Help desks under siege

Hit hard by the recession, corporate help desks remain woefully understaffed, with little relief in sight.

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On at least one point -- quality of service -- Clark isn't alone in his assessment.

Robert Last, content manager at HDI, an IT service and support association, says that while many companies still hire contractors to provide help desk support, it's a trend that's winding down as firms find that the quality of service isn't as high as they had expected.

"Some organizations just want people to answer the phone, [but] you get what you pay for," says Last. "Business leaders and consumers have soured on outsourcing because of the lack of service; it's now a marketing technique to [be able to] say, 'We answer our own phones.' "

Indeed, only 9.2% of respondents to HDI's 2009 Practices and Salary Report survey said they were currently outsourcing help desk staff, down from 11.3% in 2008, and just 4.6% of 2009 respondents said they were considering outsourcing, compared with the 10.2% who indicated that they were considering it in 2008.

When asked why they weren't outsourcing help desk staff more, 59.3% of respondents to the 2009 survey listed lack of control over service as the No. 1 issue, and 53.7% chose service quality as an additional reason.

Climbing incident rates

While help desk professionals are being stretched thin, the number of problems they are dealing with on average grew in 2009. According to HDI, 70% of help desks saw more incidents last year (read the breakdown below), even though most of them weren't supporting more customers. Last year, help desk staffs spent 75% of their time dealing with such incidents -- up from 67% in 2008 -- which in turn gives them less time to train, plan and develop strategies, says HDI.

"Help desk managers are continuing to be pressed to do more with their current resources," says Rich Hand, HDI's longtime executive director of membership who recently left the organization to start a new venture. "They are taking on more responsibility and expanding their role."

A silver lining?

In the long run, taking on more and varied tasks could aid help desk workers in their quest for advancement. Shouldering multiple responsibilities may expose them to more aspects of the business and to different managers than more sheltered help desk employees traditionally encounter.

Help desk incidents rise -- here's why

The number of incidents help desks are dealing with rose 8% from 2008 to 2009, according to the 2009 Practices and Salary Report from HDI. Here are some of the reasons for more incidents:

Poor product quality: 3%
Lack of customer competency: 5%
Increased awareness of support center: 7%
More customers: 19%
Expanded service offerings by the support center: 25%

Infrastructure or product changes

(upgrades, conversions, installations): 42%

Responses based on an HDI survey of 1,000 support center managers in 11 different industries from May through July of 2009

"Help desk managers are getting involved in the process, and that's vital in service management," says Hand. "They're cross-functionally working with other organizations of the business ... and they're starting to be seen as respected IT professionals instead of folks who're just stuck fixing problems."

David Gray hopes the added responsibilities he has carried during tough economic times will help him in the long run. Gray was hired two years ago as the IT support specialist at Advance Education Inc., which operates schools in California for children and adults with autism and other behavioral issues. He runs the help desk for the company's 350 users in multiple locations, and once he received the necessary certification, the company added systems administrator functions to his job. He also served as acting IT manager for three months while the company was looking to replace Gray's former boss.

"I got no additional compensation, no meetings with the board. I just knew the job had to be done," he says of the three-month stint.

Even if Gray's title doesn't reflect all he's done, the experience has given him the skills and the attitude to take on a larger role at some point -- either at his existing employer or elsewhere, he says.

"There's a big difference between an IT professional and someone who works on computers," Gray says, adding that a professional must constantly add to his or her skill set, whether there's a recession on or not. "The second you stop learning, you're outdated and you're out of a job."

Garretson is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at caragarretson@gmail.com.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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