In this digital whitepaper, we look at the challenges service desk managers face and the trends behind them. We will focus on the opportunities that arise from overcoming each challenge and set out practical solutions that have been proven to work. By recognizing and tackling these challenges, the service desk can embark on a targeted improvement program to increase efficiency, cut costs and improve customer satisfaction.
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Many of these challenges are not new – but some of the solutions are new. Many are made possible by developments in technology. New approaches, enabled by analytics and automation, AI, collaboration and gamification give IT departments the chance to solve issues that have been plaguing them for decades – and make decisive progress towards a more mature service desk.
“New approaches, enabled by analytics and automation, AI, collaboration and gamification give IT departments the chance to solve issues that have been plaguing them for decades.”
When it comes to budget allocation digital transformation projects are the primary focus for most businesses—introducing new front-end technologies which transform the customer experience, and new operational technologies which transform the way the business operates.
Despite holding the critical responsibility for maintaining IT customer productivity, less visible internal IT operations areas—like the service desk—are often at the back of the queue. With budget as the primary constraint, service desk managers need to be smarter in the way they manage what they already have. By focusing on their existing people and skills, processes and capabilities, tools and data, and information and knowledge, they will be able to find efficiencies and squeeze out more value.
The “do more with less” pressure remains:
- Business growth means supporting more IT customers on a static budget.
- The service desk must manage a growing portfolio of devices, applications and services—including smartphones, tablets, cloud technology, and smart connected devices (Internet of Things)—as both infrastructure teams and end users bring new technologies in to solve new business challenges.
- Changing end user expectations mean the service desk can’t keep the business happy by doing the same things they've always been doing. IT customer expectations are a moving target—especially the expectation for digital support channels.
The demands that are put on the service desk are changing, as globalization and digitalization are altering the way businesses operate. Through awareness of these demands and how they are changing over time, service desk managers can better align capabilities with what the business needs.
However, it’s difficult to make progress when your service desk is tied up taking calls and solving the same issues again and again. In order to break out of firefighting mode, the service desk needs to raise its head, take a breath and scan the bigger picture (a difficult thing to do when capacity is already overstretched). If your service desk is bogged down with firefighting, it can be difficult to see new challenges coming.
So how can you start to put out the fires and create the room you need to drive progress?
1: Find, Keep, and Motivate Your Service Desk Staff
There is a reason why this challenge tops the list. Quality of service is largely reliant on the calibre of your analysts, so having the right people is critical. The service desk is the “human face” of IT and for many end users it is the only touch point between them and IT. As a result, perception of IT is largely influenced by the quality of IT support provided by the service desk.
High staff turnover means a big portion of the service desk budget is spent on recruitment and basic training. This has a knock-on effect on quality of support and the amount of budget left over for advanced training, new service desk tools, and other budgeted improvement projects. The average cost-of-hire for non-management staff is over $900. With 42% of service desk staff leaving every 2 years, this equates to $10,000 of recruitment costs per year in a service desk team of 30.
In organizations with a large number of entry-level analysts, first-time-fix-rates suffer, IT customer satisfaction ratings remain static (at best) and it is difficult to make headway with improvements. In short, staffing issues keep service desks in a rut.
As the quality of service that the service desk provides is influenced by people, finding, keeping and motivating your staff is a key challenge; but one that is often overlooked. The resulting staff churn has a negative impact on customer service and the perception of IT. By reducing staff churn, you can retain skills and knowledge, make better use of training budgets, free-up budget for new technology, and improve the IT customer experience.
To successfully manage the people aspects of the service desk, a strategic approach is critical. Service desk managers should think carefully about how they can find, retain and motivate the right staff – those that will support the objectives of the service desk.
The CIO.com State of the CIO 2018 survey found 59% of CIOs are experiencing skills shortages and recruitment challenges5. Finding good people is difficult, and when under pressure there is a temptation to take a chance on a candidate. But hiring the wrong people can make the situation worse. Recruitment and training costs drain budget. Rookie staff drain time from your existing agents.
It’s better to take your time, consider what you really need, and get it right. Here’s what you should be looking for in a candidate:
- Empathy – Having a sincere, respectful, customer-focused attitude.
- Responsibility – Willing to take ownership of the issue and see it through.
