Tech repair centers: Seven essential parts

Operational requirements for a well-run campus computer repair center
By: | Issue: February, 2014
January 29, 2014

Part of keeping a campus computer repair center running smoothly is staying aware of what problems are likely to disrupt its operations.

For instance, a Saturday in the fall at major universities can bring a large influx of machines needing repair. “When Florida State is doing well in football, we tend to have more machines come in that have had beer spilled on them,” says Alison Kearley, a student worker in the institution’s Computer Repair Center. She’s not joking.

Many universities will service a variety of computers and devices, both student- and university-owned, in an on-campus repair center. Employee-owned devices are typically not serviced. Lenovo, Apple, Dell and many other manufacturers will provide online training so university technicians can perform repairs on machines under warranty.

Certain best practices have been defined by leaders of highly successful centers; here are seven elements for operating an efficient campus repair center.

Streamlined diagnostics through electronic ticketing

When a repair center is getting more machines than it has technicians, organization is a must. At Seton Hall University in New Jersey, 10 or more computers are coming in daily to be handled by a technology support staff of eight.

“We have a process we follow with each machine,” says Paul Fisher, associate CIO and director of the Technology, Learning and Teaching Center. “If the issue is software related, such as email not working, our student technology assistants run a virus scan.”

A third-party USB key is used to scan for malware and spyware. If no viruses are discovered, student workers run through a checklist in ServiceNow, an enterprise electronic ticketing system. “They check off whether or not firewall is on, whether the antivirus is on, etc.,” Fisher says.

If it’s not a simple software fix and the machine needs to be checked in, the background information is there for the technician.

Every time a technician works on a machine, he or she records the work completed, and the subsequent results, in the ServiceNow ticket. Tickets are assigned priority so technicians can address their time appropriately. The tickets are a record of best practices, as every step of diagnosing and troubleshooting is recorded.

At Ball State University in Indiana, a ticketing system developed in-house details the expected delivery of manufacturers’ parts and the progress of repairs. “Faculty also can submit a ticket of request for assistance,” says Ben Armstrong, senior hardware technician. At the beginning of the day, the technicians check the system for these requests to figure out how to structure their time.

Technicians then examine the damaged machine, determine what parts are needed and quote the department the cost of the parts.

Fair pricing structures

For repair centers not intending to make a profit, low labor charges and at-cost parts are best. “We charge $30 an hour for labor when the device is outside of warranty or the damage is directly due to user abuse,” says Dan Lutz, Ball State’s associate vice president for IT.

The same approach is taken at Seton Hall. “If the screen is coming off a laptop and it looks like a defect, we do not charge for labor,” says Fisher. “If a student left his machine on the top of his car and ran it over, we will charge for labor at $15 an hour with a $125 cap.” Parts are always at cost. The $45 diagnostic fee is refunded if the machine failure is determined to be covered under warranty.

The team at the University of Alaska, Anchorage looks at local competitors such as independent repair stores and chains like Best Buy when establishing rates. “We always come in considerably lower because we are not looking to make money,” says Diane Byrne, service center director. “Our rates are set yearly by the total cost of operation divided by worked hours.”

Cliff Duncan, desktop support lead, notes that the labor charge for 2013-14 is $85 an hour (with a one-hour minimum).

Tech-savvy students as frontline defense

Hiring student workers to diagnose and even fix simple issues saves technicians’ time for tough hardware problems. At Ball State, these staffers will walk student customers through how to resolve virus and malware issues, says Fawn Gary, director of unified technology support. “If there’s a hardware issue, the student tech will advise that the customer make an appointment with a full-time technician.”

Seton Hall’s 15 to 20 student tech assistants can do basic repairs, such as swapping hard drives. “These students go through a matrix of diagnostics when customers bring in a machine,” says Fisher. “If they cannot resolve the issue within 15 minutes, then they check in the machine and set it aside for a full-time technician.”

Excellent customer service

To ensure students’ lives are minimally disrupted during the repair process, they can get a loaner laptop from the centers at Ball State and Seton Hall. “We will even swap a students’ hard drive into the loaner laptop so they have all of their files during the repair period,” says Fisher.

The repair center at FSU expanded its services to employees’ personal devices in December, with prices that are competitive with local repair centers, says Michael Barrett, CIO. This mutually beneficial offering will serve as a small revenue generator and give employees a convenient place to drop off their computers.

“Many employees use their personal devices for work,” says Barrett. “So we have an advantage over local competitors because we can help employees with university applications and programs.”

Subsidized student repair costs

Free repair services may lead to higher rates of user abuse cases, according to Barrett. Students may take poor care of their machines if they know repairs are free. However, an across the board technology fee can significantly reduce labor charges while keeping some student accountability, he says.

The tech fee for all FSU students is five percent of their undergraduate tuition and is bundled with tuition costs. This allows the repair center to charge only $15 per hour for any repairs or machine upgrades.

“With a low per-hour service cost, it is affordable for students to invest in more efficient antivirus software or more memory,” says Barrett. Students can stop by the walk-in location and have their hard drive swapped in minutes.

Strong partnerships with manufacturers

The relationship between repair centers and the companies that make the machines is truly symbiotic, says Barrett.

“The manufacturers all have websites that can help with diagnostics. This helps us be even more efficient in diagnosing issues, and in turn, returning machines to our customers as quickly as possible.”

When a machine is under warranty, the manufacturer will reimburse the center for both parts and the labor hours spent fixing the machine. “We act as an agent for these companies to support and serve their products,” he says.

However, if repair center technicians are overloaded with work or unable to solve a problem, the manufacturer is right there. When there is a good relationship, the manufacturer will provide speedy service. “We can send machines under warranty to the manufacturer to fix for free if necessary, which is a great backup,” says Barrett.

Repair services beyond PCs

With most higher ed students and staff using mobile devices, it makes sense for a repair center to service these products.

“Everyone has grown so dependent on mobile devices,” says Chris Gordon, president of The Computer Fixer, a provider of campus hardware support. “So we perform most repairs in 30 minutes.”

While users occasionally bring phones with liquid damage or broken audio jacks, the most common issue seen by The Computer Fixer is broken glass. “Most manufacturers do not repair broken glass when the device is under warranty, they simply replace the device with a refurbished one,” says Gordon. Users who have not backed up their phones can lose all apps and settings.

Therefore, even when a phone or tablet is under warranty, it makes sense to repair broken glass, according to Gordon. “We charge $149 for iPhone screen replacement,” he says.

While that and other computer repair costs are expenses no one wants to deal with, having a repair center on campus offers convenience as well as peace of mind that the repair will be fair.