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Reducing calls and costs to a Help Desk, Service Desk or Customer Service Operations

May 15, 2008

Perspectives:

The help desk has typically been seen as the initial interface between end users and IT. End users tend to view the help desk as their gateway into the IT organization, while the rest of IT often looks derisively at the help desk as a low-level member of the IT organizational structure.

The help-desk-as-entry-level reputation represents a somewhat overly simplistic view of the help desk function, and must evolve if the help desk is to achieve a more trusted, partnership-based reputation within IT. In reality, help desk functionality must be more deeply ingrained in the existing IT structure if it is to shed its label as a pure cost center and become a contributor to the organization’s bottom line. Understanding how the three key tiers of the support organization are structured is an ideal place to start

Tier

Name of Role (Typical)

Description

1

Help Desk Analyst/ Agent

Service Desk Analyst

  • Provides front-line support to inbound incidents.

  • Conducts initial troubleshooting on a wide range of potential technology-related issues.

  • Attempts to resolve the maximum number of inbound calls.

  • Escalates unresolved calls to subsequent tiers.

  • Engages in call management to ensure call is effectively handled all the way to closure.

  • Staff member is typically dedicated full-time to this function.

2

Application Support Specialist

Programmer/Developer

Business Analyst

  • Receives escalated calls from Tier 1 resources.

  • Possesses deeper knowledge in a narrower area of expertise than the more generalized help desk analyst.

  • Teams up with the help desk analyst to actively manage open calls to closure.

  • Identifies trends in incidents assigned to the particular queue and provides feedback to Tier 1 teams as input to problem management process.

  • Member of a defined Tier 2 support team.

3

Programmer/Developer

Database Analyst

Systems Integrator

  • Similar to Tier 2 resources, except skill sets are even more specialized and refined.

  • Unlike Tiers 1 and 2, Tier 3 resources are typically not fully allocated to support functions. Their prime accountabilities are often to ongoing projects and other IT functions. They are called in to assist on the most challenging incidents that cannot be otherwise resolved.

Not all organizations commit to providing Tier 1 support to end users. Some feel they are simply too small to justify the cost and effort associated with a dedicated help desk. As a result, in many cases this work is undertaken on an ad hoc basis by whoever on staff seems to be most familiar with a given piece of technology. This is commonly referred to as the “Hey, Joe” method of obtaining support.

While this will often result in a resolved technical issue, and does not incur costs that are quantifiable on any organizational budget, the deeper implications may not be so rosy. “Hey, Joe” support drags on organizational efficiencies in the following ways:

  • No accumulation of organizational and technical knowledge.

  • No learning from past successes — or mistakes.

  • Lost productivity caused by staff being diverted away from their regular duties.

  • Lost productivity caused by end users searching high and low for the right resource to help them.

  • Longer resolution times — or no resolution at all.

  • Inconsistencies in resolutions leading to possible conflict or reduced effectiveness.

Because many of these costs are either difficult or impossible to quantify, obtaining support for a defined help desk function from leaders who do not yet understand the underlying value proposition — and what the lack of a proper process is costing the organization — can be a difficult proposition.

For those organizations that have committed to providing Tier 1 support to end users, they often view this service in one of two ways:

  • As a necessary cost of doing business.

  • As a potential driver of business opportunity.

Unfortunately, too many organizations have traditionally taken the former view. This has, to a large extent, prevented them from leveraging the help desk’s skills to the benefit of the rest of IT and the broader organization. Some of these benefits include greater control over technology and infrastructure/ operational costs, improved responsiveness to system outages, increased system availability and performance, and better focus on organizational core competencies.

Ultimately, the help desk can represent the company’s front line resource in terms of understanding how technology is used, what works best, what does not, and how IT can re-orient itself to ensure technology optimally meets evolving business requirements. No other entity has the opportunity to interact with the entire user base so frequently, and in such a detailed manner, as the help desk. Companies that understand this will position themselves to move beyond the conventional definition of a help desk.

