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Helping Your Help Desk:
Seven Considerations to Increase Effectiveness

BY MADELINE LOCKE

Technical advances have subtly, but rapidly, changed the nature of how we interact in the workplace. Perhaps most dramatically, technology has transformed the way we communicate with one another. Corporations have come to realize how seriously they rely on PCs - with downtime resulting in lost productivity for expensive and mission-critical knowledge workers. Before launching a help desk operation, managers should carefully assess their situation to determine whether operations can be handled in-house, or if an outsourcing arrangement would better suit the company's needs. The following questions offers key points to consider while investigating help desk options.

1. What are the competitive advantages/benefits of the help desk?
While many organizations recognize the absolute need for a help desk, too many still narrowly view help desk management as a cost of doing business rather than an opportunity to improve employee and organizational effectiveness. In fact, the help desk is a management function critical to the company's competitive advantage. As the true impact of lost productivity due to technical difficulties emerges, this "cost of doing business" attitude is likely to change.

Key benefits of a well-managed help desk operation include heightened effectiveness in a number of areas: cost and asset management, technology migration, upgrades, infrastructure management, problem management, and field service management.

2. What are the chief challenges in help desk implementation?
Staffing is a key issue, and includes the help desk agents answering calls and the management overseeing the operation. The help desk agent position is often seen as entry-level, leaving inexperienced staff to handle calls. To compound the issue, these individuals often do not receive the necessary on-going training to keep up with changing applications and hardware configurations. Career development for the help desk professional is another challenge, as a small help desk usually cannot afford to allow staff to train off-line without impacting daily operations. Help desk positions are often not linked to a definitive and upward career path. This situation, in turn, hinders the recruitment process.

Today, productivity equals competitive advantage, and companies strive to have every PC up and running constantly to achieve maximum productivity levels. The entry of the personal computer into corporate life has opened a Pandora's Box for information systems professionals charged with keeping the technology infrastructure running smoothly. As PCs in the office environment are often configured according to personal preferences and workstyle, and operated by lay persons in the field of computing, a highly uncontrolled and difficult to support environment results.

3. What are the options for instituting help desk operations?
Organizations have two options for help desk operations. The first is to build, staff, and support an in-house help desk. The organization is faced with many of the roadblocks mentioned above, including costly technology infrastructure investments and staffing difficulties.

Faced with these pressures, many organizations turn to outside help desk expertise. Outsourced help desks may be located on- or off-site. On-site help desk facilities often defeat the purpose of outsourcing, which is primarily cost reduction due to resources shared with other organizations.

Help desks located within an organization's facilities are limited by the constraints of the infrastructure and the company's internal bureaucracy. Furthermore, the help desk vendor will always be in a better position to control the quality of service and cost economies if it controls all aspects of the help desk, including the facility. Taking the help desk off-site enables, in many cases, the vendor to provide more detailed reporting and metrics regarding operations. Rather than losing control, the company outsourcing its help desk gains a clearer picture of help desk efficiencies or bottlenecks.

4. What are the benefits of outsourcing the help desk?
The primary goal of help desk outsourcing is to reduce long-term help desk costs by utilizing a vendor that spreads these costs across multiple companies. This, in turn, enables the organization to improve employee satisfaction levels, increase the number of incidents that can be resolved on the first call, decrease the turnaround time from initial call to resolution, and improve off-hours access to assistance.

In an outsourced environment, the help desk vendor assumes responsibility for day-to-day operations, while working closely with the client organization to define key improvement objectives and to establish long-term strategic help desk plans. The vendor enables the client organization to focus on the results, providing regular detailed reports on pre-established metrics, which may include time until call is answered by a human agent, time to resolve problem, abandonment rate, overall system availability, and overall customer satisfaction.

Working together with the client organization, the help desk vendor controls the support environment. Specific metrics are critical - for example, stating that the help desk must answer calls in 30 to 60 seconds, and that 80 percent of incidents must be resolved on first contact, so that actual performance can be tracked against goals.

Driven to resolve problems even before they occur, an effective help desk partner should engage in proactive problem analysis, such as tracking equipment that needs replacement, monitoring potential software incompatibility problems, and identifying users in need of additional training.

5. What are the key factors to maintaining help desk operations?
A complex infrastructure - comprising a sophisticated combination of people, processes, and tools - is required for effective help desk operations.

