Help for Help Desks

Help for Help Desks

What does it take to run an efficient and effective help desk?

Every day, IT departments engage in a tug of war. They want to drive down the number of calls to their help desk and improve the overall efficiency and experience of the users. In some ways, recent economic troubles have conspired to help them meet the former goal, if not the latter: When everyone in the office has been stuck using the same old hardware and software for years, they don’t have very many questions left to ask.

At the same time, older technology can start to experience more glitches and outages over time. And when and if companies can modernize and switch to more efficient, user-friendly hardware and software, it adds a whole new layer of complexity to the troubleshooting process. On top of that, more and more companies are starting to incorporate user-owned devices, such as tablet computers and smartphones, into company networks. These factors tend to drive up the number of help desk calls over time.

Running a successful help desk is a tough task, but it boils down to three elements: the people, the processes, and the measurements. If you get those three things right, everything else is gravy.

The Human Element

It’s tempting to view the help desk as a computer-centric job, but it’s actually a job that requires a rare combination of technical expertise and people skills. Hiring accordingly is the first step to success.

“The experience associated with support is a people-driven experience,” says Jeff Palm, CIO at Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America in Golden Valley. “It is a human being on one end of the phone and a human being on the other end of the phone, trying to work together to mutually solve a problem. So having the right kind of people—the kind of people who have a customer service mentality, people who enjoy diving into problems and helping people, and who can build a relationship with them—I think is absolutely critical to establishing a good help desk.”

“As a hiring manager, I will say that it’s easy to find an individual with a passion for technology,” says Melanie Eisenbraun, IT support services manager at Maple Grove–based Great River Energy (GRE). “And you’re looking for that. But the most important thing is those people skills, because otherwise, I think you can burn folks out. They will be looking for something different, because they won’t be happy.”

GRE boasts a service desk satisfaction rating of more than 95 percent and an average tenure of nine years, with almost no attrition. Eisenbraun says the company has accomplished this record by creating career opportunities for the employees.

“I strongly believe that keeping them here at GRE is much more favorable than losing them to another company,” she says. “So we’re not afraid to invest in those support analysts, and if they want to move to another position in IT, they have the opportunity to create a career development plan. Maybe someone’s interested in project management. I might give that opportunity to one of the support analysts if it’s something that I can help coach them on. Or maybe they can take some external training.”

Eisenbraun also replaces computers on a regular schedule. It helps keep support costs a little lower, she says, and it reduces attrition because help-deskers are not always focused on fixing broken things.

“A combination of on-the-phone work with clients and training on relevant technologies, I think, is a good mix for how to keep a help desk person not only productive, but also interested and moving forward with their career,” Palm says.

Doug Koch, director of information technology at MGK, an insecticide company based in Minneapolis, says he has three people working on a help desk that serves more than 100 users. But that’s not all they do. One is also the system administrator, one is a computer setup and troubleshooting specialist, and one is the company’s business analyst. These dual roles work well for a smaller firm, and give the specialists a lot of variety in their day-to-day work.

A Method to the Madness

Even for a midsize firm like MGK, the help desk needs processes to track the work. Koch and his team recently installed a ticketing system on the company’s intranet to handle prioritization and accountability.

“There were two issues,” he says. “We didn’t understand who was doing what, and we needed to know what the issues were to determine how to prioritize, because an individual may call multiple people within our team to get information or help.”

Employees needing assistance send an e-mail to “help desk.” The system creates a help desk ticket, assigns it a number, and puts the first line of text into the subject line so that support staff can see what’s going on. Then the help desk staff assign the ticket to a single person and give it a priority level.

“What I really like is it also gives transparency to the end user as to what’s happening,” Koch says. “If we change the priority or if we ask questions, it keeps all that communication thread together in one encapsulated area. It’s fantastic for me, too, because I can get a feel for what kind of issues we are having as a company.”

He also advocates “closing the loop” on each ticket, because the customer and the help desk may see an issue very differently: “Whenever we check a ticket as resolved, the system automatically sends out an e-mail to the requester asking them to flag ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if it has been resolved. If it has, it closes out the ticket. If it has not, then they need to put in information as to what the issue is. So it has that loop there, just to make sure we’re both on the same page.”

John Vaughn, manager of IT service delivery at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in St. Paul, manages a larger department with a larger user group: around 10 to 12 help desk employees serving about 5,500 people on multiple campuses.

