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In depth: The new help desk - agile, educational, efficient

But Gartner says, "Most corporate help desks are outdated."

A help desk can be a real lifesaver for employees, not to mention a productivity boost. A keyboard stops working, or Outlook crashes repeatedly, and a technician is just a phone call away. Even complex issues can usually be resolved internally, and relatively quickly, without needing an outside vendor.

Yet, innovations in the help desk itself are often slow to evolve. Many large organiaations still track tickets in complex or age-old systems that are not adept at pinpointing recurring problems, don't work well on the latest smartphones or tablets, and don't provide detailed reports about average call times or how long it takes to resolve issues.

Jarod Greene, a Gartner analyst, says, "Most corporate help desks are outdated." Many organizations are stuck using tools that merely report on the number of calls per day, month and year and do not have a clue about what he calls "feedback loops" -- in other words, the recurring problems within an organization. That's a critical issue, he says, because over 50% of the perceived value of an IT organization comes from the help desk.

So if the help desk is stuck in the 1960s technology-wise, it's a good bet that IT's reputation could be suffering, too.

"They end up automating bad processes, and fail to gain real efficiencies from the investment," Greene says.

Some organizations have found a way to improve the help desk. Whether it's a "teaching moment" at the University of Georgia, a system that provides more efficient tracking at Peugeot, or a start-up that relies entirely on a Web-based tool for every ticket, the help desk is getting a much-needed assist.

University of Georgia: Education-based support

At the University of Georgia, with 10,000 employees and an enrollment of around 35,000 students, the help desk staff has to perform triage on support requests quickly, resolve them if possible, and then pass the tough cases up to second-level support.

When calls are escalated, the help desk shifts gears. According to Rachel Moorehead, an IT professional assistant and supervisor at the university, calls become more than just a way to resolve problems.

"Every call is a teaching moment," she says, describing how help desk staffers tailor each interaction to the caller's technical expertise. When an IT major calls in about a problem with a login to an Outlook server, for example, staffers might explain how the logging files work. Even if the student is not an IT major, they still pass along tips -- and generally find that every student and faculty member is open to the advice. The university uses BMC Remedy to log the initial call, and then Bomgar for screen-sharing.

Moorehead estimates that almost all of the university's second-level IT support tickets involve some sort of extra instruction.

Because the support calls are focused on training and education, the goal is not necessarily to resolve problems quickly. The average resolution time for support calls is 5.17 hours, and an average screen-sharing session lasts 33 minutes. This compares to an industry average of a day to resolve issues of low to medium severity, according to Gartner's Greene.

The university took on 4,395 support calls in the month of November alone, customizing calls for the needs of the user and their specific problem.

"This is the IT help desk equivalent of 'give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,'" says Charles King, an analyst with PUND-IT.

Gartner's Greene says the university is on the right track in how it uses a tiered strategy. The first level roots out problems quickly; the second tier uses remote sessions to provide more thorough support. That's important, he says, because of the average costs involved. Initial calls to IT support can cost a company $1 to $10 per ticket; that's just for initial contact by phone or email to log the issue.

Once the call gets to an actual human for first-level support, the cost rises to between $10 and $37 per transaction. If a more technical staff member becomes involved for second-level or even more complex issues, the costs are $37 to $250 per ticket.

"Using a remote control and collaboration solution, Level 2 can help Level 1 resolve issues more efficiently, with the goal being to reduce escalations," says Greene. "In the same context, Level 1 can use remote control to teach end users how to resolve their own issues or guide them to knowledge-management documentation."

The point is not just to correct some problem or mistake, but to help ensure that the end user fully understands the reasons for the issue and thus will have the means to prevent or address future occurrences, King says. Ideally, this approach will lead to fewer help desk calls or "at least a better informed and more able workforce."

Peugeot Netherlands: No ticket left unresolved

The Netherlands branch of the French automaker supports 179 car dealerships throughout Europe and another 160 commercial users in the head office, based in Utrecht. The help desk employs 26 technicians and processes about 3,750 tickets per year on average, or about 72 each week.

Richard Nolting, the help desk manager, says the company wanted to improve efficiencies. In 2010, the company was resolving almost 90% of support issues in 2.4 days on average, bettering an International Standards Organization-mandated goal of 80% resolution; but as an ISO-based shop, Peugeot wanted to improve even more.

The company also wanted more flexibility. Nolting says some help desk systems are overly 'canned,' with automatic and robotic-sounding messages sent back to users. To make the communication more personalized, Peugeot Netherlands needed more features. For example, Nolting says, he wanted a system that lets technicians send SMS alerts to users so IT staffers can communicate from wherever they happen to be in the building. Other goals included building a knowledge base of support calls and allowing users to create their own personalized tickets.

The company started using Kayako Studio, a collaborative help desk program. Nolting says a key feature is the ability for every agent to access all support-related emails. When agents create a ticket, they enter a user profile. Agents can then click an option to start a VoIP call, engage in live chat, or begin a screen-sharing session.

While other help-desk vendors might allow these activities, Nolting says, they are more ad hoc and not necessarily recorded as part of the support call. Tracking is important to him, because it helps his organization avoid having to manually sort and manage tickets.

"We made extensive use of Kayako's mail parser rules, workflows and smart filters," Nolting says, explaining how tickets can be automatically assigned to specific managers and tracked accordingly. Over the past year, he says, support calls have improved to a same-day resolution average of around 94%, an increase of 5% to 10%. And the total time to resolve support issues changed to 1.8 days on average, down from 2.4 days.

