Technical Support in a Virtual World


by Cinda Daly
May 23, 2012

 

The proliferation of mobile devices, increasing social and technical sophistication of the twenty-first-century college graduates entering the workforce, and anytime/anywhere demand for access have gained stronger footholds and show no signs of slowing. At the same time, the economic climate continues to be mercurial. However, after years of restricted spending, capital IT projects are beginning to resurface as companies recognize that failure to bring technological innovation back to the organization could spell their ultimate demise. “Every organization’s goal is to grow—everyone wants to be optimistic and build a business plan based on growth,” concludes John Reed, Robert Half Technology’s executive director. “Could things change? Absolutely. But until they do, businesses are staying the course.”

On the technical support side of the house, this means continuing to seek ways to get costs out of the support model, become more effective, and rely more heavily on alternate channels of support to meet the growing demand. For more than twelve years, the participants in the annual HDI Support Center Practices & Salary Survey have reported that their ticket volumes are increasing, pointing to new customer equipment, devices, and applications as the primary drivers. These pressures are the undercurrent to some of the top trends in the industry today, from greater financial accountability to workplace virtualization, technological diversity, and social media to the new face of technical support. What seems certain is that traditional technical support models are going to change, employee skills required to perform will change, and how people get their work done will change. The industry leaders featured in this article convened on September 9, 2011, to discuss the implications of these key trends, strategies to embrace the realities with confidence, and scope out the future.

Workplace Virtualization

Workplace virtualization encompasses three interrelated trends: consumerization and the proliferation of mobile devices, virtualization, and cloud computing.

Consumerization

Consumerization and the proliferation of mobile devices, such as the iPad, iPhone, and Droid, have resulted in an increase in both internal and external customers requiring support for business applications accessed via mobile devices, whether they are personal devices or are owned by the enterprise.

—HDI Strategic Advisory Board

How are you addressing the demand for support for smartphones, iPads, and the like?

Charles Jumonville: Currently, my organization only supports company-issued BlackBerry devices, which are very few in number. However, as you move around the organization, you see employees using all types of mobile devices for personal use, from simple devices all the way to top-of-the-line devices loaded with the most innovative apps. We are now looking at how we can harness this tremendous resource of knowledge and physical devices to our organization’s best use. We realize that we can’t offer everybody everything because we would need to be very general. So, we’re not sure if we’re going to say, “Bring your own and we’ll deal with you,” or “Bring your own, and these are the devices you can bring.”

Carrie Battaglia: As an outsourcer, HP is supporting not only company-issued devices, but also personal devices that run company applications, specifically Outlook. Although challenging at times, the current workforce wants to have the flexibility of having their personal and work e-mail available 24×7. Even as an HP employee, my Palm Pre runs my personal and work e-mail. We also find that our agents do quite well at this support, as it expands their learning to more than PCs.

Darin Vandecar: We are making very specific decisions about which devices we will support from each vendor. Each supported device must meet security requirements and be tested for desired functionality and supportability. If it is not an approved (i.e., certified) device, it is not supported or funded by the organization, which pretty much ensures that all employees have certified devices.

How is the bring-your-own trend impacting your organization, and how are you responding?

Craig Baxter: It is not taking our organization by storm, but I believe the bring-your-own phenomenon is coming in a big way. We now allow people to use their personal mobile devices to access company e-mail. I have also heard that some companies are simply giving employees a stipend for purchasing whatever device they choose. Many people like the convenience that tablet technology affords and like to have a choice in what they use. As more and more work-related functionality is made available over the Internet through a browser, I see a day when there will be not only an option, but even an expectation that at least some people will provide their own computing and communications devices. The cost savings will be too great for some companies to ignore.

Carrie: I agree. As companies look for ways to cut costs, the bring-your-own trend will build momentum. In the 1990s, companies reimbursed employees for Internet service at home; that’s rare today. Now, with the many devices we have to use in both our work and personal lives, people are moving more toward personal ownership. If I use my personal device at work, I’m going to use that device for both work and pleasure. That device, then, becomes part of my personal responsibility. People are becoming more knowledgeable about the how their devices work, and as the technology becomes simpler, these two forces will mitigate the need for support.