TRADITIONAL VIEW

Help desks do not sell any products or services and, as such, do not directly contribute to the organization’s bottom line. As a result, executives focused on quarterly results tend to do their utmost to either reduce or at least constrain costs associated with operating a help desk. This can be ultimately detrimental to organizational performance because it ignores the indirect benefits of a well-managed help desk.

Help Desk as Cost Center

In most companies, help desks have always been viewed as consumers of organizational resources. This is eminently logical, since they don’t directly generate revenue in the same manner as the sales organization. The problem with this view is that it completely ignores the support organization’s indirect impact on bottom line performance.

As a result, help desks have also been perceived as the poor cousins of IT. Everyone — from CIO to end user and everyone in between — sees the help desk as the end of the line, the last resort, and an undesirable place to work (or work with).

IT has responded by paying help desk workers less than any other technology-related discipline, and by instituting rigid work practices — like scheduled bathroom breaks and call presentation — that no developer or systems architect would tolerate. Rigid work practices may make rational sense in this environment, but they hardly engender the sense of long-term commitment that managers need to minimize staff turnover and maximize the efficiency of the team.

Phone is Priority

The physical model of a helpdesk has remained the same for decades: employees wearing headsets sit in a common cluster of low-walled cubicles, answering calls on the phone. Many helpdesks have added supplemental contact methods — like e-mail, e-form, and Web — over the years, but the typical view still positions the phone at the center and other modes of contact at the periphery.

There is nothing overtly wrong with the historical skew toward phone-based support. For most organizations, it more or less gets the job done. The key issue in an increasingly connected and distributed technology environment — not to mention an increasingly competitive and accelerated business environment — is whether this is enough.

NEW VIEW

The help desk of tomorrow will look nothing like it has since green screen terminals and headsets invaded data centers over a generation ago. The paradigm of end users calling people for help will always exist in some form or other, but it will not predominate. It will be replaced by a more homogeneous mix of contact forms, each one optimized for the particular problem or issue that the end user may face.

This is not as simple a change as installing new call tracking software. It is nothing less than a wholesale rethinking of why help desks exist in the first place. It will be implemented not through one or two specific projects, but rather via a long-term evolution in culture. As such, internal marketing of the future help desk will be just as important as picking the right tools and processes to make it happen.

Help Desk as Leveraged Tool for Competitive Advantage

For years, IT has been ruthlessly seeking and exploiting cost savings opportunities. Because help desks have traditionally been at the low end of the IT priority totem pole, it is reasonable to assume that many shops have not yet identified the critical role their help desks play in helping the company remain competitive. Simply put, helpdesks haven’t been big enough on the radar to merit much notice. This is beginning to change.

Companies are starting to recognize that help desks can be home to massive amounts of organizational intelligence. This applies to both technology and business knowledge. Defined help desks may have already captured this information in their call logs. Ad hoc help desks lack that advantage, but the people performing this informal service nevertheless represent an untapped source of knowledge.

Assessment of Invisible Cost Drivers

When analyzing IT costs — and when looking for opportunities to cut them — IT managers often focus first on the large-scale, visible projects that incur very tangible expenses. Some key examples include major implementation projects, migrations, systems acquisition, and development.

Left in the background are those day-to-day consumers of resources. This one-sided view of IT cost containment ignores the critical role operational costs have on the bottom line. A relatively small saving in operational costs — for example, consolidating multiple data lines to improve management and reduce monthly subscription costs — can ultimately have a larger budgetary impact than a one-time saving from paring down a project.

Help desks are also home to significantly less visible operational inefficiencies that can drive higher-than-expected operational costs. These include:

  • No use of incident/call tracking software.

  • Use of such software, but implementation is not well matched to the business need. For example, field layout may be insufficient to track all necessary information regarding the request.

  • Inadequate reporting, resulting in the inability of help desk management to effectively control the operation.

  • Inadequate or insufficient call log search function.