Tracking all tickets is immensely helpful long-term, says Greene. "Only well-documented processes can be transformed into structured workflows. So if the data is not captured in ticketing tools, it will be hard to find and re-use should the [same] issues ever arise again." Tools like Kayako "keep out-of-band conversations from going into the garbage, and let IT operations groups and administrative teams better understand work patterns in support of processes," he says.

Peugeot is using Kayako both to simplify the query process and as a tracking and auditing tool, says PUND-IT's King. "This should help increase the efficiency of help desk processes, but it also creates records to fulfill internal auditing processes," he says. Another potential benefit: search and analytics could be applied to gain insight into recurring problems or employee and dealership usage patterns.

De Beers Canada: The paperless help desk

De Beers Canada, the mining arm of the company probably best-known in the U.S. for its high-end jewelry stores, has found a way to make the help desk entirely paperless. With two remote mines of about 400 employees each, and headquarters in Toronto with about 100 employees, the company wanted to streamline operations. One goal was to reduce the number of help desk tickets as an indicator of success.

James Ross, corporate IT manager for the help desk, says the company has reduced tickets from 700 per month down to about 500. One method for streamlining: Tickets are grouped according to incidents, so technicians can address the root cause and prevent more calls about the same problems. They achieved this by monitoring help desk tickets and predicting problems rather than waiting for them to happen.

For example, they used to be surprised by requests for new hardware or business software. But now help-desk staffers can see patterns from the same department, around the same time of year, and can be better prepared for those requests, say, if bandwidth is a problem.

De Beers uses ManageEngine's Service Desk Plus to group tickets, send SMS alerts to IT staffers, and record electronic signatures for all tickets. Although the company does not use the mobile version of the app today, it plans to add that capability.

Ross says a key new feature, given that employees at the mines are in a place that IT workers cannot drive to, is that all help desk activities are audited and can be monitored remotely. This remote monitoring used to be an ad hoc, manual process.

The reporting has an added benefit beyond auditing requirements: Understanding root causes.

"Most organizations can't perform trend analysis on tickets and just react to them as they occur," says Ross, who adds that the company uses the help desk for facility-related requests, such as a building repair or HVAC upgrade, and may decide to start using it for human resources activities such as new hires and departmental changes. The company's help desk system requires staffers to log calls and track tickets, and there's no reason the same software can't be applied to monitor other types of activities.

"De Beers is following a path similar to Peugeot's, though it seems a bit more structured on the front end -- e.g., proactive grouping linked to root causes," says PUND-IT's King. "Running the process remotely should also allow the company to manage and support widely dispersed facilities and workers, or to consider engaging a third party to operate the [help desk] service at some future point."

AgriFab: Graphing the help desk

What if you could click on a report for your help desk that showed the exact number of calls placed, daily resolutions, active tickets and the assignments for each technician?

That's the current scenario at Agri-Fab, a company that makes lawn care attachment products, with a help desk that supports about 500 users and generates between 300 and 500 tickets per month. Using Numara Software FootPrints, the company has a more detailed view of the help desk operation than ever. IT managers can see when support staff have an overload on tickets, reassign them and generate graphical views of open tickets with a few clicks. The graphing tools can compare time on specific tasks for tickets among technicians and drill down to the day, week or month.

Neal Ozier, the IT manager for help desk at Agri-Fab, says that the company was relying only on email for its help desk when he started in 2001. "There was no way to track what was being done or not being done, and people were forgetting which issues were out there," he says.

Now, every ticket they enter, either manually or automatically, generates an automatic email alert for technicians. When a call comes in, the issue is tied to the user's workgroup and to his or her Active Directory listing for the correct Windows server. Because of this, the call can be auto-assigned to a technician who can then respond to tickets by email. The email integration is important, Ozier says, because technicians are not always at their desks. The software tracks help desk support even though the desk is still relying on email.

The company's troubleshooting process has improved dramatically. Ozier says many tickets are automated and discussed over email, so voice calls last about 30 seconds on average, compared to 15 minutes before FootPrints was adopted. He says the time to resolve issues has dropped from about two hours down to just 30 minutes on average.

The help desk also uses Symantec Altiris for secure remote session tech support, and Join.Me for ad-hoc support sessions on occasions when security is not critical, such as during a business presentation.

Ozier says the main benefit of using Numara, though, is the detailed reporting. Managers can find out how much time technicians are spending on calls. The IT help desk has become so efficient that Ozier says they now use the software for safety incidents in the manufacturing facility and for both maintenance and engineering change requests.

Though similar to Peugeot's and De Beers' auditing and documentation approach, PUND-IT's King says Agri-Fab "focuses more specifically on measuring agent performance and efficiency with the goal of improving help desk processes. That should improve overall quality of service for end users and will also highlight agents who are performing particularly well or who need additional training."

In each of these examples, one thing is clear: The help desk is more than a place to call and get help. Organizations are using support calls to teach users about resolving their own problems, to generate detailed reports to find root causes, and to help adhere to complex auditing requirements by making sure all calls are tracked and monitored.

While the basic idea of keeping employees productive is a driver, improving overall processes in the company can be a major secondary benefit when the help desk gets treated to the latest tools.

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