Outsourcing IT: Lessons Learned


by Rob Evelyn
July 3, 2016

Brown-Forman brand

Founded in 1870 by George Garvin Brown, Brown-Forman Corporation is one of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies and among the top 10 largest global spirits companies, selling its brands and operating in more than 160 countries around the world. Brown-Forman has more than 25 brands in its portfolio of wines and spirits, supported by more than 4400 employees globally. Our top-quality brands include Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Casa Herradura Tequila, Korbel Champagne, and Sonoma-Cutrer Wines.

As Brown-Forman started to experience international growth in the early 2000s, it became abundantly clear that its IT help desk had to transform itself from a localized help desk to a global service desk. This is our journey and the successes and challenges we faced as we transformed the help desk.

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Brown-Forman's original help desk was supported out of the Network Operations Center (NOC) in Louisville, Kentucky. They mainly supported the company’s US-based employees primarily accessing mainframe applications.

In 2004, Brown-Forman made the decision to outsource its help desk to a domestic-based technology company in order to provide a structured 24x7 help desk experience. The major challenge of this outsourcing venture was resentment and rejection by the IT staff. The thought of outsourcing an IT function was perceived as a threat to existing employees, and IT technicians believed that no company could or would provide the level of service of a true employee.

As Brown-Forman continued to grow internationally, the pressures to off-shore functionality as a corporate trend continued to gain popularity. The help desk was moved off-shore in 2007 to a large service provider. The company wanted the desk to be more diverse and able to accommodate the international growth by supporting multiple languages and possibly take on more Level 1 support tasks. This is the point where Brown-Forman was first introduced to HDI and started to embrace the concept of a service desk and the best practices for that model. This new outsourcing effort also had its challenges. The biggest challenge seen by Brown-Forman IT and other employees was that the agents were now speaking English as a second language, making the communication between agents based off-shore and the US-based workers—the majority of employees at that time—difficult.

Another key challenge was the work style of the new agents. These agents were driven strictly by knowledge articles and hesitated to venture from the script in fear of reprimanding from their management. As we all know, no issue follows a script, and agents need to be free to experiment to resolve issues as quickly as possible. The most frustrating challenge, from a management perspective, was being a small fish in a very large pond. Brown-Forman needs were often rejected by the vendor or we were simply told “No.” This made the overall management of the vendor time consuming and unproductive. All of these factors ruined the reputation of the IT help desk and its ability to provide adequate support. It became the proverbial helpless desk.

In 2010, Brown-Forman made the decision to attempt to rebuild the reputation of IT and their support and focus on creating a new service desk. As you can imagine this was a daunting task.

In 2011, the service desk was moved back to a US-based partner. This new partner went live in October 2011 and since then we have been able to restore the faith in IT support and the new service desk. We see this result in the positive customer satisfaction scores and reduction in the number of negative complaints.

We successfully shifted left many of the IT support functions that used to be handled by Level 2 back to the new service desk. This caused a shift in attitude from IT in general and greater satisfaction by the user community. The new organization was flexible, had the technical expertise, and were willing to be a partner. It was more collaborative than previous outsourcing efforts.  We have also engaged the service desk on projects and higher level activities that would have never been possible in our previous engagements.

How did we do this? We learned from our past mistakes. These are our key learnings in the hope that you can avoid some of the pitfalls we have experienced.

Make Your Service Desk Part of Your Team

Noticed the word missing from this sentence is “feel.”  The agents on your service desk need to be part of your team. Remember, in many cases, they are the face of IT.