  • Insufficient training for help desk analysts.

  • Insufficient training for end users.

  • No set standards for data entry.

  • Lack of a solutions database to assist call resolution.

  • Lack of automated workflow tools, resulting in too much manual intervention and repeat data entry.

  • No links to the requester’s asset information or inventory.

  • Screen layout that does not support the flow of data entry and retrieval

A next generation help desk routinely seeks out these seemingly trivial issues and pushes for their improvement within the broader IT infrastructure. Being on the front line of IT service provision gives the help desk a unique perspective when it comes to identifying fundamental drivers of technology failure and addressing them to prevent future recurrence. This is an often-overlooked intelligence-gathering capacity, and organizations that fail to capitalize on this opportunity risk deploying IT services that will generate higher than acceptable — and costly — failure rates.

Assessment of Business Objectives

Ask any IT manager what the organization’s goals are for Tier 1 support, and the response will always be the same: “We want it to be the best that it can be.” No one will ever admit that the company will accept anything less than optimal support from the help desk.

The problem with this thinking is that it does not reflect the underlying business reality. In other words, you get what you pay for. Operational functions like help desks are subject to the same constraints of money, people, and time that rein in development projects.

Thus, if money were no object, companies would clearly commit to the best help desk that money can buy. But money most certainly is an object in most modern organizations. So companies have to decide how much help desk they are willing to buy. They start this process by understanding what the business needs.

For example, if research data shows the business can accept an average speed of answer (ASA) of 30 seconds before its bottom-line performance is negatively impacted, then this would represent a logical performance target for the help desk. Staffing, training, and technology would be invested to return this level of performance. If the business needs changed, and a 20-second ASA was now required to ensure business success, then costs to drive that level of help desk performance would rise accordingly.

Beyond the issue of time-based performance lie other critical performance benchmarks which will allow IT planners to target the ultimate performance level of the help desk. Of particular interest is resolution rate, also known as the percentage of calls resolved by Tier 1 without requiring a subsequent escalation to Tier 2 and Tier 3 resources. The assumption is that a call resolved at Tier 1 on the first call is less expensive than one that must be escalated and managed until closure.

To achieve this level of performance, however, analysts will need higher levels of training and availability of technology — better knowledge bases and tools to facilitate on-the-spot call resolution. Integration with Tier 2 and 3 support teams — a key element of an effective service delivery function — will also drive costs within the organization. Leadership needs to establish expectations about workflow priorities and expected response to tickets that are escalated to them.

Regardless of tier, it is clear that without incurring these up-front costs, operational costs will rise due to higher numbers of escalated calls. To determine what the business is willing to live with, IT needs to negotiate specific terms with its business partners before any component of the help desk is either implemented or re-engineered.

RE-ORDERED CONTACT PRIORITY MATRIX

Although phone-based contact has been by far the most popular tool of the conventional help desk, this is beginning to change. Managers are recognizing that not every type of call is optimally handled by a live human over the phone. Based on level of training, salary and benefits, and other related costs, an analyst wearing a headset represents a relatively expensive way to solve a problem. In some cases, routine and repetitive types of calls can be routes to alternative channels for more task-appropriate, cost-effective handling. Some examples include the following:

  • Interactive Voice Response (IVR) — This phone-based voice menu system is often used for simpler types of resolutions. For example, end users can have their passwords automatically reset through a phone-based interface. IVRs are also often used to facilitate navigation through the various help desk options. Although the user may ultimately choose to speak to a human, the IVR can be used to capture certain key pieces of information along the way so that the analyst is already ahead of the game once the end user makes it through. It can also be used to intelligently route the caller to the staff member who is best equipped to handle that particular call.

  • Web-Based/Forms — Not every call to the help desk requires immediate resolution. In fact, differentiating between incidents and requests represents a key step in establishing a proper priority matrix. An incident occurs when a given piece of technology anomalously and unexpectedly does not meet the business need. In the case of a request, however, there is no technological malfunction. The user would simply like something installed, removed, or modified. Understanding this critical difference clears the decks for resources to be allocated to the most critical issues. A Web-based form facilitates a defined collection of information so as to minimize the need for callbacks after the IT staff member is assigned to handle the request.

