IT Service Desk best practices

An important interface for your internal customers is through your IT service desk. Unfortunately, in many situations the service desk (or help desk) does not use up-to-date practices and can be a backwater of capability. This can result in a very poor reputation for IT because the service desk is the primary customer interface with the IT organization. I recall starting at a company tasked with turning around the IT organization. When I asked about the IT help desk, the customer turned to me and said ‘ You mean the IT helpless  desk?’  With a reputation that poor with our customers, I immediately set out to turnaround our service desk and supporting areas.

The IT Service Desk may seem quite straightforward to address — maybe the thought is that all you really need to do is have one number, staff it, be courteous and try hard.  This isn’t the case and there are some clear best practice techniques and approaches that will enable you to deliver consistent, positive interactions with your customers as well as enable greater productivity and lower cost for the broader IT team.

For our discussion, I have two esteemed former colleagues who have run top notch service desks that will be authoring material on best practices and how to deliver an outstanding customer experience through this critical interface. Both Steve Wignall and Bob Barnes have run world class service desks at large financial services companies. And I think you will find the guidance and techniques they provide here today and in subsequent posts to be a surefire manner to transforming your ‘helpless’ desk to a best in class service desk.

First, let’s recap why the service desk is such an important area for IT:

  • the service desk is the starting point for many key processes and services for IT
  • well-constructed, the service desk can handle much of the routine work of IT, enabling engineering and other teams to do higher value work
  • it is your primary interface with the customer, where you can gauge the pulse of your users, and make the biggest daily impact on your reputation
  • with the right data and tools, the service desk identify and correct problem outbreaks early, thereby reducing customer impacts and lowering overall support costs.

And yet, despite its importance to IT, too often Service Desks are chronic under-performers due to the following issues:

  • poor processes or widespread lack of adherence to them
  • the absence, or low quality application, of a scientific and metric based management approach
  • lousy handoffs and poor delivery by the rest of IT
  • inadequate resources and recruiting, worsened by weak staff development and team-building
  • weak sponsorship by senior IT leaders
  • ineffective service desk leadership

Before we get into the detailed posts on service desk best practices, here are a few items to identify where your team is, and a few things to get started on:

1. What is your first call resolution rate? If it is below 70% then there is work to do. If it is above 70% but primarily because of password reset, then put in decent self serve password reset and re-evaluate.

2. What is the experience of your customers? Are you doing a monthly or quarterly survey to track satisfaction with the service? If not, get going and implement. I recommend a 7 point scale and hold yourself to the same customer satisfaction bar your company is driving for with its external customers.

3. What are the primary drivers of calls? Are they systems issues? Are they due to user training or system complexity issues? Workstation problems? Are calls being made to report a surplus of availability or general systems performance issues? If you know clearly (e.g., via Pareto analysis) what is driving your calls, then we have the metrics in place (if not, get the metrics – and process if necessary — in place). Once you have the metrics you can begin to sort out the causes and tackle them in turn. What is your team doing with the metrics? Are they being used to identify the cause of calls to then go about eliminating the call in the first place?

For example, if leading drivers of calls are training and complexity, is your team reworking the system so it is more intuitive or improving the training material? If the drivers are workstation issues, do you know what component and what model and are now figuring out what proactive repair or replacement program will reduce these calls? Remember, each call you eliminate probably saves your company at least $40 (mostly in eliminating the downtime of the caller).

4. Do you and your senior staff meet with the service desk team regularly and review their performance and metrics? Do senior IT leaders sponsor major efforts to eliminate the source of calls? Does the service desk feature in your report to customers?

5. If it is a third party provider, have you visited their site lately? Does your service area have the look and feel and knowledge of your company so they can convey your brand? And hold them to the same high performance bar as you would your own team.

Use these five items for a quick triage of your service desk and our next posts will cover the best practices and techniques to build a world-class service desk. Later this week, Bob and Steve will cover the structure and key elements of a world-class service desk and how to go about transforming your current desk or building a great one from scratch. Steve will also cover the customer charter and its importance to maintaining strong performance and meeting expectations.

I look forward to your thoughts and experiences in this area. And perhaps you have a service desk that could use some help to turn around IT’s and your reputation.

Best, Jim




About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.
This entry was posted in Best Practices, Building High Performance Teams, Service Desk and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to IT Service Desk best practices

  1. Pingback: Service Desk Customer Charter | Recipes for IT

  2. Pingback: Building a Responsive and Effective Service Desk | Recipes for IT

  3. JJ says:

    I just wanted to add the perspective that most internal and external (IT) customer interactions are with the Service Desk as well as Desktop and Phone Units. Improving service in these areas will help to improve the IT shops reputation throughout the company. Of course this is a double edged sword as poor service from these units will have the opposite effect.

    It’s also clear that the systems that callers are calling about need to be solid so the pareto analysis is crucial over the long run, but even a bad system experience can be turned into an opportunity by top notch customer service in many cases.