People
Expert personnel, who are able to resolve issues as quickly as possible, are essential to a successful help desk. The availability of on-going training and career development elevates the skill and maturity level of individuals who will staff the help desk. As the help desk vendor's positions are filled with career help desk personnel (as well as management staff who receive training and the opportunity for advancement) the quality of service is obviously improved.

Processes
Problem identification and resolution is a key process in the help desk operation, as is problem escalation. Calls too complicated to be resolved by the initial help desk staff member are escalated to higher levels of support expertise based on agreed-upon procedures. Outsourcing vendors must provide the tools and methodology to analyze call patterns, as well as provide the appropriate technology to enable effective call routing. Effective routing makes best use of the help desk staff's time, reduces caller frustration, and ultimately makes a significant contribution to lowering total cost of ownership.

Proactive analysis and incident tracking processes help provide feedback not only on call levels, but also on incident type, departments from which large numbers of incidents arise, and individuals who require more than the normal level of assistance.

Technology
An effective help desk is supported by a sophisticated technology infrastructure. A PBX provides the interface between the public telephone network and the phone instrument on an agent's desk, and includes the facilities needed to place telephone calls, analyze call progress signals, and connect telephone calls to agent headsets. The PBX switch allows inbound centers to handle heavy volumes of inbound calls. An ACD switch helps in the routing of those calls and provides the reporting capabilities. The ACD may also include a Voice Response Unit (VRU) that helps route the calls and warns incoming callers of an existing problem and timeframe for resolution.

Computer telephony integration (CTI) enables the automated retrieval of caller-provided information and bundling of that information with the phone call. The agent receives the information on his/her workstation as the call rings through. This information enables the help desk agent to instantly view the caller's history, resolution, past problems, as well as their specific hardware and software configuration details, reducing the problem resolution time.

In addition, the help desk is supported by automation software that provides 24-hour support, reduces overall support costs, and improves the efficiency of the resolution process. A host of new tools are available, including knowledge-based solutions which incorporate analytical technologies including expert systems, fuzzy logic, and natural language to improve the efficiency of incident resolution; and asset management tools which provide critical inventory information essential for help desk managers. These details provide insight into potential application incompatibility or outdated hardware.

6. How does new technology enable the help desk to manage calls more effectively?
More and more organizations are providing users with limited access to the help desk database, so that they may query the database and perform their own initial research or log their own problems.

New Web-based models allow remote users access to common problems and solutions, and enable them to perform a number of administrative functions through voice response units or on the Web. Users may perform functions, including checking the status of unresolved incidents, or changing or checking their password, all without the involvement of a human agent.

7. What qualities should we seek in a help desk vendor?
Top-flight help desk outsourcing organizations must demonstrate multiple, but complementary, characteristics/skill sets if they are to accommodate the unique business processes of the client organization and provide the prerequisite technical environment. Vendors should:

  • Demonstrate the availability of qualified agents and help desk managers.
  • Provide a proven methodology.
  • Ensure appropriate facilities and security procedures.
  • Provide sophisticated help desk software, hardware, and communications systems.
  • Detail problem identification and resolution, escalation, and proactive analysis and incident tracking processes.

Today's help desk is far more than a technical discipline. As the provider of the organization's virtual life support system, the help desk outsourcer must map its operating model to precisely support the clients' dynamic geographic and response deadline requirements. Help desk managers must ensure that they deliver the trained resources where they are needed, and in sufficient quantity to meet specified response standards, without leaving these expensive resources idle.

Furthermore, models for compensating help desk vendors are sharpening the absolute requirement to deliver on, and exceed, the specifications in the contract. Many of today's help desk outsourcing contracts have sidestepped the traditional fixed compensation structure. Instead, the outsourcing firm is compensated on a sliding scale, contingent on its ability to perform against definite response metrics throughout the duration of the contract.

Overall, the support/help desk market is evolving as it transitions from what was traditionally viewed as a reactive role. Emerging as one of the productivity-enhancing management functions, the help desk provides key insight into an organization's workflow, as it delivers solutions.

Madeline Locke, IMI Systems' Global Director of Help Desk Services, has over 25 years experience in the information technology field, including mainframe, midrange, client/server, and desktop platforms. Ms. Locke is currently responsible for the start-up and operation of international IMI projects, including the creation of the first leveraged help desk for the support of PCs and electronic mail in a Fortune 10 corporation. She can be reached at mllocke@imisys.com.

IMI Systems, with headquarters in Melville, New York, and operations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, is an international information technology consulting firm whose technical staff assists clients in the design, programming, and maintenance of their computer systems, on either a project or staff supplementation basis.

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