The Obsession with Zero: Help Desk Statistics, a Delicate Balance


Help Desk Statistics, a Delicate Balance

by Kent Blake


One of the greatest inventions since the leaf blower is the help desk ticketing system. By tracking calls, these systems preserve solutions to previous problems and they document the number of people you helped in a given period. And that’s just the beginning. Ticketing systems also offer a wealth of valuable statistics (i.e., metrics). But if that is all they do, then they are, at best, descriptive, not prescriptive. For ticketing systems to be prescriptive—that is, for them to tell us where to focus our efforts—we must first decide what the goal of our efforts should be. If the goal is to help the end user get back up and working in the quickest, most efficient manner possible, then we can more easily determine which metrics matter the most.

The Truth About Metrics

Not all metrics are of equal importance. That is why just because you can measure something, it doesn’t mean you should. Don’t waste time measuring something that is not a part of the story. You know what the story is: getting the end user back up and running as quickly as possible.

Most service desks already focus on the metrics that tell them something significant about productivity, such as hold times and first call resolution rates, but we must also measure things like network speed, hardware and software utility, technician turnover, etc. Your task is to know what affects your productivity and always be prepared for management to ask you how you can improve productivity.

TMI! Too Much Information

Today’s ticketing systems make it easy to generate piles of reports and endless lists of numbers. Without thoughtful interpretation, thoughtless exposure to metrics can result in flawed assumptions and the illusion of understanding. I have a hard time justifying the use of more than twenty-five metrics for three reasons:

  • Every metric you measure costs money, even if it is just the labor to track it. 
  • Eventually, you reach the point of diminishing returns, or “who cares/what real difference does it make.” 
  • If you are obsessed with random metrics, senior management may start to wonder whether you’re actually fixing the company’s problems.

Right now, I am looking at a spreadsheet for a company that tracks more than forty metrics. When you’re on the spot, explaining the numbers to upper management, you don’t want to waste time with a mess of figures, graphs, and charts. You want to focus on the story, or you may find yourself face-to-face with the dreaded “obsession with zero.”

Grabbing the First Thing with a Handle

I recently overheard a high-level manager boasting about the fact that his company of 1,000 employees had almost no open tickets. To be fair, he had probably just been overwhelmed by an IT executive report and grabbed the first thing with a handle: open tickets. The number of open tickets is often assumed to be “the bottom line.” But it is not the only gauge of end-user satisfaction, and if you focus too much attention on it, you may develop an unhealthy obsession.

As an example, assume that if you’re supporting 1,000 computers, you’ll have at least twenty-five open tickets at all times. You’ll have PC builds, break/fix requests, software installs, and a hundred other problems happening all at once. (I know this is a low number for that volume of hardware, but let’s go with it for illustration purposes.)

When senior managers are drowning in a sea of numbers, they instinctively grab for a number they can understand: zero. The help desk manger must then explain why zero open tickets, for example, is an unrealistic goal. Pressuring technicians to drive open ticket totals down to zero can force even the best technicians to “game” the system. I’ve seen this happen in several companies: 

  • Instead of opening an incident ticket, some technicians will leave customer issues in their inboxes until they can get around to them. They don’t want unresolved problems on the system radar where everyone can see them and pressure them to close the ticket prematurely. 
  • Less conscientious technicians will close tickets that are not quite ready to be closed.

When a user’s PC problems are worked “off-screen,” management can’t get an accurate sense of the workload. This has a trickledown effect. For example, it increases the odds that requests will fall through the cracks when a technician is out sick or on vacation.

Telling a Relevant Story

Instead of focusing exclusively on open tickets, scan your management reports for the four areas below to get a more faithful picture of the state of technical support in your company.

  • Closed tickets: A preoccupation with open tickets prevents you from fairly evaluating your technicians. It is frustrating for technicians to be chastised for a handful of open tickets and not be complimented (and compensated) for a high volume of appropriately closed tickets. Do you know which technician solved the most end-user problems last year (i.e., closed the most tickets)? Who was second and third? If you don’t know, chances are you are not rewarding them either. And be aware that some jobs take more time and produce fewer closed tickets. A person who specializes in PC builds may have fewer closed tickets than a full-time help desk agent, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working just as hard. 
  • Ticket aging: The most legitimate concern with open tickets is aging. How long has the open ticket been open? If the ticket owner is sitting on a large number of open tickets and they aren’t really busy, what on earth is going on? The challenge is motivating that person to fix user problems and close those tickets. Of course, the greater the severity of the issue, the more concerned you should be with how long the ticket has been open. 
  • Root causes and solutions: In many organizations, the help desk manager is probably the best person to ask to perform trend analysis. By looking at the big picture, they will be able to spot trends that occur in statistically significant sample sizes. For example, if 10 percent of all help desk calls are for password resets and you receive 1,500 calls per month, you may want to investigate an automated password reset solution, especially if your help desk is not 24×7. This would allow users who are locked out on the weekend to return to productivity that much quicker. 
  • “Frequent flyers”: Is there a trend among the most frequent callers that could be fixed with a little scheduled IT training? There are always going to be people who call more than others, and that’s not a problem. The point is not to shame them into not calling, but to help them.

The belief that a low ticket total guarantees great customer support has the distinct disadvantage of being wrong. By placing undue emphasis on closing open tickets, you put unreasonable pressure on your technicians, who might resort to closing tickets prematurely or not opening them at all. The moral of the story? Don’t obsess over zero. Generally speaking, better productivity results from focusing on authentic, realistic metrics and recognizing your technicians for their achievements.

 

Kent Blake has worked for fourteen years in technical support. He enjoys conversations on technical support issues and occasional consulting. Currently, he is the president of Worldwide Audio, specializing in podcasting for organizations throughout the world. He can be reached at kent@wwaudio.net .

Tag(s): metrics and measurements

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