  • Automated Tools — When monitoring network performance, you can either staff up your environment or implement hardware- and software-based monitoring tools that send automated alerts directly to the help desk if certain thresholds are exceeded. This reduces the window of uncertainty, for example, when major systems go down. Previously, help desks would simply wait for the calls to begin flooding in. Now, they’ll be among the first to know.

  • Front-End Messages — Callers don’t always want or need a solution. In the event of a major system outage, none may be at hand anyway. And help desk analysts would otherwise simply be repeating the same status message to everyone who calls. By having a changeable message included at the top of the IVR tree, help desks can communicate outage information quickly back to their constituent base. This keeps the queues clear for other priority calls.

Within each of these streams, it is important to maintain the traditional levels of priority to ensure that the most pressing contacts are dealt with first. Proper prioritization minimizes cost by focusing support staff’s time on the issues with the greatest impact on the bottom line. Prioritization is an important profit improvement project, not a data collection exercise.

To ensure you’re effectively prioritizing your help desk activities, ask for the following information for each inquiry your help desk receives:

  • Time-sensitivity. Does the user need to send an important document to a customer in two hours and can’t retrieve the file from his/her desktop’s faulty hard drive, or is there a problem with the monthly sales report that needs to be sent out next week? Prioritizing time-sensitive issues is easy if you have accurate times by which they must be completed. Conversely, prioritizing issues without this information will make the IT department seem distant and arbitrary.

  • Number of users impacted. Is the problem a bad network card in one desktop, or is it a bad hub affecting several departments? Users won’t always know how many people are affected, but it’s easy to ask on the phone if their neighbors are experiencing similar problems. If you know an issue will impact many users, inform people who could be affected that you’re working on the problem. This isn’t always easy (e.g. if the e-mail server goes down), but you need to make a sincere effort to tell people because it can prevent redundant future calls and make your department look good.

  • Possible short-term work-arounds. Can the caller use a neighbor’s computer temporarily for critical tasks, a “loaner” computer, or another printer? Often users don’t think of these possible solutions, but they are a great way for your IT Department to demonstrate excellent customer service.

Define and widely publish a priority matrix throughout the organization. Here’s one suggestion for representing scope and impact:

Priority

People Affected

Workarounds Available?

Major Incident

Many

No

P1

Few/One

No

P2

Many

Yes

P3

Few/One

Yes

You may also wish to set specific response and resolution times for each priority level. Additionally, feel free to make room for low-priority requests — like installations and other issues — not related to outages or failures.

CALL AVOIDANCE STRATEGY

Every time the help desk phone rings, it costs your organization money. A recent Help Desk Institute Best Practices Survey found 35 percent of respondents reported a cost of between $10 and $40 for each telephone support call. This can easily double or triple if the call is not immediately resolved and must be escalated to a Tier 2 resource.

Consequently, the optimal call type is one that never happens. In that respect, the help desk is rather unique among IT’s structural elements in that it is — or should be — devoted to eliminating the need for its existence. Successful help desks strive to drive down demand for calls. While this is on the surface a money-saving process, it can more importantly free up a company’s highly-trained help desk resources to add value to the organization in other ways.

In any business endeavor, elimination or reduction of labor represents the most effective means of reducing overall cost. Moving the solution closer to the end user and preventing the helpdesk phone from ringing in the first place can result in significant cost savings. When analyzing help desk management processes, there are two key strategies to prevent that call from ever being answered by a human:

  1. Remove the root cause at the source. By identifying trends in inbound incidents (for example, the same group of users calls in every weekday with reports of slow printing first thing in the morning), the ITIL-defined problem management process aims to understand what is driving the failure of technology to meet the previously agreed-to business need. Problem management studies the flow of incidents, identifies patterns within them, links them to the known errors which are causing the failures in the first place, then prioritizes potential resolutions as input to future maintenance and development projects.