Craig: I am considering moving from my company-owned smartphone to a personal smartphone because of the range of features I can get with other devices. As a frequent traveler, those features can help me perform my job more efficiently. Plus, I get the convenience of being able to use it for personal e-mail and browsing. How will this affect support? I expect to get support if I am having issues with accessing company e-mail. Beyond that, I assume I’ll be on my own.

Dana Olson: We are allowing these devices and have a defined policy around general device access. This policy covers company-owned and personal devices and governs the way those devices connect to and use company-owned resources. We have different categories that provide different levels of access based on expected security requirements. Depending on the category, we may impose another layer of security to ensure policy compliance.

Craig: If companies want their employees to be fully engaged and functional, they will have to provide some level of support. But that could end up being much more about access and browser versions than the device and any other applications running on it. At the same time, companies will need to continue providing some employees with all of their computing needs (based on their roles), in much the same way that some sales positions are supplied with a car today. In addition, companies may provide computing and communication resources as a perk, making them more attractive as an employer. So, there will likely be a mix for some time to come.

You all agree that security is the primary concern with regard to mobile device adoption and use. How are you addressing this concern?

Dana: To reduce risk, we drive appropriate use through policies and device-based access security levels. We have policies around what data is saved at the corporation, what can be taken off site, and what cannot. If it is a company-owned device, we offer a full range of access; if it’s a personal device, we allow most access, but we make sure those devices have virus software and other security features.

Charles: Today’s users are very sophisticated, so when we bring these devices in, we won’t have the education problem we’re anticipating. It is going to be a security problem, of course, and we will have to deal with it as best way we can. But we’re not going to let security concerns hold us back for very long, because it’s like a big wave—it can’t be avoided. We just have to solve those problems by establishing policies, enforcing those policies, and making sure the machines work properly.

Craig: Our policy requires you to have a password to access your device; if you lose it or if they detect too many failed access attempts, tech support can wipe the device remotely. But, also, as these devices get more sophisticated, the information that can be stored directly on the device is at risk. How do companies ensure they get this data back or prevent its loss when someone leaves the company? Of course, that problem isn’t new; we encountered it back when we first allowed people to leave the office with their laptops (or with a floppy disk, for that matter—remember those?). So the problem is not really new, but we have to solve it. There isn’t an option.

Darin: Security is, by far, the greatest concern, but next is device supportability. We are placing a sharp focus on holding product and solution managers responsible for building supportability into their products and for reducing the number of contacts per install base out of the gate. In other words, we’re holding the product owners responsible for the support costs associated with their products and making sure they focus on call prevention, training, and review of customer analytics as it relates to their products, to improve the customer experience.

How can companies take advantage of these new devices and leverage the technology to improve customer support?

Charles: Using these mobile devices, the organization has greater access to level 2 and 3 personnel when the workers are not at their desks. It also enables the support center to contact and support users when the technicians are not at their desks.

Dana: When organizations build apps that can be integrated with their current tools—self-service access, chat, and the ability to enter requests from a mobile device—they will really be able to leverage these devices. Also, regardless of the access point, the data must be housed in a central repository, giving users the full view of all requests, incidents, etc.

Darin: By ensuring that we have great knowledge management solutions, in the intranet and HR portal, that, for example, give employees one-stop, 24×7 access to the information they need to remain current. We currently offer specialized support to mobile device users because we want to make sure they are productive. But we also need to exploit social media channels since these are huge to the mobile device user groups.

Dana: I see this as a time for the support center to partner with other areas, like desktop, server, and application development, to ensure that they are evaluating and supporting operating systems as a full platform. Today, it is usually approached by each area independently. The applications team says, “Our app that requires this OS.” Desktop replies with, “Here is the OS we support.” The server team says, “Our servers run this OS.” When we take a service look at a platform, the device is no longer the focus.

Craig: There may come a day when computing devices and Internet access will be viewed much like transportation to and from work: you’re on your own to get your car repaired when it breaks down. If I’m right about these implications, we may see a boom in the consumer technical support industry.

Desktop Virtualization

Desktop virtualization, or separating the personal desktop computing environment from the physical machine using a client-server model, is on the rise as an IT infrastructure model of choice. Everyone agrees that cost and time to repair are key drivers of this trend.

—HDI Strategic Advisory Board

Is desktop virtualization creeping into the IT infrastructure or taking IT by storm?

