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February 1999

Outsourcing Your Help Desk For Efficiency And Cost Reduction


Few would argue that the technological advances of the last decade have revolutionized the workplace. Datawarehouses, e-mail, groupware, the Internet and a host of other technologies have brought about dramatic changes in the way we obtain, store, process, use and, most important, share information.

As a result, the help desk's importance is increasing; it has become a central reference point where employees may direct questions and report difficulties related to the company's technology environment. The help desk is emerging as the organization's primary vehicle to maximize employee productivity and reduce total cost of ownership (TCO).

These technical advances have subtly but rapidly changed the nature of how we interact in the workplace. Perhaps most dramatic is that technology has transformed the way in which we communicate with one another. Consider, for instance, that today many Americans send only the largest and bulkiest of packages via the U.S. Postal Service, now commonly referred to as "snail mail." Gradually, corporations have come to realize how seriously they rely on PCs - with "downtime" and computer troubles resulting in lost productivity for expensive and mission-critical "knowledge workers."

Today, productivity equals competitive advantage and companies strive to have every PC up and running constantly to achieve maximum productivity levels. Models for measuring productivity loss due to IT infrastructure failure are cropping up. As an example, assume an hour of each employee's time equals $75 in revenue and estimate that each call to the help desk consumes a half-hour of time. If callers spend an average of a half-hour trying to fix the problems themselves, the cost is considerable. If each employee makes two calls per month and there are 2,000 employees, the company has lost a total of $450,000 per month, or $5.4 million annually in worker productivity. This model accounts for straight time only. Estimates exist that after each interruption, the average worker takes an additional 20 minutes to refocus his or her attention. This would equate to an additional $200,000 per month, or $2.4 million annually.

Changes in the computing world have driven more complex support requirements. While the original mainframes were supervised and maintained in a controlled environment by specially trained computer operators, the entry of the PC into corporate life has opened a Pandora's Box for information systems (IS) professionals charged with keeping the information technology (IT) infrastructure running smoothly. PCs in the office environment are often configured according to personal preferences and work style and are operated by lay persons in the field of computing. The result is a highly uncontrolled and difficult-to-support environment.

A Seat On The Board
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 efficiency. 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, attitudes will likely change.

A number of factors impact the effectiveness of the help desk. In many cases, corporations do not want to invest in the technology and management infrastructure required to operate an effective help desk, such as the switching technology that effectively routes calls or the requisite database technology needed to log and track incidents. Staffing is also an issue in terms of the help desk agents answering the calls and the management overseeing the entire help desk operation.

The help desk operator position is often seen as an entry-level IS position, which leaves inexperienced staff to handle calls. To compound the issue, these individuals often do not receive the necessary ongoing 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 offline 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.

The Outsourcing Option
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 factors mentioned above, including costly IT infrastructure investments and staffing difficulties.

Faced with these pressures, many organizations are turning to outside help desk expertise. According to International Data Corporation (IDC), a research firm based in Framingham, Massachusetts, the market for help desk outsourcing is expected to reach more than $3 billion worldwide by the year 2000. According to IDC, factors prompting companies to outsource their help desk functions include the complexity of client/server software and the high cost of running an internal help desk.1

Outsourced help desks may be located either on- or off-site. Experts agree that on-site help desk facilities often defeat the purpose of outsourcing, which is cost reduction due to the availability of resources shared with other organizations.

Help desks located within an organization's facilities are limited by the constraints of the infrastructure and the customer'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 the vendor, in many cases, to provide more detailed reporting and metrics regarding operations. Rather than losing control, in many cases, the organization gains a clearer picture of help desk efficiencies or bottlenecks.

Information security should be a top concern when outsourcing the help desk function. Reputable help desk outsourcing vendors must provide clients with a bulletproof plan to ensure corporate information is secure through the deployment of both technology and procedures designed to maintain data integrity. Security can be achieved by instituting physical facility and data security measures, including separate phone lines, passworded workstations and databases to serve individual customers.

