The help-desk is about helping not stonewalling
IT help - or service - desks appear to have lost their way, driven by an overemphasis on cost-consciousness into defending the company`s financial position rather than helping users.
Take a look at the statistics. In a survey released in March 2005, independent research house, Forrester, interviewed 2 138 technology users at US companies about their company`s IT organisation and its technologies. While users were generally satisfied with the technologies - such as their desktops and their company`s business applications - just 53% were satisfied with their help-desk support.
As the help-desk is the face of the IT organisation, loss of help-desk credibility can negatively affect perceptions about the IT organisation - potentially resulting in tighter budgets, longer approval cycles, and a reduction in the overall role of IT in driving business change.
According to the survey, courtesy of staff was not an issue but areas like time to resolve requests, timeliness of status updates, and even help-desk expertise needed improvement.
The Forrester findings are not surprising when you look at the aims and objectives of most service desks - as expressed in their charters. Charters prioritise values such as: `We provide timely and effective problem resolution` and `We are cost mindful and value driven`. Rarely do you find values like: `We solve customer problems in a timely fashion, take ownership of customer problems, and keep customers informed as problems are resolved` or even `We balance the needs of businesses with fiscal restraint`.
In other words, there is little focus on the customer or user - which was the whole point of the evolution of help-desks.
Even more damning is a Forrester finding that "three-quarters of technology influencers who received effective training on their company`s packaged business applications, compared with 26% of influencers who did not receive effective training, are satisfied with their IT help-desk." In other words, the employees that really need help - the ones with least training - are the ones who are not getting help.
Scarier still is that the lack of a people focus doesn`t end with ignoring the customer. Most help-desk management systems ignore the help-desk agents themselves.
Forrester says "few managers would be willing to eliminate the training line item from their proposed budgets. However, few organisations we have assessed have been able to retain or use their full allocations of training over the course of a budget year... It is far easier for most managers to justify cancelling or deferring a training session that removes one or more of the staff from the call queue than it is to face potential short-term service issues."
Forrester also found that few help-desk agents are prepared for or assisted through change. "Improvements to the service desk affect people, as well as processes and technology. What may be perceived by one person as an exciting opportunity may be perceived by another as a step into the unknown and an opportunity for failure."
And Forrester recommends creating a culture of innovation. "Not every idea will succeed. Create an environment in which suggestions for improvements that don`t work out as well as planned are treated as opportunities for organisational learning and growth. Assigning blame and penalising an individual or group for what is most likely a complex set of interrelated actions, reactions, or inactions will stifle future innovations and opportunities."
There`s more along those lines, but let`s cut to the chase. Help, in whatever area of work or life, is based on communication and information. You can`t help someone unless you know what they need. And they can`t tell you what they need unless they can tell you in the easiest possible way - usually under emergency conditions.
That means you need a help-desk solution that customers can interact with by the channel of their choice - phone, e-mail or SMS. And it means the help-desk must continually update customers on progress on their calls. As Forrester says: "When you think you`re communicating enough, take two steps further. Communicate information and service expectations with each incident. Summarise and report - both up the management chain and out to the users - on a monthly and quarterly basis at a minimum." It is far easier to cut back on communications than it is to repair the damage to customer perceptions caused by an aloof and out-of-touch service desk.
Service desk management also needs to balance operational metrics, such as first call resolution rates and number of phone calls taken, with, for instance, number of incidents per employee and average minutes of downtime per employee. And that implies having a help-desk solution that doesn`t just measure the time that an incident is open but also the time that an employee is affected by the incident.
And, these days, there is little reason not to be using an incident or problem management product to track calls and their resolutions. Data collection is the first step to a systematic improvement process. With good data, you can identify trends, recognise star performers, and intercept future problems. Without good data, an educated guess is the best that is possible.
The bottom line in all this is that help-desks can more effectively play the role they were designed for - to help people (the agents) help other people (customers) - they themselves need help from intelligent, purpose-built service management solutions. There`s just too much repetitive analytical and diagnostic work for humans to do either willingly or effectively. And the high and continuous levels of contact needed between a help-desk and its customers have to be automated in order to happen at all.
Now, you`d expect me to say that - because FrontRange Solutions sells just those kinds of solutions. But Forrester actually bears me out.
"According to surveys, 17% of organisations are using home-grown problem management solutions. It is hard to believe there is not a commercially available solution that would not meet the majority of needs of a large majority of help-desks. Moving to commercial software provides many benefits, including the ability to exploit industry best practices. Home-built applications likely just enshrine current practices, rather than best practices. Additionally, virtually all commercially available service desk offerings are either pre-configured or compliant with practice frameworks, such as ITIL, if this is a corporate direction."
You also benefit from leveraged development and - on the integration front - off-the-shelf solutions can simply drop right into your environment.
To quote Forrester one last time: "Put the service back in service desk. Evaluate your processes and procedures as your clients see them, not as you provide them. To be a service desk, you must serve your clients, rather than make them change what they do to meet your needs."