Craig: More evidence of the eventual thinning and virtualization of the desktop space is appearing all the time. It won’t happen overnight, but it appears that the world is moving further away from heavy, desktop-centric computing and more toward cloudbased, virtual solutions. The fact is that it has been happening since the onset of the Internet, albeit slowly, and has become a mainstream business infrastructure. I’m not suggesting that local applications and computing power will ever go away completely, but I personally believe we are witnessing an evolution.

Charles: Virtual desktop adoption is much slower than it could be at this point. But, as the cost of PC maintenance grows, I see the client-server model as a way of containing costs and increasing the speed to solve incidents and service requests.

Craig: I recall being part of a large development organization that was convinced that all applications needed to be developed under a thin-client model and that we were merely a few years away from the death of fat clients and local applications. That was in 1995. Even though we still haven’t seen the thin-client model evolve to that degree, think about how much more of your work today is done via an Internet browser than it was sixteen years ago.

Darin: This trend is being driven by both capital and support costs, as well as by a desire to have employees be more productive in and out of the workplace. Personally, I also think the trend in the virtualization of everything is creating a great deal of contemplation. In other words, how can we virtualize every platform?

How will desktop virtualization change the support organization and what do support leaders need to do to be a proactive part of the transition?

Charles: The support organization will need to focus more on server intervention than PC intervention. Leaders need to be involved in the design stage so that problems can be avoided and systems can be designed to be self-healing or require minimum intervention.

Darin: It will reduce both help desk- and desktop support-related support costs for the PC platform and move the focus to the back office. Leaders need to ensure that standards are created and that products are tested, approved, and certified for support. We also need to make sure that our staffs receive the proper training and that “design for supportability,” in general, is a top consideration among the product management groups that deliver these solutions.

Dana: There are still up-front costs; however, I don’t think the trend is to replace the entire desktop at once. I recommend piloting VDI on very specific applications. By working on a tricky application that is delivered on multiple platforms today, the organization can reap the benefits on a small scale. That involvement should help gain the buy-in needed for a more massive deployment.

Craig: I can’t give a specific point in time, but I see a thinning of the desktop support role with more of its responsibilities migrating to the service desk. At some point, I envision desktop support having more of a fulfillment role, with the bulk of support coming from centralized locations and self-help. This has already happened at our office. While it is not due to true desktop virtualization, there is no formal desktop support at our location. Remote support tools are critical to our operation. Support leaders will need to understand the timing of this migration and make sure their people are up to speed on the virtualization infrastructure, where resources reside within the cloud, and how to resolve access issues.

Cloud Computing

More and more organizations are looking to the cloud as the infrastructure of choice.

—HDI Strategic Advisory Board

To round out the topic of workplace virtualization, what trends are emerging as a result of cloud computing and what are the implications for support?

Darin: I believe that those companies that move their CRMs or trouble-ticketing systems into the cloud can focus more on the customer and less on system upkeep and maintenance. However, there is a stickiness to these solutions—constant cash flowing to the vendor, with greater and greater dependencies over time—that will put them at risk if the high-level strategy is not fully supported by the executive teams that oversee their budgets.

Charles: Depending on the model, the support center has little insight into what is really going on under the covers. Perhaps we don’t have to know, but maybe it is affecting what we are doing. Cloud computing shifts the burden of operation from the organization to the cloud vendor, if it is a public cloud. The expertise we poured into our servers moves out to the cloud as well, and it becomes someone else’s duty to manage the servers, keep them up to date, and make repairs when necessary. The cloud relieves us of that, but we’re still responsible overall, and we will become more concerned with managing the end point.

Craig: As Charles suggests, the cloud brings a new level of complexity to incident and problem resolution. Moving the computing resources and assets out of the enterprise and into cloud resources is going to challenge the support organization’s ability to determine the source and root of issues. With the added layer, it will be more difficult to isolate the location of problems, especially if enterprises have a mix of resources in the cloud and on premises. While there is certainly a lot of business value to moving in that direction, you’re going to need very strong relationships with your cloud vendors to resolve issues in a timely fashion.

Darin: This is going to have a huge impact, creating a high demand for both internal and vendor resources with specialized skill sets that are able to troubleshoot cloud solutions. These solutions eliminate a lot of the low hanging fruit for support centers and create much more complex and business critical support scenarios. I think this is both inevitable and good for the support environments of the future, as long as they are preparing themselves with the right resources and training programs.