    The following chart illustrates a typical analysis of inbound contact types:

Total Calls Monitored

# of calls

% of calls

Call Types:

Non-Tech

Tech

Total

Non-Tech

Tech

Business

23

0

23

2.6%

0.0%

Base Software/Operating Systems

277

129

406

31.0%

45.4%

Business Application Software

349

51

400

39.0%

18.0%

Hardware

36

75

111

4.0%

26.4%

Status Update/Call Back

74

29

103

8.3%

10.2%

Administrative Functions

26

0

26

2.9%

0.0%

Misc. (switchboard/general questions)

109

0

109

12.2%

0.0%

Total Calls

894

284

1178

75.9%

24.1%

More globally, removal of the root cause can involve a wide range of IT-specific process implementations, including more rigid development practices to drive higher quality code implementation, as well as better-defined HR practices to ensure the right training is available to the right staff in a more timely manner.

Divert the call to an automated call management process. If the incident is unavoidable, then diverting certain incident types to less-expensive call management avenues can return major benefits to the organization. The most obvious one is reduced cost, since people are expensive to hire, train, and maintain.

Devoting high-level resources to a constant stream of simple password resets does little to add value to the organization. It represents a loss of opportunity for these highly-trained analysts, whose time could be better spent actually analyzing instead of chugging through basic resolutions. Some key diversion technologies include the following

Technology

Description

Advantages

Disadvantages

Interactive Voice Response (IVR)

A phone-based, automated system that provides updates to end users, and allows them to engage in limited-scope information requests.

No computer required: end users can call in from anywhere.

Minimal training requirements.

Dynamically updated front-end messages can reduce phone queue loads during major system outages.

Can only handle simple problems.

Few menu choices.

End-user resistance due to “voicemail hell.

Online knowledge base

A database of related information that users can access directly via a browser.

Allows for more advanced, self-directed troubleshooting.

Knowledge base can be shared with/used by help desk analysts.

Requires specialized knowledge base skills to implement.

End-user buy in might require significant retraining and internal marketing efforts.

Online ticketing system

A Web-based front end to the existing ticket system. It allows users to enter their own problem tickets and bypass the phone queues.

Flexible tools allow for end-user followup and call management.

Considered the least expensive per-contact option available.

End-user training requirements typically higher.

End-user buy in can be difficult to obtain.

E-form- based ticketing

An e-mail-based system that allows end users to log their own tickets through a predefined template.

Precise control over the types of information required.

Submitted ticket often stored as a sent piece of mail.

Dependent on fully functioning e-mail system. Useless if end user does not have access to e-mail.

Once ticket is submitted, the technology provides no opportunity for users to track ticket status.

Kiosks

Dedicated-purpose hardware, often with touchscreens, used in high-traffic areas for non-captive, non-employee end users.

Can reduce load on other front-line staff in non-help desk-related roles. For example, airline ticket agents.

Can raise organization’s visibility in public spaces like airports, banks, malls, and so on.

Physical presence limits deployment to specific sites.

Technologies often proprietary.

Usually not linked to help desk ticket management software.

Moving from a reactive to a proactive stance can return benefits in a number of areas — benefits that go far beyond the help desk:

  • Increased customer satisfaction.

  • Higher help desk analyst productivity.

  • Reduced cost due to the shifting of certain call types to lower-cost avenues.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lee permalink
    June 3, 2008 3:24 pm

    Thanks for your article.

    As a helpdesk specialist I can fully agree to the statements above.
    More to this – you can achieve call reduction by optimizing the work of your helpdesk department and with implementing special helpdesk software that can automate some things or even give a user an ability to solve some minor problems by himself.

    From my experience, a great tool for this is ScriptLogic’s BridgeTrak Help Desk – powerful tickets tracking utility – the part of help desk incident management solution

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