- Planning – Plotting a course of action to resolve the end user’s issue.
- Effective communication – The ability to articulate what will happen and when.
- A cool head – Ability to stay positive, work under a ticking clock, and pacify angry customers.
- Teamwork – Working with others to achieve the right outcome and improve the service desk.
- Problem solving – Having a methodical problem-solving approach and, where possible, being in possession of the right technical skills to diagnose and fix technical issues.
Six out of seven skills are “soft” skills. Technical knowledge is not the main issue here. As every organization is different, the service portfolio that an analyst supports will differ, so finding a match with technical skills is an impossible task. It’s easier to train for technical skills than soft skills.
As the market for service desk analysts is so competitive, there are opportunities to cut corners by recruiting customer service agents from other service domains (such as a general help desk, travel agent, ticket office or hotel concierge service) – where these soft skills already exist.
42% Of service desk staff have a tenure of 24 months or fewer4
Keeping Your Best Staff
In a tough employment market, finding good people is difficult and organizations need to work hard to keep them. When competition for staff is high, there is always a risk that another organization will tempt your best people away. Service desk managers should be acutely aware of this threat, which must be actively managed.
There are a number of drivers for staff churn:
- Low pay – In relative terms, a job on the service desk pays less than working in a more specialized technical team—on average, more than $10,000 less per year than 2nd line IT staff.
- Stress – Analysts are under pressure to manage a growing queue of incidents but lack the tools and training to do so—causing mass staff “burn-out”.
- No career path – Many people see the service desk as an entry point into a career in IT. It is better to offer people a career path within your organization than to lose them to another firm. That way, you keep their knowledge within the organization.
Motivating Your People
In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink states that there are three keys to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.
- Autonomy – Give service desk agents the freedom to exercise their own problem-solving skills and approach customer issues in their own way: one that fits the way they work and who they are.
- Mastery – Have a clear development path for each agent, supported by tailored training and mentoring.
- Purpose – When agents can see the bigger picture and how their own contribution is relevant to the organization—as a whole—they will be more motivated and better aligned to business priorities.
If you apply these three key principles correctly, service desk agents will be motivated at an intrinsic level – having an internal drive to do the best possible job. Extrinsic motivators such as salary and bonuses play a part in a motivation strategy (people have bills to pay), but these external drive factors are not as powerful.
In summary, if you want to build a successful service desk, people come first. Processes and tools are there to support what they do.
“There are 3 keys to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose”
2: Reduce Call Volumes
Volume of calls is the number one headache for the service desk. Sometimes it seems like everybody is just too busy logging calls to have any time to deal with issues and requests. The phones just keep on ringing and it’s often for the same reason. Incident queues grow and it seems like there’s never any time to fix the underlying issues that are causing end users to pick up the phone.
While call volumes are high, it’s difficult to find resources for improvement projects - and without improvements, it’s difficult to reduce call volumes. This is the catch-22 of the service desk. To make progress, improvement initiatives need to be focused on the quickly solvable issues that take up the most time. They need to hit the mark first time to create more time for more traction. It's about building some momentum.
The result is that call volumes are reduced and bandwidth is released for further initiatives. One successful improvement project enables the next.
The key to finding improvement initiatives that will succeed in reducing call volumes is in understanding the nature and volume of demand being put on your service desk: why does the phone keep ringing? When you understand demand, you can identify the strategies, structures, skills and tools you need to satisfy that demand. From here, there are two main strategies for reducing call volumes:
- Eliminate the causes of demand (for example, automated detect-and-correct fixes which spot and resolve issues before they impact IT customers)
- Divert demand (incidents and requests are routed around the service desk itself, so less time is spent on the phone. In many cases, service automation can turn a manual process into a "zero-touch" process.)
Analysis of inbound demand will help you pick out which strategy will work best for each type: eliminate or divert.
The “shape” of inbound demand varies from organization to organization, but can be categorized in three broad buckets:
- Failure demand – Something has gone wrong with a device, service or application.
- Information demand – The end user needs some information or data.
- Value demand – The end user needs something new from IT to help them do their job more effectively.
