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"Most corporate help desks are outdated," says Gartner analyst Jarod Greene.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.
The company also wanted more flexibility. Nolting says some help desk systems are overly 'canned,' with automatic, robotic-sounding messages sent back to users. To make the communication more personalized, Peugeot needed more features. For example, Nolting says, he wanted a system that lets technicians send SMS alerts to users so IT staffers can communicate from wherever they happen to be in the building. Other goals included building a knowledge base of support calls and allowing users to create their own personalized tickets.
The company started using Kayako, a collaborative help desk program. Nolting says a key feature is the ability for every agent to access all support-related emails. When agents create a ticket, they enter a user profile. Agents can then click an option to start a voice-over-IP call, engage in live chat, or begin a screen-sharing session.
While other help-desk tools might allow these activities, Nolting says, they are more ad hoc and not necessarily recorded as part of the support call. Tracking is important to him, because it helps his organization avoid having to manually sort and manage tickets.
"We made extensive use of Kayako's mail parser rules, workflows and smart filters," Nolting says, explaining how tickets can be automatically assigned to specific managers and tracked accordingly. Over the past year, he says, support calls have improved to a same-day resolution average of around 94%. And the total time to resolve support issues changed to 1.8 days on average, down from 2.4 days.
Tracking all tickets is immensely helpful in the long term, says Greene. "Only well-documented processes can be transformed into structured workflows. So if the data is not captured in ticketing tools, it will be hard to find and re-use should the [same] issues ever arise again." Tools like Kayako "keep out-of-band conversations from going into the garbage, and let IT operations groups and administrative teams better understand work patterns in support of processes," he says.
Peugeot is using Kayako both to simplify the query process and as a tracking and auditing tool, says Pund-IT's King. "This should help increase the efficiency of help desk processes, but it also creates records to fulfill internal auditing processes," he says. Another potential benefit: Search and analytics could be applied to gain insight into recurring problems or employee and dealership usage patterns.
De Beers Canada: The paperless help desk
De Beers Canada, the mining arm of a company probably best-known in the U.S. for its high-end jewelry stores, has found a way to make the help desk entirely paperless. With two remote mines of about 400 employees each, and headquarters in Toronto with about 100 employees, the company wanted to streamline operations. One goal was to reduce the number of help desk tickets.
James Ross, corporate IT manager for the help desk, says the company has reduced tickets from 700 per month to about 500. One method for streamlining: Tickets are grouped according to incidents, so technicians can address the root cause and prevent more calls about the same problems. They achieved this by monitoring help desk tickets and predicting problems rather than waiting for things to happen.
For example, they used to be surprised by requests for new hardware or business software. But now help desk staffers can see patterns from the same department, around the same time of year, and can be better prepared for those requests if, say, bandwidth is a problem.
De Beers uses ManageEngine's Service Desk Plus to group tickets, send SMS alerts to IT staffers, and record electronic signatures for all tickets. Although the company does not use the mobile version of the app today, it plans to add that capability.
Ross says a key new feature is that all help desk activities are audited and can be monitored remotely, which is helpful for workers in Toronto trying to solve problems at the mines. This remote monitoring used to be an ad hoc, manual process.
The reporting has an added benefit beyond auditing requirements: Understanding root causes.
"Most organizations can't perform trend analysis on tickets -- they just react to them as they occur," says Ross, who adds that the company also uses the help desk for facility-related requests, such as building repairs or HVAC upgrades, and may start using it for human resources activities such as processing new hires and departmental changes. The company's help desk system requires staffers to log calls and track tickets, and there's no reason the same software can't be applied to monitor other types of activities.
"De Beers is following a path similar to Peugeot's, though it seems a bit more structured on the front end -- e.g., proactive grouping linked to root causes," says Pund-IT's King. "Running the process remotely should also allow the company to manage and support widely dispersed facilities and workers, or to consider engaging a third party to operate the [help desk] service at some future point."
In each of these examples, one thing is clear: The help desk is more than a place to call for help. Organizations are using support tools to teach users to solve their own problems, generate detailed reports that help identify root causes, and comply with complex auditing requirements by tracking and monitoring all calls.
While the basic idea of keeping employees productive is a driver, improving overall processes in the company can be a major secondary benefit when the help desk gets the latest tools.
Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He has written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. You can follow him on Twitter ( @jmbrandonbb).
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.
Read more about management and careers in Computerworld's Management and Careers Topic Center.
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.