The new help desk: Agile, educational, efficient

Some organizations view users' problems as a 'teaching moment,' others focus on efficiency

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 organizations 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Jarod Greene, a Gartner analyst, says, "Most corporate help desks are outdated."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.

Screen sharing at the University of Georgia
Almost all of the second-level help desk calls at the University of Georgia involve some sort of 'teaching moment,' according to Rachel Moorehead, an IT supervisor at the university.

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.

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