So how do you analyse demand? Reporting on incident counts by group type (failure demand, information demand, value demand) will give you an indication of the shape of demand and show you where most of your time is spent. For most service desks, failure demand outweighs information demand and value demand; the bulk of time is spent fixing issues. More mature service desks may expect to see more demand stacked towards the value end of the spectrum (especially when detect-and-correct automation is in place). When you know the shape of demand, you can start to think about how you can better manage that demand – mapping specific demands to solutions.
3: Increase First-Time-Fix Rate
When the phone rings, the service desk needs to fix the issue fast and fix it right. IT customers expect quick and decisive action. For the service desk, the goal is to live up to this expectation, close the issue, and make sure it doesn’t come back again.
The service desk is all about one-to-one communication; when an analyst is talking to one end user, they’re not talking to another. Repeat calls tie up service desk analysts whilst other customers with new issues wait in a queue. It’s better and cheaper for the service desk (and better for the IT customer) to respond effectively and decisively in the first instance.
It is important to be clear on what the first-time-fix metric (sometimes called First Contact Resolution) is all about. Increasing your first-time-fix rate is not about getting better at solving the same issues over and over again. The first-time-fix metric can be misleading (like many percentage-based metrics). It is often seen as a “higher is better” performance metric, but when you dig deeper you see that there are a number of factors that affect the first-time-fix rate:
- The number of infrastructure faults that are causing repeat issues.
- Whether your agents have the tools and information to find and fix customer issues, versus passing the issue to level 2 or level 3 support.
- The changing nature of IT customer demands. Businesses change and so do support needs.
As such, the first-time-fix rate metric isn’t exclusively a performance metric for the service desk; there are external factors that play a part. It’s more of a “pointer” than a performance metric - one that tells the service desk manager something about different types of calls and how they are being handled.
A low number indicates the service desk staff don’t have the training, tools or information to solve problems on the first line. A high rate usually indicates one of two things: The service desk is handling too many simple issues (or information requests) that could be supported by a self-service portal. Or, there are too many long-standing infrastructure problems that are waiting to be fixed by 2nd and 3rd line support.
The opportunities—the real reason for measuring the first-time-fix metric—are threefold:
- Put a focus on solving the customer’s issue as quickly and decisively as possible.
- Escalate fewer calls to more expensive 2nd and 3rd line support teams.
- Identify Problem Management bottlenecks that are impacting the service desk and IT customer productivity.
So the real questions are: “How can we give IT customers the support they need, fast?”, “How can we extend the technical capabilities of the service desk to make it more self-sufficient and less reliant on expensive technical experts?” and “How can we solve more problems once and for all?” Clearly, this third issue goes beyond the remit of the service desk, so the service desk must work with the Problem Management and Change Management functions/teams to prioritize and resolve the root causes of these incidents.
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Targeted action can only be identified by analysing your service desk data. Study the system. Use your reporting tools to gain intelligence. Look closely at the type and complexity of issues that are getting resolved first time—and which are not. From here you can start to define who should be dealing with which issues at which levels:
- End user self-service (“Level 0”): Which issues can end users resolve themselves, given the right information and tools? Increasing levels of computer literacy among IT customers means the service desk can push some types of issues back to the IT customer. Empower them with a self-service portal that provides them with information, fixes and simple tools to resolve issues (such as password reset and desktop tune-ups). The impact is that the overall first-time-fix rate goes up, but the first-time-fix rate as handled by service desk agents will go down—as a large number of simple issues have been diverted to a web portal.
- The service desk (“Level 1”): The scope of the service desk borders with self-service (issues that can be resolved by the end user) and 2nd line support (those that require deeper technical skills). Essentially, the service desk fills the gap between the two. The service desk can push the resolution of simple issues to the IT customer but can also take responsibility for the resolution of more complex issues where the appropriate knowledge can be captured and transferred from the 2nd line to the service desk (but not directly to the end user). The border between the service desk and 2nd line support is moved upwards and fewer issues are escalated. This is where the most value (in terms of cost savings and customer satisfaction) is to be gained in increasing the service desk’s first-time-fix rate.
- 2nd line support (“Level 2”): Define which issues must be handled by 2nd line (or 3rd line) support. This allows you to do two things: First, you will be able to categorize and therefore automatically route these types of incidents directly to the right teams. Secondly (although this won’t reduce your first-time-fix rate) you will be able to clearly identify that these issues are outside the scope of the service desk. This means you can focus attention on the less complex issues that you can feasibly tackle on the first line, when supported by the right tools and knowledge.
