Portal Software: Cleaning Up a Dirty Job

By Elizabeth Bennett Print this article Print

Companies retaining UNICCO to clean offices, maintain heavy machinery and landscape grounds can schedule and track jobs and monitor work quality—all without picking up the phone.

When a light bulb blows in the executive conference room or the postal machine that prints thousands of mailing strips a day is on the fritz, somebody has to take care of it, usually janitorial or office services.

For the most part, the work that 18,000 employees of UNICCO Service Co. provide could be described as low-tech, ranging from office cleaning and landscaping to mailroom staffing, and even bigger projects like operating machinery and plants. But the privately owned business is a success story due, in part, to some savvy technology investments. It has put in place a business portal that serves more than 1,000 employees and clients such as Staples, Cargill and Bank of America, and saves the company hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, according to Jeff Peterson, UNICCO's chief information officer.

The key to the company's portal success, Peterson says, is that the tool gives clients the ability to monitor work orders, work performance and access time and costs of work logged by UNICCO janitorial, administrative and facilities employees—without having to pick up a phone.

In 2006, 38% of North American companies were slated to purchase or upgrade portal software, according to a Forrester Research report published last year. It's common for companies to use portals internally to support employees, says Dwight Davis, vice president of Ovum Summit, a Boston-based research and consulting firm. "And increasingly, portals are being offered externally to customers," he says.

Once Peterson and half of his 36-member tech team set out to establish the corporate portal four years ago, they've never looked back.

"Six years ago, we were very good at delivering services with a little technology in a fragmented format," Peterson says. In those days, UNICCO implemented a work-order management application but clients weren't able to use the tool to submit their own work requests, and there was no Web interface for reporting and collaboration.

But as business competition grew, it was no longer sufficient to send UNICCO workers to client sites to service facilities and equipment. "We needed to create a competitive edge with technology to attract marquee clients," he says. The firm responded by developing the portal to give customers access to up-to-date information about the cleaning and other services they procure.

About 130 customers use the portal called myUNICCO.com to track work quality, invoice processing and compliance with service-level agreements in a single place, Peterson says.

Using myUNICCO.com, managers at a work site can view the total number of open work orders, how long it took to complete each one and whether any were escalated to a higher priority. They can then compare the completion time numbers to what the client and UNICCO agreed to in the business contract.

Managers can also view the results of regular quality inspections and customer satisfaction surveys that are randomly generated following a job, like cleaning a stained carpet.

Peterson says the corporate portal has had an indirect impact on UNICCO's job margins, a metric used in facilities management to express revenue minus the cost of providing a service. For example, janitorial services have slimmer margins than mechanical maintenance. Job margins at UNICCO range from 8% to 11%, higher than the standard industry spread of 5% to 9%.

For example, offering account information through the portal has resulted in a reduction in call-center calls, Peterson says—a 40% decrease from one large client alone—and an increase in automated work-order submissions, allowing for a reallocation of call-center staff to other administrative functions.

The emergence of service-oriented architecture, an information systems architecture that supports business processes with loosely coupled software services, has had an impact on portal development, according to Ovum's Davis. SOA is based on common technical standards, such as eXtensible Markup Language-based Web services, which provide a common data format to translate a business service over the Internet. Rather than having proprietary portal frameworks and portlet/plug-in schemes, Davis says, portals now have some standards-based elements, such as the Web Services for Remote Portlets, a protocol for accessing and displaying content sources, developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.

Most of the applications for myUNICCO.com were written on a service-oriented architecture, according to Bill Jenkins, UNICCO's senior director of information technology. During the design of an application, Jenkins says his team identifies portions of the code that could be reused in the future. Those reusable functions, such as the ability to sort a data set, are called "services."

This article was originally published on 2007-02-28
Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.
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