Jeff Rumburg: What strikes me is that what it’s going to take to be more successful in the future is not that different from what it takes to be successful today. The critical success factors aren’t going to change that much from a tactical perspective. What is going to change is the way organizations strategically embrace these solutions, or don’t. The issues mentioned around security and root cause determination belong at the strategic level in the organization, not the tactical level. Managers, both inside and outside of IT, need to be proactive about what they will support and what they won’t, trying not to be all things to all people, supporting everything through every channel. As workplace virtualization and cloud computing enter the organization, these have to be conscious decisions based, ideally, upon a business case analysis.

Cost Containment, Financial Accountability, and ROI

Cost containment pressures continue to change how technical support is structured and delivered. As a result, service desk managers need to become more financially savvy, apply an ROI mindset to the business, build more business cases, and analyze the various financial models for support.

—HDI Strategic Advisory Board

What are the most effective ways you would recommend to drive costs out of the equation without destroying the level of service?

Charles: We’re looking very closely at the thin-client model, seeing where it fits best, because a tremendous amount of money can be saved in that area. We will probably be replacing all the PCs in our organization in two years.

Carrie: At HP, we are focused on ticket elimination on behalf of the clients who have outsourced their support operations to us. One of the biggest initiatives is looking at ticket drivers across multiple clients and multiple environments. The service desk is driving much of the analysis. Along with password resets, we’re finding that messaging is a top ticket driver. We ask ourselves, “What can we do better in terms of how we stack up the messaging environment?” We go straight to the messaging team, show them all the tickets we get in different categories, choose the highest drivers, identify what might be driving these tickets, adjust that issue, and then no one calls us on that again. It’s truly a ticket elimination process. We are looking at this across the globe, at a very granular level within single-client teams, and also at the aggregate of all the tickets that HP might process. We’re learning key lessons in this area and are truly eliminating tickets so that end users do not have those incidents again. It’s a big driver, but also a big cost saver. Considering the productivity losses that are resolved on the part of the end users, the savings are actually quite substantial.

Darin: We are putting greater focus on delivering the right self-service solutions—more powerful, role-specific, rich media solutions—and incorporating social communities into those solutions. Jeff: Since both the service desk and desktop support are laborintensive functions, managing labor costs is the key to containing costs. Agent utilization in the service desk and technician utilization in desktop support are key cost drivers. By tracking these metrics, and establishing a performance target for each metric (50% agent utilization on the service desk and 65% technician utilization for desktop support are recommended), you can contain overall labor and support costs.

Craig: I would add a variety of interrelated action items to these suggestions: the adoption of robust tools, including good self-support solutions that are easy to access and connected to a strong knowledge base; effective remote support tools; virtualization of the desktop environment to the extent that a good business case exists; and financial training for support managers so they understand the true cost of support and can promote good decision making with respect to staffing and the support infrastructure. What key metrics do organizations need to focus on in order to measure improvements—not just incremental improvements, but broad improvements in efficiency and effectiveness?

Jeff: Most support organizations make a couple of common mistakes. The first is that they don’t track the right number of metrics. At the level 1 service desk, they track too many—on average as many as twenty-two—which is way more than they need. At desktop support, they track too few or none at all. The second common mistake is that they don’t leverage metrics to their full potential. There’s this notion that metrics are there to track and train your performance. That is true, but if that’s all you use metrics for, you’re missing the bigger potential when it comes to key performance indicators. We advocate a holistic view of performance metrics, meaning that you not only use them to track and trend your performance, but also them to analyze your strengths and weaknesses, and that you use that analysis to plan and act on activities that enable you to improve performance. This is the disconnect for many organizations—they track metrics but don’t turn them into intelligent management actions that enable them to, on the one hand, contain costs and, on the other, deliver the best customer experience.

Carrie: Focus on all of the metrics related to first contact resolution—percent resolved and percent resolved without call back, for example—and drive improvement programs that will increase your resolution speed and decrease talk time. In addition, look for ways to drive to self-solve, including giving end users access to your knowledge management system. Track your users’ use of the knowledge management system with pop-up surveys to determine whether your knowledge management system is user friendly and actually helps to eliminate tickets.

Darin: I also think we will continue to monitor the percent of tickets resolved at each tier, starting with tier 0—self-service (systems helping people) or social networks (people helping people)—and then move as much as possible from desktop support down to the help desk.

