Service desks come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the needs of those they serve. Service offerings, KPIs, and service level targets will vary, and some will meet those needs better than others, providing not just business value but a partnership based on common goals. However, what holds true across all service desks is that they’re the face of the IT organization. In this article, I will present some of the lessons we learned during the three-year transformation of our service desk.
Eight years ago, we found ourselves with a service desk that most people in our organization called “good enough” or “wholly adequate”—not exactly high praise. We had an outsourced service provider that delivered on-site support for internal and external customers, but while the OSP was meeting its contractual obligations, services remained flat. We worked with our OSP to implement improvements, including new processes, new tools, and more staff, but service improved only slightly, and those improvements were short-lived. Our customers weren’t happy. We knew we were missing something, but we weren’t sure what it was.
Start with the End
During one of many planning sessions, we asked our team to paint a picture of what we wanted our service desk to look like when we were done. Taking into account the feedback we had received, and after many highly detailed drafts, we finally agreed on this:
Provide the highest level of service consistently, across every contact, regardless of who answers the call.
On the surface, it’s a fairly simple statement. However, moving from this picture to implementation would require a complete overhaul of our service desk, from the ground up.
Building the Foundation
Three components were required to build a foundation for our transformed service desk: knowledge management, training, and quality.
As with any construction project, the foundation had to be built first, as it would support the other improvements we wanted to make. It became obvious early on that our weak foundation was the reason earlier improvements had failed over time. We needed to build out all three areas simultaneously, since they relied heavily on each other. If one was missing or weak, all would fail.
There are many good courses and white papers on building a knowledge management system, many of which are available through HDI. We pored over them, taking away several critical points that we used to build our model.
While knowledge repositories can be housed in anything from a three-ring binder to a complete ITSM solution, they do need to be fully integrated into the service desk’s workflow, and they must speak to all levels of expertise.
- Constant care and feeding is critical. A knowledge solution is only as strong as the accuracy of the information it contains. Build regular subject matter expert (SME) review and renewal into the process.
- Engaging tier 2 service partners as SMEs is a great way to strengthen that relationship. Making them part of the foundation reduces the “us vs. them” mentality on both sides, and it shifts the focus to finding solutions for customers.
- Provide a feedback loop so that service desk analysts can identify outdated, incomplete, or just plain confusing knowledge articles. This keeps the information meaningful and effective while giving the analysts a voice in one of their most frequently used tools.
Training must cover both initial and ongoing curricula. The curriculum should be designed to meet the level of complexity and process maturity at your service desk. Once this curriculum is created, find a way to measure proficiency levels.
New analysts must be given the opportunity to obtain the skills needed to succeed. The new-analyst training program we put in place supports a very complex and highly customized technical environment. It employs side-by-side sessions with a trainer, computer-based training, dedicated time to review knowledge articles, and process training with the knowledge team, quality auditor, ITSM tool administrator, and internal escalation team. The training program averages four to five weeks, and it ends with an exam. While the exam is open book, it does help us identify any potential issues before trainees begin supporting customers on their own.
Ongoing training is just as important as new analyst training. Even if you don’t have a constantly changing environment, a culture of learning will keep your analysts’ skills fresh and keep them engaged. Inviting your tier 2 service partners to do short online training or lunch-and-learn sessions is another way to strengthen that relationship. Use your senior analysts to design and deliver curricula. Ask newer analysts which topics they would like to have more training on. Use small team huddles for updates or last-minute changes. Small shots of training can be just as effective as long programs, if delivered on a regular basis.
A clearly defined quality process is the last piece of the foundation. The process must be transparent and consistently executed to be effective. Remove as much subjectivity as possible by using a scorecard, and, if you have more than one person conducting the audits, have them calibrated on a regular basis by scoring the same call and comparing the results.
Call recordings are priceless when it comes to reviewing analyst performance. What is measured and how often will vary from service desk to service desk. What matters is that it’s done consistently and analysts are clear on what’s expected of them. Celebrate successes just as loudly as you critique missteps and failures. Friendly team competitions are a great way to do this, and they bring up the level of performance across the board.
Once the foundation was under construction, we turned to our staffing model. There are many different options out there, from all outsourced to all in-house and everything in between. To determine which model is best for you, look at your needs and your environment before you start talking to potential vendors or writing job descriptions. Some questions to consider:
- Is technology a core competency/strength for your organization?
- Is technology critical for day-to-day operations?
- Are the systems supported off-the-shelf or proprietary/home-grown?
