Check Your Help Desk's Vital Signs: A
Transplant May Be In Order
BY KEVIN TAYLOR, CYNTERGY
COO: "My operations department says our support staff is
terrible and that we need our problems solved faster."
CIO: "My help desk staff says the operations staff is
the problem. If you want things solved faster, I need more people."
CFO: "You can't have more people, because we can't
afford it. Let's outsource it."
CIO: "We can do it better internally, if you let us have
CFO: "We can do it cheaper externally, and someone else
will have the headaches."
COO: "When my staff calls for help, we just want a quick
response and the right answer."
Sound familiar? For many organizations, it does. And for most, it
presents the perfect opportunity to check the "vital signs" of
their internal help desk operations.
While there can be great benefits in outsourcing the help desk
function, it is not a decision that should be entered into hastily. The
first step should always be to analyze your current function; this will
prove valuable whether or not you decide to outsource. It will give you a
better idea of your options: improving your internal operation,
outsourcing the entire operation, outsourcing part of the operation or not
outsourcing at all. If you don't have a sense of the quality and cost of
your current operation, you cannot perform a good comparative analysis of
an outsourcing arrangement. If you are in a start-up situation, this step
entails doing a full analysis of what it would take to put the support
mechanism together yourself.
Your analysis should include the following factors:
- Survey your customer base. Find out how they rate the support
they receive; what they like and dislike about the support operation.
- Consider the cost of down time. This can be a large hidden
cost. Loss of employee productivity of any kind is a cost.
- Evaluate your reporting and feedback. These are very
important mechanisms in a support organization. If these are in place
and working well, you can try to eliminate repetitive calls to the
help desk by implementing more thorough user training, fixing software
problems, providing better user documentation, etc.
- Address volumes and service levels. How many calls does your
help desk receive? What are the call volume trends? How long does each
caller have to wait in a queue before speaking to an analyst? What is
the call abandon rate? If you decide to outsource, these data will be
very valuable because they will give you something to compare to when
analyzing service providers, and will also help you establish what
service levels you will require.
Evaluate all costs involved in running your own help desk. It is easy
to overlook costs in an internal organization, so try to be as specific
and realistic as possible. You will want to get to a monthly or annual
estimate of total cost. Listed below are some items to consider:
- Staff costs are the largest recurring cost for most help desks. This
includes salaries, bonuses, benefits, plus possible additional staff
as volume grows.
- Facilities costs include building space, furniture, PCs, phones,
network, ACD system, call tracking system, software, etc. Some of
these expenses are one-time costs, but you should assume that you will
have to replace most of them at some point, so spread the costs over
the reasonable life expectancy of each item.
- Recurring costs include telecom charges, software/hardware
maintenance fees, pager fees, cellular phone costs, etc.
- Turnover/retraining costs are difficult to calculate, but you should
at least estimate the cost of turnover, including hiring costs and
Volume Of Repetitive Function
It is important to evaluate the types of calls that are handled by
your help desk. If they are repetitive and support is provided for a
consistent platform, then the odds of successfully outsourcing the
function increase. If each incident is unique, however, or users are not
on a consistent platform, the odds go down. For example, if you have an
application that was developed in-house, and the problems that occur must
be resolved by your programming staff in each instance, it would not make
sense to outsource these types of calls. Through this analysis, you may
find that there is a specific area of support that you want to outsource,
while keeping another area in-house.
Once you have completed your evaluation, if you have concluded that
outsourcing makes sense for your organization, the next step is evaluating
RFIs And RFPs
The first step of this process is to put together a Request For
Information (RFI), which you will ultimately send to several vendors. The
information you have gathered on your current service levels will be
useful to you during the development of your RFI, as it will give you a
point of reference about the service levels you require. Keep in mind
that, in most cases, the pricing quoted by vendors will change based on
your service-level requirements, so ask for quotes based on several
service level scenarios.
Make sure the RFI includes as much information as possible about the
type of support needed: hours of operation, current call volumes and
future estimates, call durations, service levels, etc. The more
information you provide, the more accurate the responses will be.
Additionally, make sure you ask about all services you think you will need
in the future. Right now you may just need telephone support, but you
might envision needing e-mail or Web chat support next year.
The introductory section of the RFI will describe the function to be
outsourced, give details on the type of calls, volumes anticipated and any
other information that will be useful to the potential vendor. It should
also indicate due dates and the format required for the response, and
contact information for questions regarding the response.