It is important to remember that end user demands change as the business changes, so the lines between each tier of support must be constantly re-drawn to fit these changes in demand. As a service desk manager, you must keep an eye on fluctuations in the first-time-fix rate as these will indicate that something has changed, and the balance must be redressed.
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4: “Real World” Business Prioritization
Businesses are dependent on technology, so the role of the service desk is critical to end user productivity and business performance. But not all IT services are of equal value to the business, and the service desk has finite time and resources to tackle problems. So how can your service desk prioritize work when you don't have the capacity to do everything? How do you know which are the most important issues from the business perspective?
IT’s own priority matrices, based on notions of relative impact and urgency, are somewhat rough-and-ready. Although these priority codes will allow the service desk to rank incidents in some order of priority, they mean little to business people. They cannot readily review incident priorities to ensure they match with current business priorities when they don’t really understand the priority levels and criteria.
Prioritization based on the current business context helps the service desk to ensure that what it does lines up with what is most important to the business. To line up service desk priorities with business priorities, the key is to speak the same language. Everyone knows what a Dollar is (or a Pound Sterling, or a Euro); not everybody knows what a P3 priority means.
By quantifying priorities in terms of lost revenue per hour, the service desk and the business can work together to set and review priorities.
Where a priority matrix will give the service desk a relative ranking of importance, using a dollars-per-hour metric gives an absolute view of priority. For example, Server 1 is down and it’s costing the business $31,500 for every hour. Server 2 is down and it’s losing the business $60,000 every hour. Now the priorities are clear to both IT and business people.
The principle is simple, yet there are some nuances that should be understood to put this into practice. For customer-facing services (like an ecommerce website), an average $impact-per-hour metric can be set based on intelligence from the business. For internal business services and applications that support customer-facing services, a $impact-per-person-per-hour value can be used to measure the impact based on the number of users affected. Also, the complex nature of IT infrastructure means that multiple services may be dependent on one IT component.
To support this, you need a service-oriented view of the infrastructure giving you visibility of which IT components support which services, so that service downtime (not just device downtime) can be detected and the service impact calculated automatically.
An unfortunate side-effect is that reporting in this way means presenting a “how much our bad IT cost the business today” figure. 100% availability of services in unachievable. However, the idea is to get downtime and the resulting impact as close to nil as possible. When IT can show the business cost of downtime, it can also make a stronger business case for investment to reduce downtime and impact – and once improvements are applied, the reduced cost of downtime can be easily demonstrated.
Of course, business priorities change, so SLAs and related dollar impact values should be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure the service desk has an up-to-date view of priorities.
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5: Keep Up With Business Change
Where business prioritization is about doing the right things in the right order today, the service desk also needs to make sure that support capabilities are changing to line up with what the business will need tomorrow. As businesses work to become more agile, the pace of change is accelerating, so there is increasing pressure for the service desk to keep pace – to ensure end user productivity is not interrupted and business objectives are met. If the service desk is not aware of changes that are happening out in the business units, change within the service desk will always be reactive.
Most service desk metrics are trailing indicators of what business demand looked like (the “rear view mirror” perspective), so how can the service desk effectively plan for changes in demand and ensure the right capabilities and capacity are there to provide high quality support that tracks business demand in the future?
Gaining a “forward view” of what the business is doing means the service desk can be more pro-active in managing new service and support demands before they manifest as calls to the service desk. By engaging directly with business unit managers to talk about their strategic plans and tactics, the service desk can look at how current and planned business projects will translate into changes in the types and volume of inbound demand.
When you have a good idea of the size and shape of demand, you can plan more effectively to meet changes in demand before it happens – enabling you to put new capabilities in place and provide consistent quality of support to IT customers.
The key to predicting (and handling) future demand is finding out what is happening in the business:
- Schedule regular meetings with business unit managers to look at projects and plans and how they will impact the service desk. For example, if a business unit is expanding, the service desk must prepare to support more end users of a particular profile.
- Ask business managers to pro-actively engage with the service desk when they are planning any change projects that might change the need for support.