The primary goal of help desk outsourcing is to reduce long-term help desk costs by using a vendor that spreads these costs across multiple client 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 establish long-term strategic help desk plans. The vendor enables the client organization to focus on results, providing regular detailed reports on pre-established metrics, which may include:

  • Time until call is answered by a human agent,
  • Time to resolve a problem,
  • Abandonment rate (i.e., number of callers who hang up before call is answered by a human agent),
  • Overall system availability, and
  • Overall customer satisfaction.

Working together with the client organization, the help desk vendor can control the support environment. The implementation of specific metrics is 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 analyses such as tracking equipment that needs replacement, monitoring potential software incompatibility problems and identifying users in need of additional training.

Elements For Success
Senior managers are beginning to recognize the potential benefits of effective help desk management. These benefits include the incorporation of key management tasks under the overall help desk umbrella: cost and asset management, technology migration, upgrades, infrastructure management, problem management and field service. A complex infrastructure comprised of a sophisticated combination of people, processes and tools is required for effective help desk operations.

Expert personnel who are able to resolve issues as quickly as possible are essential to a successful help desk. The availability of ongoing training and career development elevates the skill and maturity level of individuals who 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 will improve.

Problem Identification And Resolution
Outsourcing vendors must provide the tools and methodology to analyze call patterns and have the appropriate technology to enable effective call routing. The help desk managers and staffers can then better perform their responsibilities. Effective routing makes the best use of the help desk staff's time, reduces caller frustration and ultimately makes a significant contribution to lowering TCO.

Escalation Processes
Calls too complicated to be resolved by the help desk staff members must be escalated to higher levels of support expertise based on implemented procedures. The procedures are specifically developed with the customer's business priorities in mind rather than using a predesigned series of steps toward resolution. These procedures push incidents that cannot be resolved quickly and effectively by the first tier support personnel to a more specialized tier that is better equipped to resolve the problem.

Proactive Analysis And Incident Tracking Processes
Advanced help desk operations incorporate call-tracking processes with relational database technology, providing 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. This information might help the CIO identify departments with outdated equipment (and justify new purchases) or flag individuals in need of additional training. Also from these data, metrics such as cost-per-seat, average turnaround times, caller hang-up rates, total system availability and total user downtime can be tracked. The help desk also engages in proactive problem identification including imminent hardware failures, capacity problems related to disk storage, communication bandwidth, CPU utilization and other issues. The help desk should be able to identify and eliminate the root causes of the problems in addition to addressing the symptoms.

Often, companies contemplating help desk outsourcing have security concerns. Vendors must detail a structured security plan including, if appropriate, databases to serve individual customers, separate phone lines, security procedures and regulation.

Facility And Technology Infrastructure
Adequate facilities and telecommunications IT infrastructure is critical to success and is a key value add for the help desk provider.

Physical Location
The help desk should be located in a secure building, particularly if it is to be staffed 24 hours a day. A comfortable work environment and ample, secure parking must also be provided.

Private Branch Exchange (PBX) And Automated Call Distributor (ACD)
The PBX provides the interface between the public telephone network and the PBX phone instrument on an agent's desk. It includes all of 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. The ACD 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 time frame for resolution.

Computer-Telephony Integration (CTI)
CTI technology 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 provider problems and specific configuration details. The availability of the data reduces the total time required to resolve the issue and get the caller back to work.

Help Desk Automation Software
Responding to the growing requirement for around-the-clock problem resolution, as well as the need for more proactive troubleshooting, organizations are turning to a variety of help desk automation software solutions that provide 24-hour support, reduce overall support costs and improve the efficiency of the resolution process. End users can resolve simple problems on their own, freeing valuable help desk resources to focus on more demanding incidents.

Knowledge-Based Tools
In the past, many companies relied on case-based reasoning (CBR) to facilitate problem management. Today, more complex, knowledge-based combinations of technologies are becoming the norm. Newer solutions incorporate analytical technologies, including expert systems, fuzzy logic and natural language to improve the efficiency of incident resolution.