“[Your] processes should be the guiding principles around how your help desk should operate,” he stresses. “They guide your team from everything on how to respond to incidents and calls to determining the root cause of issues. Children’s, [like] many companies in the Twin Cities, uses the ITIL methodology [a set of best practices for IT service management] to help guide the development and continuous improvement of our processes.”

In September, Children’s went live with Symantec ServiceDesk, a help desk software solution that tracks tickets through the cycle of a service issue. “It keeps track to make sure that tickets are being closed within our service level agreement,” Vaughn says. “There are different priority levels that get assigned to it. Most of them, we’re required to close them within eight hours, if it’s kind of a normal priority ticket. If it’s a system-wide outage or something like that, then it’s like two hours.”

Like most larger help desks, the group at Children’s uses phone scripts and templates to help ensure that all users are getting the same level of service, and to help speed things along when the same types of issues crop up repeatedly. Before you dispatch an on-site team to fix a computer, it helps to know that the user hasn’t accidently kicked the plug out of the outlet.

Bringing Order to Chaos

Problem solving is less complicated the fewer software packages and devices an organization has. But lately, one of the emerging trends in corporate America has been BYOD, short for “bring your own device.” Companies have been allowing employees to engage with the workplace using the devices of their choice, be they laptops, tablets, smartphones, or whatever.

Steve Huck, E3 practice director at Wayzata-based management consulting firm Trissential, LLC, takes a dim view of this practice, especially in companies that outsource some or all of their help desk services.

“It’s an opportunity for your managed service provider to increase their fees,” he says bluntly. “They’re all about [service level agreements]: You have X amount of devices you’re supporting. And if you increase the scope of that, it’s more complexity and it’s going to cost more. I know there’s the ‘engage the millennials who want to bring their own device to work’ thing. But when you do that, when you deviate off of standardization, you introduce risk into your environment and you increase cost, because now you have more devices to put under management.”

MGK supports about 60 user-owned phones and PDAs. Koch admits that these devices add complexity and come with their own confidentiality and security concerns. In general, he only allows outside devices Internet access—nothing more. The company is also installing a wireless system that will automatically exclude and flag unauthorized users attempting to join the network. But if employees want access to the company’s business applications, he has a solution for that, too.

In that case, “the policy stipulates that IT really has control over your systems,” he says. “If you misplace or lose your Droid, we will remotely wipe it, and if you lose any of your personal stuff on there, too bad.”

Allianz supports a BYOD strategy, and Palm feels very acutely the competing demands between standardization and complexity. “From an overall IT standpoint, standardization is a concept that I would like to employ,” he sighs. “Standardization pays us back in a number of ways, only one of which is our ability to [offer] better support on the help desk. But the fact of the matter is, we are a large company, we do have a disparate number of platforms and a disparate number of applications, and so those each require support. We do ask our service desk people to be skilled on a wide range of topics, including mobile devices.”

The Outsourcing Question

Is it a good idea to outsource your help desk?

Five years ago, MGK decided to outsource its help desk to a local IT firm. Unfortunately, the partnership wasn’t a good fit, and the help desk company’s response time was slow. So MGK brought its help desk function back inside.

Director of Information Technology Doug Koch says he knows it was a problem with the individual company, not the concept overall. And he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that MGK might outsource its help desk again at some future time.

“I’d like us to really become more strategic versus just keeping the lights on,” he says. “My goal is to get our organization to focus on what we can learn about end users: How can we leverage technology to make their jobs easier, to make us more efficient, to help us get to market faster? If we really struggle with the lights-on stuff, I’ll definitely look at getting an outside firm to handle it.”

That’s the dilemma companies face when they contemplate outsourcing their help desks. They want to be efficient and avoid wasting the time of their best people on maintenance issues. At the same time, they want to make sure their employees and other users get the help they need.

For Great River Energy (GRE), the answer has been to keep the help desk completely in-house. “Quality is very important to us, and that’s really what’s led me not necessarily to entertain externals,” says IT Support Services Manager Melanie Eisenbraun.

GRE maintains coverage in off-hours by putting one help desk employee on 24-hour call every week, rewarding them with a small monetary benefit.

But for some companies, the need for after-hours coverage means hiring outside help. Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America used to outsource all of its help desk functions, but now it employs what CIO Jeff Palm calls a hybrid model. The company has full-time employees who staff its desk during normal business hours. The rest of the time, the line rolls over to a strategic partner.

