Leading a Support Center Consolidation

by Jim Kirk
Date Published May 25, 2012 - Last Updated May 11, 2016


Do more with less. This has become a common refrain in our industry, given the state of the economy. As new technology emerges that can propel the business forward, the expectations on IT continue to grow, while IT spending continues to be constrained. In a time when acquisitions and mergers regularly occur, it’s become more common for organizations to consider consolidation as a means of reducing costs while delivering more consistent services to their customers. The public sector has not been immune to this reality, and in my organization’s case, consolidation was a critical component of its strategy to support service improvements, enable more efficient use of IT assets, and reduce IT expenditures by $100,000,000.

If you weren’t reading this article right now, I’d ask you to sit back and close your eyes. I’d ask you to envision the ideal service desk. Being an IT professional, you’ve probably started sorting your vision into three groups: people, process, and technology. Does your vision include any of the following:

  • A team of highly engaged and motivated analysts;
  • An organizational structure that allows for career growth at your service desk;
  • A team of managers and team leads who believe in what you’re doing and have fun at work;
  • A mature quality assurance and training program that starts new staff off on the right foot;
  • Robust reporting capabilities that provide you with meaningful information about your performance, at both an organizational and individual level? 
  • An IT service management suite that enables and automates your processes, and doesn’t restrict them;
  • A philosophy of empowering your analysts with new access and tools that drive first call resolution; and/or 
  • Intuitive self-service options for your customers that give you the flexibility to reinvest resources into continual improvement while still meeting your service targets?

When I open my eyes, this is what I see. Today, my service desk receives approximately 850,000 contacts a year from over 68,000 customers, government employees who, in turn, deliver services to the citizens of Ontario. Our customers enjoy the ease of access that a single toll-free number provides. When customers call, they’re not waiting very long, twenty-seven seconds on average, and about 80 percent of the time, their issues are resolved on the first call. Every month, over 3,000 customers tell us how we’re doing via our customer satisfaction survey, and over 93 percent of the time, they tell us that they appreciate the services we provide.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Prior to the launch of our consolidation initiative in 2005, technical support was delivered using a decentralized model that included eight different flavors of help desk and service desk, each at various levels of maturity, each using disparate processes and tools, and each with a unique organizational culture. There were many challenges associated with working this way, not least of which was the technical support experience government employees could expect to “enjoy” as they moved through their careers. Taking a position in another area of the government essentially forced you to “relearn” IT. There was a different phone number, different service levels, and different rules and processes associated with relatively simple requests, like ordering a new computer. And not only did the service vary wildly—the costs did, too. Cost per contact, for example, varied from a low of $12.60 per contact at one service desk all the way up to $52.40 per contact at another.

The opportunity to simplify the customer experience and save money by flattening costs was a compelling argument for consolidation. Our leadership agreed and the service desk consolidation project was approved and launched under the e-Ontario initiative.

With approval in hand, we set out to build our new organization: the OPS IT Service Desk. Where did we start? Beyond the HR logistics of rolling people into a single organization, we focused on coming up with a consistent approach to consolidating the eight desks into one. Despite the different circumstances for each desk (i.e., overall maturity, insourced versus outsourced, etc.), we needed a cookie-cutter approach that was easy to understand and enabled us to build confidence and momentum, both internally and externally. What we came up with was a relatively simple four-stage plan: discovery, preparation, migration, and stabilization.

For the discovery phase, we designated a single resource to perform an initial assessment of the eight desks that we were consolidating. This was a critical step in ensuring consistency in the findings. The benefits of this information-gathering process were twofold:

  1. It allowed us to identify whether any of the existing desks could be called the “best of breed.” This would give us a solid foundation on which to build the consolidated desk, one grounded in best practices and enabling technology. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. 
  2. It gave us the intelligence we needed to create our migration schedule.

The discovery focused on foundational things like incident management, policies and procedures, enabling technology, contact volumes and metrics, service level targets and objectives, and staff skills assessment, to name a few.

Over the course of two years, we completed the discovery phase, drafted our migration schedule, and started preparing the migrations. In our schedule, we planned for six months of due diligence prior to each cut-over event, when the service would be integrated into the new enterprise delivery model. We also appointed a dedicated on-the-ground lead to oversee all the work needed for a successful migration. This included process, procedural, and knowledge management alignment, training material development, technology transitions, and more. Some of the critical success factors for this stage were the use of a formal project management methodology and strong governance. We were in constant contact with our migration leads, making sure they had the direction necessary to prepare us for the next migration.

