By Neil R. Guillebeau, 7th Signal Command (Theater)November 30, 2010
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- In a faceless world where people routinely communicate with computers and telephones, technicians at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), Wash. Network Enterprise Center (NEC) now go face-to-face with customers to establish relationships.
Smiles and handshakes are included as part of their efforts to enhance customer service - they are base line services, provided at no extra charge. With more than 17,000 customers in units that routinely deploy and redeploy to or from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping their information technology (IT) clients connected and happy was a more decentralized and time-consuming challenge, especially without a formalized and coordinated customer service process.
"That's the way it used to be," said Barbara Estrella, chief Desktop Services Branch, Desktop Support Division, who also directs the NEC's Network Enterprise Representative or NER program. "Before we used NERs, it was more like putting out fires and now it's more like fire prevention."
NERs serve as single points of contacts for each unit on the base. The NERs help units coordinate IT requirements for projects or exercises, prepare for deployments or redeployment or help them with routine or emergent requirements.
"We contact each unit's S6 to arrange a meeting with a prospective NER and the appropriate people in their command so we can introduce our point of view, let them know where we are coming from and help them understand what support we can provide," said Vanessa Wentz, an IT specialist and NER. "During the initial meeting, we also try to understand the unit's IT requirements, needs and wants.
"Hopefully, the meeting helps us understand the unit's requirements, and they understand exactly what we can do for them so we can have a good hand shake and better team work."
All Tier II technicians also serve as NERs. Each unit at JBLM has a primary and alternate NER to serve as their direct representatives at the NEC. Units communicate with their NERs in advance as much as possible about their situations, such as upcoming requirements, and they discuss requirements that involve the network, telephone, desktop support, imaging, or other IT services.
"We task an individual or a team to tackle each project. It seems to work very well for the NEC and it helps keep the complaints down because units can talk to their primary or alternate NER and get the assistance they need without getting the run-around," said Wentz. "Having NERs involved early on in the planning phases with units helps make projects go smoothly and with few surprises.
"We've helped units with major exercises, mobilizations, redeployments and prepared units to base other places. Our main projects include deployments because we are mainly a combat installation."
The NEC team and NERs try to make deployments and redeployments as seamless as possible because they understand units, and people want email, internet, telephone connections and other data support as soon as they return from a deployment. In this case, they ask the unit's rep to contact their appointed NER 90 days before returning from a deployment.
"An organization's point of contact will contact a NER to start the account management process," said Wentz. "Accounts must be created before they arrive back to JBLM and verifications have to be done on training before the AD [active directory] account can be created. The people in the rear detachment tell NERs what buildings and rooms returning leadership and Soldiers will occupy."
The NEC teams help units make plans, coordinate paperwork and training in advance, setup networking and open port security so people can plug in machines and telephones as quickly as possible when they return to the base according to Wentz.
The NERs help the NEC team better manage a large geographical area with huge training areas according to Amy Ridgeway, the JBLM NEC director, and she believes the whole NEC team is in sync with its customer base at Lewis-McChord.
"I think we do a very good job, but I'm not naAfA-ve because I know the NEC has challenges we need to improve upon, but we are working on them as we get better at listening to and responding to our customers," she said.
One customer, Timothy Alsop, believes the JBLM NEC stands as a mature, respected and well-established technical and customer service organization. Alsop, the S6 information management officer for the 6th Military Police Group at JBLM, manages units that receive services from more than 20 NECs across the U. S. and overseas.
"As far as being responsive to our needs here and complying with different policies, this NEC has, by far, provided world-class support and complied with more policy and regulatory guidance than any other NEC I've ever dealt with," said Alsop.
Ridgeway credits the NER process as one tool that helps her highly trained and experienced staff meet the IT requirements of customers, especially during the joint basing ramp up to Full Operational Capability and the recent large numbers of JBLM deployments and redeployments.
She said the NER process served the NEC and customers well the past 18 months, especially with the high volume of deployments and reintegration of Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each deployment and redeployments requires the NEC staff to create, disable, delete, or manage thousands of accounts and provide assistance for a full range of communication services including email, internet, telephone and data.
"NERs help us be ahead of the units needs and wants by them telling us what it is they need before they get here," said Estrella. "We try to get all of their comms [communications] taken care of before they step into the building."
"We also created an AKO [Army Knowledge Online] site for unit reintegration so the downrange units can get information and documents they need to transition back to McCord," said Wentz.
While NERs mainly provide assistance at the unit level, customer service technicians consider themselves NERs whether they are talking to one customer or working with an assigned unit.
"We are all representatives of the network and the NEC, and we are here to support our customers here at JBLM," said Estrella.
"Our vision is simple: Provide and operate a reliable and secure network so units and people can accomplish their missions, whether they are I Corps, the airfield or the garrison," said Ridgeway.
The NEC is all over great service said customer Col. Arlester Vernon Jr., Headquarters I Corps, assistant chief of staff (G6).
"Their leaders have the background and experience to understand the sense of urgency associated with what they do," he said. "They understand that the NEC is here for the customer, and they have excellent folks taking care of business. Their heads are in the right place."