- Meet regularly with IT infrastructure & operations (I&O) teams to discuss changes to infrastructure, people or processes. E.g. are they planning a Windows upgrade?
- Where possible, meet with C-suite executives to keep tabs on the latest strategic plans that will filter down through the organization so that conversations about infrastructure, operations and support can happen before change happens.
Key Questions to Ask
- Will business plans put additional strain on specific enterprise applications?
- Are any new systems being brought online? Are any being retired?
- Are they hiring more staff? Where will they be based? Will they be office, home or mobile workers?
6: Increase IT Customer Satisfaction
The service desk is the face of IT. For many end users, the service desk is the only touch point with IT; so, much of the responsibility for IT customer satisfaction ratings falls on the service desk. As far as the end user is concerned, the service desk is IT. They don't care about what's under the hood.
IT customer expectations are a moving target. The consumerization of IT and the support experiences that consumers have are influencing what they expect from IT in the workplace. As customer expectations increase, service desks must improve performance to track changing IT customer expectations. If you do nothing to improve, increasing expectations mean that the perception of IT will decline over time. As the perception of IT drops, business units and end users are more likely to bring in technology that is not sanctioned by corporate IT (Shadow IT and BYOD) – and budget begins to leak out of the IT department.
IT customers know that things sometimes go wrong. It’s how you deal with the issue that counts. A quick and decisive response will get the end user productive again and they will be satisfied that the service desk has helped them get their job done. This is the key to IT customer satisfaction: removing friction and reducing frustration.
IT people are usually too focused on the technology, so IT customer satisfaction metrics are essential to ensure that what IT does lines up with what the business needs.
When the service desk is more effective at dealing with issues, the perception of IT within the organization increases. With fewer detractors, IT stands a better chance of getting more funding for further improvements.
If you want to improve something you need to manage it. If you want to manage something you need to measure it. Customer satisfaction surveys quantify the perception of IT (if you ask the right questions). They help you target improvements, and give you a benchmark against which to show progress. Commit to regular surveys and use the same metrics so you can benchmark and graph progress (this means planning your surveys in advance). There should be some purpose and structure to the metrics you gather as part of an IT customer survey.
It is important to keep the survey focused, with as few questions as possible. There is an inverse correlation between the number of questions in a survey and the number of responses you will get. More questions mean fewer submissions (and less data to work with). Less data means a less accurate view of performance.
Pick a primary metric to report upwards. Many IT organizations are adapting the Net Promoter Score (NPS) question as a tool for measuring perception of IT: On a scale of 0 to 10, how satisfied are you with IT support?
This is a simple quantitative question, which is followed by a qualitative question: Why did you give this score?
The NPS question gives you a top-level metric; the follow-up question draws out open feedback which can be analysed for themes and specific issues to be addressed.
The NPS question and the follow-up question can be used to benchmark the perception of IT and provide some indication of where improvements need to be made. However, it is a good idea to also include some lower-level questions which ask explicitly about what is most important to the end user community. To do this, you will need to look at which factors influence customer satisfaction (number of dropped calls, agent attitudes, first-time-fix rate, availability of self-service tools and more).
Essentially, the purpose of an IT customer satisfaction survey is not just to show how good (or bad) a job IT is doing, but to find out what end users want – and give it to them. From here, you can prioritize specific improvement (like a self-service portal, more staff, more training or new service desk tools) to drive up IT customer satisfaction and increase the perception of IT within the business.
7: Facilitate Peer Support
In many cases, the service desk is not the first source for technical assistance. People frequently ask their colleagues for help before they call the service desk.
Maybe they don’t want to look silly to people they don’t really know. Maybe they don’t trust the service desk to fix their problem in time. Maybe it’s just human instinct.
In response, colleagues will try to help—even if they don’t really know what they’re doing. Sometimes the end user’s peer group can come up with a solution, but Google often plays a part. Clearly, there is value in peer-to-peer support, but also great risk. The damage that can be done is almost unlimited (especially when downloading uncertified and unlicensed software from the open Internet).
Generation X and Y are replacing the baby boomers, so the workforce is generally becoming more computer literate and more prepared to tackle technical issues on their own. The end user body of knowledge is growing and the “tide mark” that defines which types of issues are referred to the service desk is being pushed upwards. But how can you capitalize on this shift—and do it in a safe, controlled manner? Pockets of technical knowledge are shared locally, but how can you capture and scale end user knowledge at a global level?
