ISS Netherlands wanted to improve its competitiveness in a crowded facilities services market. With the help of Microsoft technology including Windows Azure and Microsoft Office 365, the company has built a solution that automatically notifies workers when facilities need to be maintained, improving client service while reducing customer costs. We recently spoke with Martijn Jansen, Business Technology Manager at ISS Netherlands, to learn how this solution is transforming the facilities services business.
Q: Please tell us about ISS Netherlands.
Martijn Jansen: ISS Netherlands is part of ISS, which is a leading global provider of facility services. In the Netherlands, we offer services to hospitals, factories, government offices, and companies of all sizes. ISS Netherlands has 12,000 employees who work with a broad spectrum of clients ranging from small Dutch companies to large global enterprises.
Q: What challenges were you facing that led you to build a solution using Windows Azure and Office 365?
Jansen: Facilities services is a very competitive market, especially in the area of pricing. In the past few years, the focus has primarily been on pricing, since it’s been hard to differentiate oneself in other areas.
With Windows Azure and Office 365, we can easily scale up and down. This was important to us given the changing nature of our business. In addition, Windows Azure and Office 365 enabled us to innovate without a lot of risk to our company. ISS Netherlands has a relatively small IT department. We didn’t want to make a large investment that would require us to purchase and maintain our own hardware and software. Instead, we wanted to build a cloud-based solution that was both adaptable and flexible. Windows Azure and Office 365 met all of these needs.
Q: What solution did you build?
Jansen: In a traditional cleaning environment, for example an office building, the standard proposition is that you clean each rest room twice a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, whether it’s needed or not. So even if no one is there, you’d still clean the toilets twice a day. We wanted to improve our efficiency by only cleaning where it was needed, and doing so right when it was needed.
To do that, we created a simple “on-off” sensor that records every time a toilet, soap dispenser, or towel dispenser has been used, and then sends a message to our SQL Server database, which is run as a virtual machine within the Windows Azure cloud platform. We then created business rules so that after a specified number of visits, Windows Azure sends a message to all of the mobile phones used by the employees responsible for working in the area informing them that a particular toilet or towel dispenser needs to be serviced. Using Microsoft BizTalk Server, we send this information to our Financial Management Information System and to our customer SharePoint portals to keep track of our progress.
We are using the same system to measure whether a plant needs water, whether a door has inadvertently been left opened at night, or whether a mouse trap needs to be reset. The minute the threshold is reached, we know what has to be done in a specific room of a given building. So we're no longer doing a standard routine of cleaning—only when it’s required.
Q: That seems like a lot of information to track. How is the ability to process big data playing into your solution?
Jansen: The ability to cost-effectively process big data has made the solution possible. Each sensor captures multiple messages on an hourly basis, and we have thousands of sensors set up across all the facilities we manage. Our database holds several terabytes of data, and that quantity is growing exponentially with every customer we add. None of this would have been possible five years ago. The amount of processing power that we would have needed and the amount of data that needs to be stored would have made the investment cost-prohibitive.
Q: What role do Office 365 and SharePoint Online play in the solution?
Jansen: We’ve developed a customized portal for each customer using SharePoint Online, which they can view using Office Web Apps. The portal shows when we are coming to service the facility. It incorporates a map with all the inspection points, including mouse traps, toilets, towel dispensers, etcetera. It highlights all current issues as well as those that already have been fixed. And it displays the sensor data as easy-to-read bar charts searchable by topic via drop-down menus. This allows clients to get a high-level overview of what’s happening, while also reviewing the detailed data. So, for example, a manager can get a summary of pest control issues in his building, and then click through the portal to see the status of a specific room or even a specific trap.
We’ve also built a new feature into the SharePoint portal that allows customers to communicate with us. Initially, we’ll be deploying it at one of the hospitals we manage so that our client can inform us when a patient leaves and the bed needs to be made. Most Dutch hospitals have a shortage of beds, so it’s paramount that they be turned around quickly. Once the bed is made, our workers can send a message via their mobile phone back to the SharePoint portal. This will enable the hospital to put its bed space to more efficient use.
Q: How has your automated solution improved customer service?
Jansen: It’s improved our customer service by enabling us to offer a higher-quality service at a lower price. By using the sensors, we’re focusing on the jobs that need to be done at that moment and eliminating unnecessary work. For example, we used to visit one of our pest control contacts every week. But with the sensors, we now know the number of mousetraps going off without actually visiting the site. So we can now simply visit the site when a mouse is caught rather than checking whether or not it’s happened. That’s reduced our hours and thus our cost to the customer. What’s more, customers now feel we are helping them 24/7 rather than just a few days a month.
We’re also providing our customers with better information. With all the sensory data at our disposal, we can tell our clients what’s actually happening rather than using our gut feeling. Customers really like that because they now have precise data that they can present to their managers as well.
Q: What benefits has ISS Netherlands derived from the solution?
Jansen: It’s made us more competitive. By using web portals and other technology we’re on top of the league. With our automated solution, we’ve been able to serve more customers at lower cost with the same number of workers. But we’re not stopping there. Each day we’re examining how we can expand the uses of our solution to further improve our services. Using Microsoft technology, we’ve created a whole different way of managing facilities—one that’s highly efficient and provides top value for our customers.