Evaluation Of Service Providers
Once you have received all RFI responses, narrow down the field to two
or three vendors. Research these companies (the Internet, Better Business
Bureau) and then schedule visits to each company. Make sure you meet the
operations team in addition to the sales department. Talk with help desk
management and help desk staff. Watch the help desk in action. Often, this
will give you a more realistic idea of the service than a prepared
presentation. Ask for references and check them.
Once you have selected the vendor that appears to best match your
needs, evaluate your current situation versus the proposed alternative.
Would your costs be reduced? Would service improve?
If you can't make a case for improvements in your financial situation
or your customer service situation, then outsourcing might not be the
right decision for you. If this is the case, refocus your energies on
improving your internal operation. If it appears that outsourcing will
benefit your organization, it is time to proceed to the contract
One of the most important factors in outsourcing your help desk
service is the relationship, or partnership, you establish with the
vendor. Both organizations need to work together for this to be a
The vendor will provide you with its standard contracting
documentation. Review it carefully and ask for changes, additions and
deletions based on your needs. There will be lots of standard contract
verbiage regarding the term of agreement, termination, renewal, fees,
adjustments, etc. Your legal advisor should evaluate this carefully. The
contract should also clearly identify the work to be done by the service
provider (scope), responsibilities for each party, required service levels
and the repercussions when service levels are not maintained. Evaluate
this carefully and ask for modifications so the description of service and
service levels meet your requirements.
If you find the vendor is not flexible with the contract, you may want
to reconsider opening discussions with your second choice vendor. It is in
your best interest to work with a company that is willing to be flexible.
Work through the process with the prospective vendor and eventually you
will find middle ground that is acceptable to both sides, and come to an
Ensure that there is a key contact within each organization who is
responsible for implementation. The vendor should put together a timeline
with action items and assignments so that everyone involved knows the
plan. Important steps in implementation include:
- Phone system setup,
- Contract/service-level agreements,
- Development and maintenance of knowledge base/documentation,
- Development of problem escalation procedures,
- Model system setup (analysts should have access to the system or
applications they are supporting. Using a model system that is an
exact duplicate of the supported system is a good idea),
- Support staff training/testing,
- Going live (support calls transition to service provider),
- Live support (representative from customer is on site for a period
after new support mechanism goes live).
Once the help desk is up and running, there should be frequent
communication between the two organizations with a focus on analyzing what
is working well and what can be improved. Service levels should be
reported and discussed to ensure they are being met. Plans for improvement
should be implemented where necessary, relating to quality of service or
Initially, there will be a need for the new help desk to escalate some
issues to your organization when they can't be resolved. Some of these
issues, such as programming matters, should be handled within your
organization. Other escalated issues should be resolved and evaluated. If
it is an issue that should have been handled by the vendor, then it should
be discussed. Information on how the issue was resolved should be sent to
them for incorporation into their documentation or knowledge base. The
next time this issue occurs, the vendor can handle it. Using this method,
the documentation or knowledge base of the help desk continues to grow, as
does the vendor's ability to handle more issues.
There will always be a learning curve involved when transitioning
support from one organization to another. After a reasonable period of
time, you should work with the vendor to begin surveying the user
community on a regular basis. Keep in mind that even if the agreed upon
service levels are being met, user satisfaction is what will really
determine the value of the support provided. These surveys will also help
you pinpoint which areas of support need improvement.
Once the support mechanism has reached steady state, your role changes
somewhat. You will spend less time analyzing the support mechanism, but
you should not ignore it. Ensure that you receive regular reports
containing information on the numbers of problems reported, types of
problems, trends, etc. You can use this information to work on preventing
the problems from occurring in the first place (such as providing
additional training, fixing problematic software, etc.). You should review
service-level reporting regularly to ensure that the vendor is meeting its
contractual obligation. Continue to survey the user community. Meetings or
conference calls with the help desk management should not be needed as
frequently at this point, but they should still occur.
There can be many advantages to outsourcing the help desk function, but
you need to determine if it is right for you. Explore additional resources
including books, magazines, Internet resources or consultants. Investing
your time in the early stages will pay off in the long-term. If you take
your time you will end up with the right level of service for your user
community, at the right price, whether it is in-house or outsourced.
Kevin Taylor is director of call center operations at Cyntergy Corp.
He formerly served as the company's call center manager and has in-depth
experience in call center operations in all three of the company's core
markets: retail, food service and hospitality. Cyntergy also operates a
call center in London.
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