Another opportunity is to bring “out of band” peer support into your ITSM system of record – making it trackable, curatable, and where possible reusable. You can begin to capture, filter and share knowledge from your end user pool, diverting a large volume of low-level issues and information requests while retaining visibility of the scale of these simple issues.
That means you can leverage peer support knowledge—while assuring the quality of peer support.
Modern ITSM tools have added a collaboration layer that empowers both end users and IT people to communicate across geographical, departmental and hierarchic boundaries—melting away the usual silo walls. By facilitating peer-to-peer communication with your ITSM system of record, it becomes a system of engagement; one that is not just about process workflows and automation but also supports unstructured collaboration—like crowdsourcing creative solutions to problems. By providing a platform for collaboration, end users can reach out to their broader peer group to ask questions and share solutions—leveraging knowledge on a global, rather than local, scale.
From the service desk’s perspective, facilitating peer-to-peer support from within the service desk tool gives you visibility of activity that previously happened offline—making it visible and manageable. Peer support cases can be recorded and filtered for re-use, building a more effective end user knowledge base and taking a significant strain off the service desk.
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8: Get the Right Service Desk Tools
Technology is instrumental to providing efficient and effective IT support, yet many service desks suffer from a technology gap between what they have and what they need. There are three key problems that prevent service desk managers from getting the technology they need to run a slick service desk:
- Not enough time and resources to upgrade to the most recent version of the service desk tool.
- Constrained business budgets make getting funds for a new solution difficult.
- Low perception of IT and the service desk means the CEO and CFO are reluctant to spend more money on a “failing department”.
These days, service desk tools are part of a broader ITSM solution, which means they are shared and used by other IT infrastructure and operations groups within IT. That means the service desk neither has sole ownership or sole decision-making power to select a solution. Compromises must be made when selecting an ITSM toolset. Without a clear vision of what you need and a clear case for why you need it, getting the right toolset can be a major challenge.
Essentially, IT service management tools help you do two things: bring order to chaos and automate manual work.
With an effective service desk solution you can make the most of the human capital you have, automate the “low-level” work that consumes much of your agents’ time, and release resources for focused improvement projects that drive up quality of support.
There’s no “cookie-cutter” strategy for selecting the right service desk tool as every organization is different, but there are some basic steps that must be taken in order to succeed:
- Requirements – Working out what you need: requirements (current and future). Future-proofing your purchase decision by looking at your improvement roadmap and the supporting features you will need tomorrow. In general, flexibility is the key to longevity when it comes to service desk tools.
- Engagement – Getting buy-in from other stakeholders within IT I&O to reach a mutual consensus on what is needed.
- Budget – If you need capital investment for on-premise ownership of the technology, you’ll need to build a business case for the CFO. Alternatively, by taking the SaaS subscription route you may be able to absorb the cost into your I&O budget.
- Vendor selection – Using your requirements analysis to compare what the market is offering with what you need. At this stage, some difficult decisions may be needed to balance budget against what you need to have and what you’d like to have.
- Implementation – If you choose a SaaS solution, your implementation will be mainly toolset configuration. If you go for an on-premise solution you will need to factor in the purchase and setup of supporting infrastructure.
- Adoption – Implementation isn’t the end of the story. New technology can be introduced virtually overnight, but people change more slowly. Having a strategic training and adoption plan will help you get over the productivity “dip” and make the new solution stick.
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The main challenges that the service desk faces are nothing new: do more with less, be more efficient, do the right things, solve issues faster.
What we see is that many of the challenges (and solutions) are closely interconnected – which is why having a planned strategic approach (based on the nature of demand from the business) is of great importance.
The service desk cannot tackle these challenges in isolation; you need to work together with the broader IT and business community to clearly define the shape of the problem and architect cohesive solutions that involve the right people, processes and technologies.
Getting the core principles right and laying down a strong foundation will deliver a more efficient, agile and business-focused support organization – one which is more capable of handling the ever-changing demands of the business.
The results are measurable:
- A more efficient service desk, proven by business-focused productivity metrics
- Higher IT customer satisfaction ratings
- Reduced operational costs
- Lower service desk staff turnover
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