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Help is right outside

Outsourcing your help desk can cut costs and improve service. ASP Advisor hed: Help is right outside dek: Outsourcing your help desk can cut costs and improve service. by Don Fitzwater

In this technological age, the help desk is a company’s first line of defense against computer and network outages. With prompt responses to inquiries and a high degree of quality service, the help desk can help a company win customers and become the employee’s best friend. But this level and quality of support does not come cheap. In a climate where downsizing and budget squeezing are second nature, investigating the potential savings of outsourcing the help desk is natural.

Help desk 101

Before discussing approaches to outsourcing help desk services, lets take a look at the organization of a typical help desk.

Help desk services are usually layered in tiers. Users call Tier 1 to report a network, computer, or software problem. This tier generates an incident report describing the problem, notes the user’s location, and provides some initial troubleshooting over the phone. Staff members on Tier 1 have a general working knowledge of the enterprise’s network, hardware, and software. If the incident is not resolved over the phone in a reasonable amount of time, the incident is escalated to Tier 2, where staff is capable of resolving more complex hardware and software problems. If necessary, Tier 2 staff will visit the user and his or her machine to resolve the problem. If the problem is beyond the scope of the desktop and Tier 2, networking experts are available at Tier 3.

Even with help desk services remaining in-house, many companies already exercise a simple form of partial outsourcing by relying on equipment vendors to deal with some of their support issues. The vendors are responsible for computer hardware under warranty. Service levels for hardware and peripherals are usually determined by business importance (for example, 24/7/365) and formalized in a Service Level Agreement (SLA). The vendor services and maintains the computers, peripherals, and component parts on a fee-per-piece level.

Managing to help

To cut costs and improve quality, some companies outsource the entire help desk service to a managed service provider (MSP).

If you are interested in taking the MSP-based approach, there are several potential providers to evaluate. Providers such as EDS and IBM have owned enterprise help desks for years. These providers come with the experience and expertise to handle not only the support issues of today but also the network infrastructure and desktop needs for tomorrow.

EDS provides comprehensive support through its Managed WorkSpace Services. Managed WorkSpace Services scales to provide onsite technicians, asset management services, and integration with custom applications. EDS personalizes WorkSpace for customers, and develops profiles for office workers, telecommuters, field staff, and production workers to tailor its services to individual users. WorkSpace provides a SPOC (single point of contact) for problem reporting and service requests.

Similar sorts of services are available from other MSPs such as IBM Global Services, Compaq Computer Corp. Global Services, and Hewlett-Packard Co. Outsourcing Services to name but a few.

But before you go shopping for a provider, you need to keep a few things in mind. Outsourcing the help desk represents challenges. For one thing, you’re transferring ownership and aspects of control from your company to a managed service provider. Because of this, managing the relationship with the service provider becomes tantamount to providing the support services themselves.

You should also look at the help desk as a business process (rather than just as a cost center) and treat outsourcing as a business strategy with a strategic partner. Consider the level and quality of services desired, your business goals, and the performance metrics when you monitor progress. Knowing the costs of operating the help desk in-house is a prerequisite to outsourcing this vital function.

Determining help desk costs involves tracking numerous statistics over a long enough period of time to ensure some solid figures. You should have statistics for at least six to 12 months on the number of calls or incidents, their duration, and the average time of resolution. If your automatic call distribution system supports them, the average number of calls in the hold queue and the volume of calls lost in that queue are helpful in defining any SLAs. Most important, the number of resolved incidents compared to reported incidents gives you a baseline by which to monitor the success of a service provider to support your employees or your customers. These numbers will provide a basis to compare the offerings of prospective service providers.

Helping those who help themselves

The MSP route may not be a perfect fit for your company for a variety of reasons-process ownership, costs, etc. If this is the case, then there is another option if you wish to outsource your help desk: self-service via the Web.

Many companies have used this approach by mounting pages on their intranets and extranets with information for employees or customers. Rather than answer 10 calls about the same question, the help desk can place the answer on the Web so that users can help themselves, reducing the number of repetitive answers.

When this concept is expanded to outsourcing via a Web-based ASP, users access their support resources through an Internet Web site. Users can employ knowledge bases, forums, and chat rooms that provide information on their applications to resolve problems. These sites may also provide direct access to help desk personnel via live chat, e-mail, or phone. The services will even go so far as to deliver applications and updates over the Web, interrogate network nodes for inventory information, and use remote diagnostic tools and remote-control applications to help resolve end-user problems.

Web-based ASPs provide valuable services to aid in reducing the costs and complexity of help desk services. Providers such as 911Helpline.com, PatchLink.com Corp., and SafeHarbor Technology Corp. are willing to take on your intranet or Web site and provide IT support over the Web. Let’s take a brief look at the offerings of just two of many such providers:

911Helpline provides customers with access to a network of IT support technicians through ITInfoSource.com. Powered by Raging Knowledge technology, 911Helpline can match customers with expert technicians in interactive online consulting sessions using voice, type, and chat functionality. 911Helpline can also deliver applications and updates to customer company’s desktops using LANovation’s PictureTaker with Eshare Communications’ NetAgent. 911Helpline would need to partner with another provider to supply onsite support, however. SafeHarbor develops, hosts, and maintains a support site that makes available “relative knowledge” through knowledge bases and help pages. SafeHarbor includes an operations center where technical-support staff answer questions using previous incidents or cases, e-mail, chat, and phone. For personalization, SafeHarbor will integrate its self-help pages into a client’s Web site. Because of this, the company’s employees (or customers) may not even be aware that SafeHarbor is the provider. Like 911Helpline, SafeHarbor needs to turn to outside partners to provide onsite support.

Help desk: the next generation

As with all things in this technological age of ours, the only constant is change. The next generation of help desks will incorporate the best offerings from MSPs and Web ASPs. These next-generation help desks will offer a range of granular services that include call centers, self-help portals, and onsite support with variable and flexible pricing structures suitable for businesses of all sizes.

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