What business acumen will support leaders need to demonstrate to be effective in the future?

Craig: The expectation for business acumen needs to be pushed throughout all levels of leadership and management in the organization, including the service and support organization. We’re going to see more demand for training people in these types of skills and a growing expectation that new managers will have a solid understanding of ROI. An ROI mindset needs to be a requirement for all new hires, for every purchase they make or recommend, every process they change, and any recommendations they make that have cost or revenue implications.

Charles: Support center analysts often have difficulty making that transition to manager or supervisor because the positions require different skills. They need to focus more on performance metrics and the financial and motivational aspects of management. If we hire the right people, it makes things a lot easier. When you are hiring staff for the support center, those agents need to understand what a call costs, know the value of a customer being in service, and what it costs the customer when that service is down. They will understand that they need to get customers back in service quickly, because it is costing them money. Once we get our agents thinking in those terms, they just build on that foundation when they become supervisors and managers.

Jeff: All leaders need the ability to put together a credible business case for any new investment, including, for instance, new hires, new technology, outsourcing/insourcing, and consolidation. As Charles suggests, they need an understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between key performance indicators for the service desk and desktop support, with a bias towards action/proactivity, and the ability to measure the results of these actions.

Darin: I think the skills a leader needs to be effective in our field must include a combination of strong business and financial acumen and technology skills. If you are lacking in any of these areas, you will struggle. But leaders also need to be able to create a vision that supports the organization’s strategic objectives, and then sell that to all levels of the organization. To me, this is first and foremost.

In light of the changing global landscape, emerging support models, and new cost containment initiatives, how will sourcing options evolve?

Carrie: The Millennials have been raised on technology, so as this and later generations come into the workforce, we will see an increase in self-solve. Also, I expect that more complex work will have a better ROI for near-shore locations. We are already seeing clients segregating their populations based on who receives support from North American versus Asian locations.

Darin: Many companies will begin to rethink the off-shoring of critical support services. As Carrie suggests, more and more companies will focus on building strong web-based content to help offset the effect of bringing work back to the US or North America. I also think we will see more combinations of virtual/on-site support, where virtual support is provided off-shore and on-site teams provide the next level of support.

Jeff: It’s increasingly difficult to make a business case for outsourcing, unless you are willing to go off-shore. For desktop support, which can’t go off-shore, it is virtually impossible to make a business case for outsourcing on financial grounds alone. Other factors, such as lack of scale, are needed to override financial considerations when making a business case to outsource but remain on-shore.

Craig: As challenging as some off-shore sourcing experiences have been, companies will continue to leverage lower-cost options. At the same time, I think the consumerization of IT and the bring-your-own revolution could result in a consumeroriented sourcing phenomenon. In other words, as people migrate to using their own devices, at least some of the burden for supporting these devices will fall on them. As companies move in this direction, it could bolster the consumer-focused support industry domestically, decreasing the need for the same degree of off-shore support.

What dynamics are needed to drive positive results with an outsourcing strategy, whether on-shore, near-shore, or off-shore?

Carrie: A strong partnership is a critical component of outsourcing, where the client’s and the outsourcer’s goals and performance measurements align at every level. For example, if both the client and the outsourcer are held accountable for customer satisfaction, then the client will work toward improving the way it sets its end users’ expectations and it will hold the outsourcer accountable for delivering on those commitments.

Darin: I think it is most important that the organization has a good grasp of the service it’s managing before it even considers outsourcing. In other words, the biggest mistake is outsourcing something you don’t fully understand or cannot fully measure. Next have a great strategy for both sourcing and shoring. Each company I’ve worked with has different strategies based on different business objectives and priorities.

Jeff: These relationships need to return to basics, with a focus on cost and quality: cost per contact for service desk, cost per ticket for desktop support, and customer satisfaction as the quality measure for both. Outsourcing contracts have become so lengthy and complex that these simple metrics, with incentives for strong performance and disincentives for weak performance, have gotten lost. The result is that many buyers of outsourced support services can’t really tell you how their vendor is performing. A simple scorecard, agreed on with the vendor and updated monthly, can cut through most of the clutter and greatly increase the effectiveness of managing outsourcing contracts.

Customer Expectations

With the increasingly mobile and virtualized workplace, customers expect that support will be available to them anytime and anywhere.