Asset Management Tools
Asset management tools provide critical inventory information essential for help desk managers, providing insight into potential application incompatibility or problematic outdated hardware.

New Models: Just-In-Time Support Delivery
Deployed since the early 1990s, the traditional help desk model involves a user calling into the desk, verbally describing the problem and receiving a response via the telephone. However, new models are beginning to emerge, driven by a number of factors, including the rapidly rising number of help desk calls and the increasingly complex technical landscape. IS managers must often support users working off-hours and from remote locations, situations which pose unique challenges for a help desk.

More and more organizations are providing users with limited access to the help desk database so they may query the database and perform their own initial research or log their own problems.

In addition, new Web-based models allow remote users access to common problems 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 passwords, all without the involvement of a human agent.

Next Steps: The Future Of The Help Desk
Help desk technology is changing rapidly, with new analytical tools emerging to meet increasingly complex requirements.

The rapid globalization of the business world and the growth of multinational corporations continue to drive the need for 24-hour-a-day/7-day-a-week technical support. Many large organizations are inefficiently running help desk operations in multiple locations rather than enjoying the significant economies of scale that can be achieved through consolidation.

New technologies are emerging to support and enhance the efficiency of the help desk operator and users as they work to resolve computer issues and return to the business at hand as quickly as possible. Some key examples of technologies that enable the call taker to research and find solutions in a timely manner include:

  • Neural Networks - Neural network technologies simulate the architecture of the human brain, enabling software to effectively interact with very large databases processing queries and learning from everyday experience.
  • Fuzzy Logic - As discussed, fuzzy logic is a technology that enables a software system to consider situations where an ambiguous answer is the most logical answer, allowing a graduated response to a question.
  • Expert System - The expert system can automatically execute functions normally performed by an experienced computer engineer, keeping the process comprehensible to the average worker. The search engine analyzes the problem, tests alternative resolutions and devises a final recommendation with little human intervention or input required. Expert systems fall into two major categories - knowledge- and rule-based. Knowledge-based systems work in a similar manner to neural networks. Rule-based systems employ flow charts and checklists that allow agents to question users, often drilling down to another question based on a previous answer, to arrive at a solution. These systems provide excellent training tools for inexperienced help desk staff in addition to increasing their productivity.

These technologies, coupled with effective tracking, reporting and escalation processes, are transforming the help desk from a technical support mechanism to what GartnerGroup refers to as a consolidated service desk. From 1998 to 2001, Gartner predicts that a proactive network system management approach will strengthen operations through "an increased vendor focus on predictive and planned capabilities, such as automated operations, change management, service-level management, security policy, bandwidth planning and performance analysis, with the service desk accommodating these proactive workflow processes."2

Measures Of Success And Suggestions For Working With 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, and
  • Detail problem identification and resolution, escalation and proactive analyses and incident tracking processes.

A depth and breadth of understanding is critical for an organization to deliver the expertise to manage all support requirements in one cohesive function. Combine this requirement with the rapidly changing application, operating systems and networking software environments and the challenges are considerable. When you put the hardware evolution and compatibility issues on top, the scale of the task is daunting.

Outsourced operations are far better equipped to handle the normal peaks and valleys associated with help desk management. They can leverage additional resources for high-volume time periods and to fill in for those on vacation or sick leave without impacting the entire client company's productivity level.

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 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. Meeting requirements delivers 100 percent compensation. If the outsourced vendor does not meet the committed goals, the customer may realize as much as a 50 percent discount.

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

1IDC Group. "Outsourcing Markets and Trends in the U.S. and Worldwide, 1995-2002." November 1998.

2GartnerGroup. "From Mainframe to Distributed Computing: The Technical Issues." July 23, 1998.

Madeline Locke is global director of help desk services for IMI Systems, Inc. and has over 25 years' experience in the information technology field, including mainframe, midrange, client/server and desktop platforms. IMI Systems, Inc., 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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