Help Desks Under Pressure

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

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Quality Concerns

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 the 1,000 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 in 2009, just 4.6% of the respondents said they were considering outsourcing, compared with the 10.2% who indicated that they were considering it in 2008.

When respondents to the 2009 survey were asked why they weren't outsourcing help desk duties, "lack of control over service" was the No. 1 answer, chosen by 59.3% of those polled, while "service quality" was chosen by 53.7%.

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, even though most of them weren't supporting more customers. Help desk staffs spent 75% of their time dealing with such incidents -- up from 67% in 2008 -- which in turn gave them less time to train, plan and develop strategies, says HDI.

And help desk pay certainly isn't increasing along with those oversized workloads and added responsibilities. According to Computerworld's 2010 Salary Survey, total compensation (salary plus bonus) for help desk managers and staffers has stayed flat in the past year.

"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."

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 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."

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

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It's a condensed version of a feature that originally appeared on Computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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