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Help on Help

Though cost per call is highest at the strategic stage, the lower number of calls means a lower overall help desk budget.

The most common excuse for agents being unavailable for planning is that they are trapped in 000 mode.

The whirlwind of change around IT support has lifted the theory and practice of help desk management, placing it soundly at the strategic centre of the business. Begun by The Verity Group in 1992, the Meta Group's benchmarking consortium for help desks has garnered nearly 300 members from 10 countries. At that time, help desk budgets averaged 1.25 per cent of corporate IT spending.

Today, the figure is nearly 3 per cent because help desks are shedding their lights-flashing and sirens-wailing reactive roles to become proactive about meeting users' needs. As one help desk manager says: "The best call is the call that's never placed." Rather than simply respond to user problems, the strategic help desk minimises incoming calls by anticipating and addressing user problems before they occur.

Help desks typically evolve through three stages as they become more strategic.

The first stage -- reactivity -- is characterised by high abandonment rates, low customer satisfaction and rampant employee turnover because of agent burnout. In the second stage -- transition -- typically the help desk practises various call prevention techniques, providing users with self-help tools such as automated password resets and effective user training, and working with development groups to ensure better design and testing of new applications. In the third and final stage -- strategic -- the help desk realises its full potential as part of the IT value chain.

To gauge how well your help desk is operating and where it stands in the three stages of development, answer these questions: - Have help desk managers created and distributed a supported product list (SPL) so that callers and agents can share an identical understanding of the help desk's boundaries of responsibility? - Has help desk management established service-level agreements with non help desk experts throughout the organisation so that callers can receive seamless reference to Level 2 help? - Do help desk managers play an active advisory role in critical IT functions such as development and purchasing? - Do help desk agents log all calls, track the number of incidents that are escalated to Level 2 support personnel and calculate the percentage of calls that result in a technician being dispatched? - Do help desk agents capture problem solutions in a reusable knowledge base? - Do help desk managers use continuous, event-driven surveys to measure customer satisfaction? - Do help desk managers post key performance indicators such as customer satisfaction, first-call resolution rate and call handle time? - Do help desk agents have performance goals in these areas? - Do help desk agents practise continuous planning in order to reduce costly call volumes? - Do help desk personnel meet with key customer groups at least annually to explain important help desk services and offerings? If you answered yes to eight or more questions, congratulations. You have a strategically mature help desk. Less than 20 per cent of all desks fall into this category. If you answered yes to at least five but fewer than eight questions, you likely have a transitional desk. Most fall into this category, which helps explain the recent increase in help desk budgets.

Finally, if you answered yes to fewer than five questions, you are probably operating under the reactive model. Some help desks operate in this mode because of sheer resource constraints.

Help desks that have successfully journeyed from being reactive to being strategic generally follow a similar path. Often the steps include the following: Develop a call reduction strategy. The most common approach to call reduction is root-cause analysis, a process designed to eliminate the source of key problems. Root-cause analysis, which ought to be undertaken monthly, categorises calls by type and technology and then discovers common causes for those calls. Next it acts to diminish the number of future calls by refining user training or the development of new online help screens. For example, one help desk found that new employees called the help desk an average of four times per month, while those who had worked at the company for a year or more averaged only one call per month. By providing a half-hour IT orientation to all new employees, the help desk reduced call volume from new users by 60 per cent. But don't overlook the obvious. Another help desk reduced incoming calls by nearly 5 per cent just by informing callers how their problems had been solved. The next time users encountered the same problem, they were able to solve it without the help desk.

Free agents to work on call abatement projects. Since abatement projects are the heavy-lifting task of call desk centres, they need to be undertaken well out of earshot of ringing phones. The most common excuse for agents being unavailable for planning is that they are trapped in 000 mode. To release agents for call abatement, try to assign additional resources to staffing on the phones or else be prepared for a short-term increase in abandonment rates until the call volume can be reduced. Contractors can be particularly useful as a stopgap resource for answering telephones while regular agents focus on call reduction efforts.

Establish performance goals. Goal setting is a necessity in any project undertaken to improve help desk performance. At the very least, the help desk should have performance goals for customer satisfaction, cost per call, call abandonment rate, service-level compliance, first-call resolution rate and call handle time.

Focus on customer communication. Failure to manage customer expectations may be the most common problem in the industry. Overcommunicate with users -- before, during and after each call -- to ensure that their expectations are properly set. Every user should have a copy of the help desk SPL. During any call, make sure users are advised where they stand in prioritisation. First-come, first-served queuing can work when there is no backlog of callers, but all users throughout the enterprise should be apprised that the company's business needs are key to any incident severity ranking system and projected resolution time. Finally, when closing an incident, agents should ask callers for some quick feedback on help desk performance.

Demand accountability and measure individual agent performance. Every help desk must operate with a sense of urgency. Individual agents must be measured against a set of performance goals such as calls per month, customer satisfaction and first-call resolution rate. By establishing individual goals in each area, a manager can ensure that agents are both efficient and effective in delivering service.

Meet with users. Close the cycle. Internal marketing improves customer satisfaction -- even without any improvement in the variables typically associated with happy customers: average speed of answer, call abandonment rate and first-call resolution rate.

Becoming strategic doesn't happen overnight. In most cases, the process takes one to two years. Additionally, the cost of support often increases during the transition phase. If you are prepared for this and are willing to stick with it, the rewards of being world class will more than justify any short-term increase in cost.

Jeff Rumburg, a vice president of Meta Group Consulting, a division of Meta Group, can be reached at jeff.rumburg@metagroup.comGive Us the FAQsBy Ruth GreenbergMany of the most common questions a help desk receives are also the easiest to solve. One of the simplest ways to reduce the call volume and the cost is to list these frequently asked questions and their answers on the Web. Here is a sample of some FAQs:- What are the hours of operation for technical support?- How do I contact technical support?- What is the response time once I've submitted a request?- Does Windows 95 require 16MB or more of RAM to run well?- Will Windows 95 run my current applications?- How can I create new folders for my desktop?- How do I know that my machine is capable of running Windows NT Workstation 4.0?

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