—HDI Strategic Advisory Board

As companies adopt multichannel support strategies in an effort to reduce costs and improve service, and as customers expect more choices and flexibility to solve problems on their own time, 24×7, web-based self-service is gaining focus and adoption.

—HDI Strategic Advisory Board

To what extent is the attention placed on social media today a fad, just one of many channels to exploit, or a dynamic that will dramatically change how people receive and deliver support in the future?

Craig: I don’t think it’s a fad. People are clearly using it in both their personal and professional lives, and in a big way. As it becomes a more prevalent business tool, it will require more and more support from service organizations. But I also see it evolving as a support tool. I don’t ultimately know where it will go, but I do see it as another form of self-help. Also, companies are foolish if they are not monitoring chatter about their products on social channels as a form of problem identification and customer satisfaction measurement.

Dana: I see social media channels as a huge opportunity. Social media is already used for support. Unfortunately, people go to their friends and those friends may not have an acceptable or accurate solution, which might end up causing more problems down the line. But take a walk back in time and learn from the past. Think back to the 1980s when just getting access to the Internet required multiple signatures. Management back then saw the Internet as a hindrance and a productivity waster. Where would we be today without it? The same is true for e-mail. Everyone was concerned about leaks and regulatory issues. Now, here we are with social media. The key is to embrace it. Look for ways to integrate it, help it to be a change agent, and use it to drive innovation.

Darin: Social media channels are being used to bring internal support resources together with customers, vendors, and partners to jointly solve complex technical challenges and problems in real time. Companies need to learn to harness these “free” resources.

How can organizations use social media to advantage, without increasing costs, and integrate it as a support channel?

Dana: It depends upon your willingness to view social media as an enabler. From both the support side and the business side, the organization needs to evaluate social media and define a strategy. If a support center is going to adopt social media, it needs to be a rollout like any other implementation. That means social media needs to be integrated in such a way that the support center maximizes efficiency and maintains existing history and knowledge. It needs to be communicated and promoted. Add links to your support page and e-mail signatures, to encourage people to use the new options.

Carrie: One of the key metrics we should be looking at is agent satisfaction, and social media is a great way to drive agent satisfaction. When I use social media for quick communication and to share our progress on certain metrics we’re tracking or send out a heads-up on upcoming changes, my agents let me know how much they appreciate this. We need to consider not only how we use social media to serve our customers, but also how we use it to serve our agents and create a trendsetting environment for the young people on our desks.

Charles: Our employees are already using social media outside the workplace, and if we can capitalize on these existing resources, then we can use it to the organization’s advantage with little cost.

Dana: Organizations also need policies, procedures, and even training to help people protect their personal privacy, understand who can represent the company on social media sites, and who owns any “situations” posted on social media.

How can companies leverage these channels to bring customer service forward as a company differentiator?

Darin: I see customer service becoming a bigger and more strategic differentiator, with fewer companies differentiating by product, as Apple does. The ability to differentiate products and services is more difficult in this age of immediate and full disclosure via Facebook and Twitter. When you go online, you can quickly locate information on any company’s products and services. More than ever before, I see people making purchasing decisions based primarily on the level of service the company provides rather than the quality of the product or solution. This is a trend that will continue to grow in our service economy.

Dana: Web-based self-service can definitely help reduce costs. However, a support center has to be mindful of the organization’s image. Companies can lose credibility and loyalty if the process feels robotic. Whether support is in-person or self-service, each channel needs to make sure the problem can be resolved and that the end user receives the support he or she expected. Keep the process the same for each channel. If you collect feedback after a call, make sure you collect feedback after a self-service interaction, too.

Darin: Today’s end users want instant gratification and instant access to the information they desire. They know how to use the Internet to get it and are willing to do so on their own time. Companies must learn to direct customers to the right channels, whether those are social networks (discussion forums, wikis, Facebook pages, etc), online search engines, online web requests, chat, or the phone. Equally important, users that start on the web and don’t find what they need will, when they contact the support center, expect that the agents on the other end of the chat window or phone line will know what they have already tried. Channel integration will be critical.

Changing Workforce Dynamics

Increasing technical complexity and rapidly emerging new technologies are changing the skills profile for the technical support workforce and driving an increasing demand for higher-level support desk analysts. This has made finding the right people with the right skills is increasingly difficult.

—HDI Strategic Advisory Board

To what extent is the reliance on virtual workers (i.e., employees working from home) evolving in this climate?

