping the hardware and software vertical, keeping it working, without a lot of focus on how it helped their businesses." Technology support manager Steve Miller puts it more bluntly: There was no standard operating environment and a "clunky, complex client/server Planner workbench application".

Downtime was a major issue, and 80 percent of calls to the help desk were of the "It's broken. What do I do?" variety, which meant that help desk staff were also under pressure, leading to the high churn rate.

These were particularly tough times for AMP. The company was in the process of divesting itself of the underperforming GIO (which it had only acquired two years earlier) as well as the rest of its general insurance business, its share price was low, UK operations were not up to scratch and CEO (and ex-CFO) Paul Batchelor was under constant siege. It did not particularly need a confused and disgruntled group of financial planners at the front line of its Australian business.

The very nature of that front line was itself a problem. Ranging from large practices with as many as 30 or 40 planners and staff, perhaps specializing in one particular area, to much smaller practices, sometimes sole operators, that have a broader focus, there could never be such a thing as a standard operating environment (SOE). "While it would be a lot easier to provide the services in an SOE, because they are independent businesses, you can't," Miller says.

"In some areas your tools and capabilities have to be very, very deep," Diamond says. "In others they need to be much wider and much more accessible. The calls you receive will be incredibly detailed, from: 'How do I use the financial planning software to construct a financial plan in this sort of tax environment?', to other more straightforward queries."

Actually, that is the sort of query they are getting now. A few years ago, it was mainly: "It's broke. Fix it!"

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Tried, Tested and Taught Solution

In an effort to solve the problem, AMP took a detailed look at what it was offering, with the aim of re-engineering virtually everything. Diamond joined in 2001 as part of this refocus. His background includes 11 years with IBM in systems engineering and its US laboratories, and more recently 10 years with ANZ Bank, with relevant experience in the funds management industry.

After a few months, Diamond brought in Miller, who has a somewhat less typical CV. He had trained as a geo-statistician in South African deep field gold mining. He and a team had come up with findings on how to predict where to find gold. "But no one wanted to program it," he says, "so I put up my hand." That's how some people get into IT. You could say he is still digging for gold, only this time it is for customer satisfaction.

The transition, which AMP titled "Evolution", was to take place over three years beginning with the technology and then re-engineering the support. Evolution was project managed by Sharmini Sivathas.

The changes to technology included an emphasis on Web-based systems (Diamond admits AMP had been slow to take this up) as well as what he describes as "sharp-end financial planning-type solutions". Between 60 and 70 percent of the Web-based systems were internally developed. Desktop applications were in the main purchased, with maybe some level of modification in financial planning, client contact, general ledger and so on. AMP now offers a choice of applications, including support for Moneywise Technology, as well as VisiPlan - in total, more than 30 different technologies, systems and applications, compared with the less than 10 they offered only a few years before.

Over a one-and-a-half year program, running from mid 2001 to the end of 2002, the company set about implementing a new standard technology environment. Since then, there have been further iterations of Evolution, all implementing the same initial plan. However, that standard technology environment remains a problem. Because of the diversity of the planner base, configuration management is difficult to manage.

"We do not mandate the PCs our planners buy; we mandate the minimum capacity," Diamond says. "We have a program where they can source [their needs] through us, but if they have a relationship with a local PC store they can buy what they want. We mandate a particular configuration and design applications to run on that environment and we support those applications. But the planners may have other applications that are not fully supported by us.

"So our level of configuration knowledge will never be that of an internal IT shop. There is some encouraging work that Steve's team has done to get a better feel of the heterogeneous environment that we have out there, but it will never be a lock-step control or locked down standard operating environment."

Because they are dealing with independent operators, they are loath to cut someone off - "That's not a terminology we would use," Diamond says - if they do not comply. "We can advise and tell them that for those applications we support, we now support them at a certain level. Our levers are more what level of support we can give to a particular operating environment," he says.

Certainly they try to influence planners, and the signs throughout the AdTech office saying "Win XP, Lose 98" are an indication of the lessons they are trying to teach. Virus management, security and firewall issues are, however, one area where they are a lot more robust. "We mandate and control that centrally. There we don't go in softly-softly; it's a very firm policy we manage," Diamond says.

The 18-month changeover entailed replacing the previous technology, which was no longer supported, migrating data from the old to the new, plus detailed education on the new components. "Especially those components that were really different in a business sense, like far more robust financial planning software, which meant a lot of education at the business level on how one utilizes this software," says Diamond. "We put a lot of effort in the implementation and education. This is not an environment where you throw out an application to a group of 1000 users."

Mike Williams, co-owner and co-director of Perth-based Excel Financial Group and president of the AMP Financial Planners Association, agrees that technical support, and training in particular, has radically improved. From a time when training in the applications on offer was in his words "limited", Williams now extols AdTech's extended support to one-on-one training, virtual classrooms, telephone and online resources. He cites as examples, the benefits of technicians in Sydney able to remotely enter the planner's computer to investigate and resolve common occurring problems as well as assisting with training.

Diamond feared that Web-based coaching would be a much harder proposition to get across the line than it turned out to be. In fact, planners have taken to it readily. Two-hour sessions are conducted with coaches online, which at the very least saves planners unnecessary travel to a central training location. Technology consulting also takes place via a group of field technicians, who now not only rectify existing issues but also proactively consult with planners on ways they can use the technology to improve their businesses.

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Ultimate Alignment: Ask the Customer

Doing what the customers want and need has been at the core of all of the Evolution activities, Diamond and Miller say, and they have established a number of mechanisms to ensure they are on top of requirements to align with the customer.

First, there are advisory bodies. Originally called Agents Board of Management (ABOM) but now changed to the less explosive ARB (Adviser Representative Board), this comprises a 10-person central board to advise on a range of business issues, as well as an IT subcommittee made up of one member of the central board and representatives from each state. "We worked very closely with them in terms of planning and designing [Evolution]," Diamond says. "We'd also go out to broader groups of planners both formally and informally. And we piloted extensively."

AdTech also regularly survey planners, questioning a different sample group every three months and probably reaching a quarter of clients over a six-month period. Diamond suggests that the level of polling, interaction and piloting they undertook was "certainly larger than you'd do with a group of internal users, but this contact with the user base is pretty much a tradition at AMP. This group may choose not to use your system and you have to be aware of that."

A further part of the new activities to assess client satisfaction was the so-called Planner Experience. "We got the message that the systems weren't as reliable as they needed to be to service clients' immediate needs," Diamond says. "Diagnosing the problem and understanding exactly what's happening in this heterogeneous network is not too easy."

The response, Planner Experience, was to set up a process that would automatically poll the system every half hour across a range of standard planning transactions.

"We'd go to the point of enquiries and going all the way to a new sale, without consummating the actual sale. We monitored up-time, the performance, the stability and so forth," Diamond says. "What we didn't want to do was find out we had a problem from our planners, which was the previous model. We wanted to know before the planners called us."

Once a week, all interested stakeholders - from the applications systems people, the business owners and outsourcers (CSC is used for AMP's IT activities generally), to the training and IT people and, occasionally, the planner advisory groups - get together to analyze everything that has gone wrong and try to minimize it.

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