The migration phase was where the magic happened. This was the culmination of six months of hard work executing our communication plan, advising customers of the new means for requesting support, and checking in with the technical teams leading the migration of incident and customer profile data from legacy ITSM tools. We were in constant contact with our client regarding the status of the migration. The early migrations weren’t without challenges, but each time we learned lessons that enabled us to be more efficient and effective in the next phase.

The stabilization period is often an afterthought, but it is absolutely critical for maintaining customer confidence while you go through your teething period. There will be bumps and bruises in the early going and the best thing you can do is be transparent with your client regarding these challenges and be ready and able to act in a way that addresses them. This is the approach that we took and it was very well received by our clients. We shared operational results on a weekly basis during the stabilization period, along with the improvement plans that we were putting in motion to address issues with process, glitches in technology, or concerns around service quality.

We worked through this process eight times between January 2006 and March 2008. After more than two years of performing service desk migrations, it would have been natural to see the last migration as the end of the road. What we soon realized was that it was actually the beginning of something new. With the consolidation of people and service behind us, now we could move forward and begin to push the envelope on service quality.

Here are a few things to think about before embarking on a similar journey: 

  1. Create a vision. Sell it and stand behind it. Successful consolidation starts here. You need to have a vision for what your service desk will look like in the future. You need to get others excited about that vision in a way that resonates with them! For your C-suite, focus on cost savings and improved service delivery. For your staff, focus on the new and challenging opportunities the consolidation will make possible. 
  2. Seek investment. Transformation isn’t free. Economist Milton Friedman coined the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” This is also true of effecting transformational change through consolidation. To be successful, your organization must provide funding, knowing that the results achieved will pay back that investment many times over. You will need money, whether it’s for adding expertise you don’t have or buying technology you need. Our leaders listened to our requests for funding and came through for us. We wouldn’t have been successful without their financial support.
  3. Consolidate people first, service second. To make change happen on a grand scale, you need to consolidate the people involved first. Your new organization needs to come together under a single management team. Everyone involved in moving the change forward needs to be rowing in the same direction. That’s impossible if you’re still relying on disparate reporting relationships.
  4. Be aggressive. Be determined. To achieve great things, you often need to communicate a sense of urgency to your team. You can do this by being aggressive with the targets on your project schedule and by having the determination to will your team to the finish line. When leaders demonstrate this type of commitment and resolve, it’s infectious. While we were executing our service desk migrations, we sometimes felt that the pace was almost too aggressive. Looking back now, I understand that this was part of what made our project a success. We were able to sustain that sense of urgency throughout the project. Our adrenaline was pumping from start to finish. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.
  5. Be practical, not perfect. Amidst the chaos of a major organizational and service transformation, you won’t have time for perfection. Practicality should be the order of the day. After you complete the consolidation, the continuous improvement cycle will be the path to perfection.
  6. Make measurement a priority early on. Establishing a measurement culture should be an early priority for your consolidation effort. Invest in this area as soon as possible so you can baseline yourself and demonstrate quantifiable improvement during and after your consolidation.
  7. Great people are needed to accomplish great things. Your consolidation effort will not be successful if you don’t have great people supporting you at all levels in your organization. You need inspiring leaders and managers who genuinely care about how these changes will impact their teams and creative, hard-working employees who are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty.

If you leave this article where you started it, with your eyes closed, contemplating a vision of your service desk’s future, then I’ve succeeded. While you may never be asked to lead the charge on a significant consolidation or transformation effort in your organization, it’s important that you have a clear vision. It will set the tone for everything you do, from consolidation to continuous improvement.


Jim Kirk began his career with the Ontario government as a service desk analyst, providing technical support. Eventually, after working in a variety of other roles (network administration, IT security, etc.), he returned to his roots: support center consolidation, where he was responsible for consolidating eight separate service desks into an enterprise single point of contact for the entire government. Currently, he is the customer relationship manager for the Halifax Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia. Jim is also an HDI-certified Support Center Director who believes strongly in measurement, continual improvement, and self-service.

Tag(s): process, business of support, practices and processes


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