John: From a staffing perspective, we’re seeing an increase in demand for “at-home” workers. Not only can this help organizations cut some of the costs associated with maintaining a physical presence, but it can also serve as a powerful recruiting and retention tool. As the talent pool tightens and gas prices remain high, many employees appreciate having the ability to telecommute.

Dana: We will see a spike in virtual workers as organizations realize three benefits: (1) lower expenses through reduced facility costs; (2) shorter incident resolution times (service centers that aren’t offering 24×7 support will be required to increase their hours to achieve this benefit); and (3) improved skill sets derived from a more diverse hiring pool. By enabling work-from-home options, the support center can reduce its footprint, and individuals in different geographical regions can provide follow-the-sun support. In addition, offering work-at-home options opens up the labor pool, perhaps attracting a more-skilled staff to your organization.

Carrie: Companies are looking at virtual workforce models not only for cost savings, but also to tap a workforce that can work at peak times only. This option will become more critical as the Baby Boomers retire from full-time positions and seek part-time jobs to work at their convenience. What a great market!

John: While offering remote working arrangements is certainly one way to affect costs and attract employees, it’s critical that employers avoid some common pitfalls. For example, employees may feel a diminished sense of corporate culture. Over time, remote workers may lose their sense of being part of the team. Service managers need to help remote workers feel included, by, for example, inviting them on group outings, as appropriate, and offering the same access to training opportunities other staff receive. Some executives may also equate the quality of one’s work with how often they see or speak with that person. While support centers partially avoid this problem by using ticketing systems that can track employee efficiency, the issue may not be totally mitigated. It’s important, therefore, that both employees and their managers keep the communication channels open and communicate often.

What creative staffing solutions are needed to meet the skill set requirements associated with today’s rapidly changing support scenarios?

John: What we see, unsurprisingly, is that the need for more or fewer support center professionals tends to come in cycles. When organizations implement new software, upgrade their systems, or put new processes in place, call volume increases. Unfortunately, a support center that was properly staffed before a software upgrade is often woefully understaffed once the upgrade has been implemented organization-wide. This can have a detrimental effect not only on support center staff, due to burnout and, ultimately, job satisfaction, but it can also substantially cut into productivity across an organization when employees are forced to wait longer for answers to their IT-related questions. We’re seeing more organizations anticipating these cycles and moving to variable staffing models versus fixed staffing models. Basically, a core group of full-time support center professionals are supplemented during busy periods by contract professionals who often specialize in supporting the users of the software or hardware that’s being upgraded.

What are the new responsibilities and skill set requirements for support workers in the future?

Craig: We’re going to see a continual evolution of the virtualized desktop environment. That doesn’t mean support goes away. Rather, support will become more centralized, shifting the emphasis on where the support occurs and perhaps lessening the need for work to be done at the workstation. The other side of that scenario is that as things spread across the cloud, as people are using their own devices and accessing the enterprise through their own ISPs, the skill sets in that centralized environment are going to increase and the problem-solving skills will have to increase as well.

Darin: There is a huge opportunity here to be part of something the organization values. There will be more meaningful and challenging work, and that shift will demand that employees come with more than just technical and customer service skills. The single most evident skill is being able to work effectively with diverse teams to solve problems. That means working with social communities, competitors, vendors, and consultants, not just peer groups, and they need to able to influence and communicate across functional lines.

John: Customer service and soft skills will continue to play a key role. Soft skills, in particular, are probably more important now than they have ever been, especially for support center professionals who are interacting with employees or customers 24×7. It’s no longer sufficient for many organizations that the support staff simply “gets it fixed.” They must be able to correct the issue while remaining mindful of customer service. This often involves boiling complex technical issues down into very simple terms that anyone can understand.

Dana: The support team needs a collection of individuals with diversified skills that complement one another. From an individual perspective, it will be more important to have a range of knowledge than to become specialized. That range of knowledge should contain not only technical skills, but business skills as well.

Charles: As we move more toward self-service—when people will come to us after they have been down in the trenches for a while fighting the problems—the issues are going to be more complex because the end users will have already solved the easier ones. And those end users are going to be in a greater hurry because they have already spent too much time trying to solve the root problem unsuccessfully. That’s going to put greater demand on the service desk. The support team is going to have to fix more complex problems, quicker, and they will need good problem-solving and communication skills to carry them through.

