Help for the Help Desk

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Help for the Help Desk
A help desk can be a real lifesaver for employees, not to mention a productivity boost. If a keyboard stops working or Outlook keeps crashing, a technician is just a phone call away. Even complex problems can usually be resolved internally, and relatively quickly, without the need for an outside vendor.

Yet, help desk technology is typically slow to evolve. Many large organizations still track tickets in complex, aging systems that aren't adept at pinpointing recurring problems, don't work well on the latest smartphones or tablets, and don't provide detailed reports about average call times or how long it takes to resolve issues.

"Most corporate help desks are outdated," says Gartner analyst Jarod Greene. Many organizations are stuck using tools that merely report on the number of calls per day, month and year and don't have a clue about what he calls "feedback loops" -- in other words, the recurring problems within an organization. That's a critical issue, Greene says, because over 50% of the perceived value of an IT organization comes from the help desk.

So if the help desk is stuck in the 1990s technology-wise, it's a good bet that IT's reputation is suffering, too.

"They end up automating bad processes, and fail to gain real efficiencies from the investment," Greene says.

Some organizations have found a way to improve the help desk. Whether it's a "teaching moment" at the University of Georgia, a system that provides more efficient tracking at Peugeot, or a way to watch for ticket patterns at De Beers Canada, the help desk is getting a much-needed assist.

University of Georgia: Education-based support

At the University of Georgia, with 10,000 employees and an enrollment of around 35,000 students, the help desk staffers have to perform triage on support requests quickly, resolve them if possible, and then pass the tough cases up to second-level support.

When calls are escalated, the help desk shifts gears. According to Rachel Moorehead, an IT professional assistant and supervisor at the university, calls become more than just a way to resolve problems.

"Every call is a teaching moment," she says, describing how help desk staffers tailor each interaction to the caller's technical expertise. When an IT major calls in about a problem with a login to an Outlook server, for example, staffers might explain how the logging files work. Even if the student is not an IT major, they still pass along tips -- and generally find that every student and faculty member is open to the advice. The university uses BMC Remedy to log the initial call, and then Bomgar for screen-sharing.

Moorehead estimates that almost all of the university's second-level IT support tickets involve some sort of extra instruction.

Because support calls are focused on educating users, the goal is not necessarily to resolve problems quickly. The average resolution time for support calls is 5.17 hours, and an average screen-sharing session lasts 33 minutes. This compares to an industry average of one day for resolving issues of low to medium severity, according to Greene.

The help desk handled 4,395 support calls in the month of November alone, customizing responses to the needs of the users and their specific problems.

"This is the IT help desk equivalent of 'give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,' " says Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT.

Greene says the university is on the right track in how it uses a tiered strategy. The first level roots out problems quickly; the second tier uses remote sessions to provide more thorough support. That's important, he says, because of the average costs involved.

Initial calls to IT support can cost a company $1 to $10 per ticket; that's just for initial contact by phone or email to log the issue. Once the call gets to an actual human for first-level support, the cost rises to between $10 and $37 per transaction. If a more technical staff member becomes involved for second-level or even more complex issues, the costs are $37 to $250 per ticket.

"Using a remote-control and collaboration solution, Level 2 can help Level 1 resolve issues more efficiently, with the goal being to reduce escalations," says Greene. "In the same context, Level 1 can use remote control to teach end users how to resolve their own issues or guide them to knowledge-management documentation."

The point is not just to correct some problem or mistake, but to help ensure that the end user understands what caused the problem and will know how to prevent or address similar problems in the future, King says. Ideally, this approach will lead to fewer help desk calls or "at least a better informed and more capable workforce."

Peugeot Netherlands: No ticket left unresolved

The Netherlands branch of French automaker Peugeot supports 179 car dealerships throughout Europe and another 160 commercial users in the head office in Utrecht. The help desk employs 26 technicians and processes about 3,750 tickets per year, or about 72 each week, on average.

Richard Nolting, the help desk manager, says the company wanted to improve efficiencies. In 2010, the help desk was resolving almost 90% of support issues in 2.4 days on average, bettering a goal of 80% set by the standards body ISO, but Peugeot wanted to do even better.

Next page: Additional case studies

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