- Is your organization/industry in a steady state or growing/changing?
- Do you have service/support expertise in-house?
- Is the service desk driven by customer service metrics or budget?
There are many situations where a fully outsourced solution is optimal. My service desk needed to be able to support a rapidly changing and growing organization with a business-critical reliance on proprietary systems. We had extensive in-house expertise, and technology was one of our core strengths. We found that a hybrid staffing solution worked best for us. By insourcing the internal escalation team, management team, and positions that supported the three foundation areas, we were able to gain the control we needed to move toward achieving our goals. Our tier 1 service desk analysts remained long-term, on-site contractors, giving us the flexibility we needed to accommodate rapidly changing support demands.
Finding the right vendor partner and developing a scope of work that fit tightly with our goals and vision was absolutely critical to the success of our staffing model. We devoted considerable time to vendor selection, and that careful consideration made all the difference. By looking first at what we needed, not what they had to offer us, we were able to select the best fit for our situation.
This is not to say that budget isn’t important. We all live in the real world. If budget considerations are at the top of your service desk’s list of requirements, you aren’t alone. In that case, it’s very important that you identify your most critical requirements and write an agreement that helps you ensure they’re met. Your success in managing that service will depend on the agreement you sign.
Engage Service Partners
Tier 2 service partners can be a service desk’s loudest critics or strongest allies. Take ownership of the care and feeding of that relationship. Making them partners in the knowledge management and training areas is a great place to start. Educate them on your processes, and make sure you take the time to learn theirs, as well as the challenges they face. The service desk is a great source for metrics; share them with your service partners so they can see the positive outcomes of working together.
Beware of shadow help desks—they will only undermine the success you’re trying to build at your service desk. If it makes sense within your organization to shift work from tier 2 to tier 1, do it. Not only is this more cost-effective, it also reinforces the service desk’s ability to be the single point of contact. During the first three years of our transformation, we successfully closed thirty-four shadow help desks housed in various IT and business areas. By establishing a migration process that covered documentation and training, we were able to address customers’ concerns and seamlessly shift the support. Once a couple of shadow help desks have gone through the migration process, word of their successes will spread and there will be less resistance from the others.
Talk to the Business
When we first started the transformation project, we thought we had a pretty good idea of what we needed to fix. We wanted to present these ideas to our business leadership, and so we got ourselves invited to their management meetings. It was at those meetings that we really got to the heart of what they wanted from the service desk, and that helped us determine where we wanted to be. We still meet with the business regularly, and we use customer satisfaction surveys to make sure we’re on track. We also keep our customers in touch with the work we’re doing by communicating with them through our website on the corporate intranet. We share metrics and projects, but, most importantly, we talk about the successes we’ve achieved by working with our process partners. This two-way communication has helped increase our customers’ confidence in the service desk.
Find Experts and Use Them
Experts are everywhere. From professional organizations to consultant groups, vendors to service partners, all you have to do is look around you and ask questions. We had access to various consultant groups through our enterprise agreements, and we used them. We also gained information and ideas from our peers in IT who had experience in service and support. Vendors talked with us about what other organizations were doing, successfully or unsuccessfully. Each of these sources helped us in different ways throughout the project.
One of the most important things we did, at the very start of the transformation project, was join HDI. This was critical to our success. We attended our first annual conference and left with a plethora of ideas, information, and contacts. We made connections early on with practitioners who were just completing the same type of project we were embarking on. They shared their experiences and made themselves available to answer our questions. We also gathered ideas from HDI’s white papers and publications like the HDI Practices & Salary Reports. What makes an organization like HDI special is the people. From staff to our fellow members, presenters to instructors, there’s always someone willing to answer your question or help you find the information you need.
The End Was Just the Beginning
We built our foundation, created important partnerships, wrote processes, and launched our new and improved service desk. It’s been five years since the project was completed, and some of our successes include:
- $1.2 million in budget savings in the first year alone
- A 44-percent reduction in cost per contact
- A 37-percent increase in total contacts (phone and web)
The foundation we built is holding strong today, with normal maintenance and improvements. We have a seat at the table and a voice in the major enterprise initiatives we support. As the demand for and complexity of support continue to rise, we are able to respond quickly and effectively while still fulfilling the vision we established seven years ago.
Julie Lemke has more than fifteen years of management experience in IT service and support, with the last seven focused on service desk and incident management. Julie is passionate about process and customer service. She’s currently the VP of membership for the Chicagoland HDI local chapter.