Darin: Because more and more of the problems, issues, and needs will be resolved with tier 0 support, (i.e., no human involvement), those issues that remain to be resolved by technical support employees will become more and more complex. It will be critical that companies invest in their training and development programs, providing higher-quality and more-timely training.

What trends in compensation and rewards will the industry likely see?

John: We see the competition for talent increasing substantially. Companies are coming up with all sorts of creative ways to attract and retain top support center talent. Perks like paying for ongoing training, meals, increased time off, bonuses, referral bonuses, etc., are all becoming more commonplace.

Jeff: There is a wage paradox in support whereby increasing wages for support professionals actually reduces support costs. As you increase wages, up to a point, you attract a more experienced, better educated, more competent support professional. These professionals, in turn, deliver a higher quality of service—higher FCR and customer satisfaction and lower handle times, hence lower cost per contact; higher level 1 resolution rates, hence lower TCO—than their less-experienced counterparts. Many companies are aware of this phenomenon, but are still unwilling to increase salaries for new hires because of the perception that they might be overpaying their support professionals.

Progressive support organizations, however, are aware of this opportunity to improve performance levels by offering higher starting salaries, and have begun to move in this direction. Surveys have shown that those organizations whose compensation for support professionals is in the top quartile for the industry have consistently lower cost per contact (level 1), lower cost per ticket (desktop support), and higher customer satisfaction than their lower-paying counterparts.

What will the support organization look like in three to five years?

John: A recent survey by our company found that nearly half (49%) of CIOs plan to deploy tablet computers in the enterprise space in the next two years. If you take a moment to think about that, the first commercially successful tablet was only released in April 2010, less than two years ago. The skill set required to support these devices simply didn’t exist before then, and within two years nearly half of all companies will require that skill set of at least some of their support staff. The fact of the matter is that the most in-demand skill set for support center professionals two years from now could easily be for hardware or software that doesn’t even exist today.

To take that a step further, because supporting and incorporating such a wide array of products requires a more technical person to be effective in the support role, turnover is increasing. Not only are the most skilled support professionals moving to new roles outside of their organizations, they are also being redeployed into more complex IT roles within their organizations. While this creates new career opportunities for service desk professionals, it also creates problems for support managers who are challenged not just with recruiting new talent, but also retaining that talent once it’s been found.

Carrie: What I really want to believe in, despite the move toward more self-service, is that there will be more technical expertise in the support center, that the frontline support organization will own more activities, and that the support organization will always be at the table in IT discussions. Most support organizations will move more toward true service desk, SPOC models and become the key drivers of how the IT department runs the business.

Jeff: Technical support will become a more visible activity and function, not just because they are using more channels than they have historically or because volumes might continue to grow, but out of necessity, to ensure their survival (i.e., continued funding and support from senior management). The competent support organization, which I define as one that delivers high-quality service at a cost consistently lower than the industry average, must evolve into a strategic support organization, one that proactively manages expectations, making sure that the support organization understands its value proposition and is recognized for the high-quality services it delivers. Support managers need to develop a set of business skills that will enable them to market, sell, and position IT support as a strategic source of competitive advantage, help minimize total cost of ownership, drive a positive view of IT, and return end users to productivity.

 

Panel Predictions

  • Level 1 and desktop support will merge and a growing percentage of tickets will be resolved remotely at level 1, rather than by desktop support.
  • BYOD will become not just an option, but an expectation that some people provide their own computing and communications devices.
  • The virtual worker population will spike as organizations continue to lower costs, provide 24×7 support, and seek talent.
  • Due to an increasing volume of problems, more issues will be resolved at tier 0—that is, no human involvement.
  • Issues that can’t be resolved at tier 0 will become more and more complex and require more technically expert support employees.
  • As cost pressures continue to rise, organizations will increasingly rely on selective off-shore countries for technical support.
  • The competition for talent will increase substantially.
  • No more lip service: Customer service will become the clear differentiator.

 

For more than twenty-five years, Cinda Daly has managed teams, written dozens of industry articles and thousands of pages of technical documentation, developed training courses, conducted sales and service training, and consulted in the technical support and customer service space. In her current role, as HDI’s director of business content, she is responsible for HDI’s virtual events, research, and print and electronic publications.

Tag(s): people, process, technology, desktop support

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