Share information with the service desk. It is important that you consistently share information with your service desk. We have learned to include the service desk in these key areas:

  • Projects that may generate calls to the service desk. For example, when the company made the decision to move from Exchange to Gmail, we made sure that the service desk was an integral part of the project. We actually took some of the agents off the desk and let them travel with the team to provide end-user training. This actually improved the image of the service desk to the users and gave the agents a new respect for the challenges of the user.
  • Changes in IT personnel or new knowledge base articles that are created. We all know that people come and go in IT. How do you think an agent would feel calling an on-call just to learn that the person is no longer with the company or no longer is responsible for the current issue. This causes two problems: delay with resolution and hardship between the service desk and the rest of IT.
  • New technology and systems. Involve them in the planning, execution, and implementation for new technology such as mobile devices, tablets, and software.
  • Issues with the service desk. It is important that you and they are free to share issues they may be having with your agents.
  • Upgrades and outages. Make sure your agents are aware of any current outages. We have learned it makes IT as a whole look bad when a user contacts the service desk and they are unaware of an outage.

Know your agents. You should be on a first name basis with all your agents. They should feel comfortable calling you and your staff with any issues.

  • Know their birthday. Take a minute and send them a birthday email. Send a random email thanking them for doing a good job on an incident. This really makes a difference.
  • Have regular meetings with your agents. We hold monthly meetings with the agents, individually and as a group, to talk about challenges that they are facing and that Brown-Forman is facing. We get them involved in resolution.

Create an incentive program for the agents. This is really important especially in an outsourced model. Here at Brown-Forman we have created a gamification system that rewards the individual as well as the team for success. Each month, the agents try to earn different badges. If a high percentage of the agents achieve their badges, everyone on the team is rewarded with a small financial award at the end of the month.  On the other hand, if a high percentage of the team does not achieve their badges, no one receives the award.

There was a lot of discussion and debate on this topic. Would it drive negative or positive competition?  In the end, we have found that the competition has all been good.

Give them bling. All our agents have cubicles that have been customized with Brown-Forman materials just like you would find at a Brown-Forman employee’s desk. We have given each agent equipment better than what the vendor normally supplies. This will make your desk the envy of other potential agents working on other service desks and entices agents to want to be a part of our desk.

Involve IT in the Process

One of the biggest successes when implementing our newest service desk was the involvement by all within IT. We involved IT in determining procedures and policies for the service desk. We had IT tell us how they wanted the service desk to work with their teams. We involved IT throughout:

  • What do they want from a service desk?
  • What has worked and not worked in the past?
  • Take criticism from IT as an opportunity to score a win.
  • Involve them in the selection of the service desk.
  • Show IT how they will benefit from the new service desk.
  • Hold IT accountable for their failures as you would the service desk

Set Expectations from the Vendor Up Front

In order to start the new relationship on a positive note, be sure that you are up front with your prospective vendor on your expectations:

  • Share your call history and volumes
  • Set specific and agreeable SLAs with your vendor
Set specific and agreeable SLAs with your vendor.
Tweet: Set specific and agreeable SLAs with your vendor. @ThinkHDI #techsupport

We set specific expectations for the following:

  • Time to answer 
  • First call resolution
  • Ticket quality—how well is the ticket documented.
  • Process adherence—how well did the agent follow our defined process.
  • Time to complete modifications to hosted tool (these are changes we wanted for the ITSM tool that the provider is hosting for us).

We did not include talk time. We do not believe that talk time should be measured because it tends to drive a behavior of ending the call before the issue is really resolved.

Learn from the Journey

I hope you have found some value in learning from our journey. HDI members can reach out to me on HDIConnect for more information and to ask any questions. 


Rob Evelyn has been in the IT field for the past 35 years, spending the past 20 at Brown-Forman. He started his career as an instructor teaching computer basics and since then has worked in the education, public safety, and finally in consumer consumables industries. Rob taught computer logic and programming to more than 500 students as an instructor at the college level in South Florida. He then spent the next 10 years working as a senior systems programmer on a large IBM Mainframe.

Rob has been a manager at Brown-Forman for the past 10 years. In that time he has managed the SAP / Enterprise Software Group and now leads the IT Global Service Center. The ITGSC is where he obtained all his experience with managing a global service desk, support and procurement center. 


Tag(s): case study, outsourcing, service level agreement, service providers, service desk, technical support, supportworld

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