Palm says the new arrangement is a happy medium between cost and service level. “I would say that employees who have been here a number of years and understand the business a little better are better positioned to sort of understand what I would call the voice of the customer,” he says. “They’ve built relationships with them over time, and so there’s a closeness that employee-based resources have. That sometimes suffers when you change that, whether it be to an offshore model or even to just another company across the street.”

If companies choose to outsource any or all of their help desk, Steve Huck, E3 practice director at Trissential, LLC, recommends they stick to a single provider that they know and trust, both to prevent finger-pointing and to help the companies forge a better working relationship. “When you work with a managed service provider to manage your help desk, that’s a long-term relationship,” he says. “They have to know your company, they have to know your assets, they have to know your processes.”

—J. S.

He says the help desk maintains its efficiency and its sanity by limiting its scope to “the parts of your device that connect to our network and that we exchange information with.” If users are crashing on the third level of Angry Birds, it’s their own problem.

“We’re good guys,” he says. “If there’s something else we can help with, of course we always will. But I think it would be expensive and probably a waste of resources to try to train every staff person on everything that every device owner could ever install from iTunes.”

Vaughn says Children’s is in the beginning stages of BYOD and is allowing a few iPhones to trickle in. Strategically, he believes that over the next several years, user-owned devices will constitute a significant part of the company’s network. The help desk will cope by creating policies and procedures to cover the new normal.

“As we move in that direction, we might say ‘If you bring your own device, this is the limited amount of support that we’ll provide for it,’” he says. “Let’s say you buy a Mac. You are responsible for purchasing Apple-Care and working with Apple if your machine breaks. I think one way we might deal with it is to beef up our loaner laptop pool a little bit: ‘Okay, the screen broke on your Mac and you gave it to Apple, but it’s going to be three days. Here’s a loaner laptop or other device that you can use for those three days.’ It’ll be kind of this hybrid blend of support between Apple, for example, and Children’s help desk IT.”

Eisenbraun says GRE has not gone the BYOD route and doesn’t expect to in the near future. But its help desk supports a great many company- provided devices.

“We were very early adopters of the iPads,” she says. “The iPhone 5’s coming out, and guess what? We’ll have them in our hands just as soon as everyone else will, for IT to start playing with some of those technologies. Sometimes I say I don’t know if BYOD would fly here, because our customers almost expect us to provide them with [the newest devices].”

Reality Check

Measuring the success or failure of a help desk seems most cut-and-dried for companies that outsource the function. It comes back to the service-level agreements (SLAs) the two parties set up: Is the vendor meeting goals for response time? Closure rate? Customer satisfaction?

But companies that run their own help desks should be setting up SLAs within their organizations and using measurement tools to see how well they’re doing. “We use IBM’s Tivoli product,” says Eisenbraun, referring to a well-known integrated service management software package. “That’s where we actually track when a ticket is opened, all the work that’s done, and how the ticket is closed. Then we send out a customer survey to our customer, and we track our customer survey results.”

Palm says there are a lot of metrics that help desk managers can use to improve performance, such as the amount of time people are on hold while they’re waiting and the number of times problems are resolved on the first call. Each metric, he suggests, helps draw a picture of how well the help desk is performing and what can be done to make it even better.

Koch says it’s great to have a real-time snapshot of how your help desk is doing. “We categorize what type of issues we’re having, and we track them on a rolling, 12-month basis to see if anything’s really popping up significantly,” he says. “We capture information about what we did to fix a particular issue and we put that into our IT FAQs, so that if something comes up again, we know what worked the last time.”

Children’s uses a business analysis package called QlikView to pull information out of a number of its systems, the help desk included. Vaughn says it helps him understand how quickly the help desk is fixing issues, its mean time to resolution, and whether it’s meeting its internal SLAs. Obviously, he can use this information to improve staffing coverage or to address glitches. But he says it also helps him make improvements that affect the quality of user experience across the entire organization.

“I can pull up a report to tell you which model of laptop at the hospital is our best-performing model and which one gives us the most trouble,” he says. “Then we can make decisions based on whether or not we need to go through and replace all those poor-performing models to something else to try to reduce calls. It’s a way to use metrics for continuous service improvement. How can we proactively fix issues for our customers before they even turn into issues? It’s this never-ending quest for us, to drive inefficiencies out of the organization and out of our support process for our customers.”