  4. Paul S says:

    I am struggling with a Service Desk best practice question. Should a NEW ticket be generated for an end user call to check the status of an existing service requests (Status Call)?
    I am arguing with myself because I can see both the pro’s and con’s on this issue, what does best practice say?

    • Jim D says:

      Excellent question. I will check with Steve over the weekend but my read is that you should do the following:
      – for calls, have your IVR menu be able to branch if someone is calling the status of an existing ticket and they have the ticket or service number. The IVR/CTI can then quickly call up the ticket and status for presentation to the agent AND it can generate a new ticket which will be linked to the existing one. If they do not have the ticket or service number, the call will be routed to an agent who can pull it up based on the caller’s name etc. But a new ticket should be generated. Similarly, if someone is calling about a more generalized issue affecting multiple users, a new ticket is generated, and then linked to the original issue.
      – for intranet, enable users to check their on ticket status through ticket number or name, etc. This eliminates the call. For these self-serve status checks, DO NOT create a new ticket but instead just track the number of status checks by type of issue, group etc. Further, your intranet should have production status easily available at real time so that users can check the latest status of their systems if they are having issues. This can help avoid the service desk getting flooded with calls and gets info out to your customers much more quickly and proactively.

      So, in essence, I recommend creating a new ticket and linking it to the original. I will see what Steve says.

      Best, Jim Ditmore

    • Steve Wignall says:


      To add to Jim’s response:

      It’s a very relevant best practice question and as always – ‘best practice’ depends upon the interpretation of general principles into real world delivery within the constraints of what we have to work with. (In this case generally the functionality of the ITSM toolset and telephony systems). Let’s look at it from the most relevant angles.

      The relationship between ‘calls’ and ‘tickets’ is always a difficult one for the Service Desk to manage given that it is a supply and demand business. From a cost angle, every call costs, irrespective of whether it is a new ticket, a repeat call or just a wrong number and so the Service Desk needs to capture all demand to accurately price and resource.

      At a base level, it doesn’t actually matter whether a repeat call is captured as a ‘new call’ or as an activity captured in the ITSM toolset or even an activity code within the telephony system – as long as it is captured in a way that can firstly be interpreted into meaningful analytics to resource the Service Desk and secondly to identify and eliminate / reduce the source of failure demand (i.e. repeat calls).

      From a service performance angle, the richer the information we can capture, the better able we are to achieve both of these objectives. Ideally, utilising an ITSM toolset with granular activity based logging and strong analytical capability (personally – I recommend Service Now) allows all calls to be accurately captured as data points within the original ticket rather than opening new tickets for what is essentially failure demand.This data can then be used to improve service and better address demand.

      Capturing the data and being able to meaningfully use it is the essence of the ‘best practice’.

      Best, Steve Wignall

  5. Steve A-Q says:

    I am confused about the concept of “Best Practice”. What does it mean when you say “Best Practice for implenting a Service Desk”? Are there any set of standards or Principles we term as “Best Practice” ?

    • Jim D says:


      Good question. I define ‘best practice’ as the practices that allow a firm or team to operate consistently at the top 10% of all performers in their field. Normally you find that best practice is the latest practices that optimize a particular IT service or capability and are proven at scale. Hope that helps.

      Best, Jim Ditmore

  6. Robert says:

    My organization has out-sourced the service desk to an overseas provider. I am trying to find a “best practices” type of document on how to best influence your service provider. I continue to find great lists, but only if you own your service desk. Once it is out-sourced, it appears as if the “top 10” lists no longer apply. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

    • Jim D says:

      Dear Robert,

      As I hope you have found, there is plenty of material within the service desk best practices that can be applied to an out-sourced desk as well as one you staff. First and foremost, both your SLAs and supplier’s goals needed to be oriented towards whether each call is solving the problem and delivering customer satisfaction and NOT oriented to technical measures such as average handle time. To do this, you need an excellent service and request toolset (e.g. similar to ServiceNow), knowledge and well-trained staff, focus on the right metrics, and closed loop analysis and action on issues. As for the the right metrics, I would include first call resolution, customer survey satisfaction rates, and call-back rates. Further, you also want to have a reasonable speed of answer percentage and low abandon rates. Importantly, it is critical to understand why calls are occurring. A weekly and monthly Pareto analysis with strong focus on the top 10 or 20 reasons calls are occurring is paramount. Importantly, senior management engagement on the review of the top ten issues or reasons (e.g. password reset) where root cause or resolution (here, enabling a self service option for password reset) is critical to develop a continuous improvement process so that call volumes to the service are reduced over time. Most poorly performing service desks have as a primary contributing factor myriads of engineering issues and poor self service features in the technology environment that cause the calls in the first place. The best call to the service desk is the one that never happens :).

      So in sum, to help ensure good service from your outsourced provider, make sure you have solution metrics in place that are reviewed regularly as well as reviewing and correcting the most frequent reasons for service desk calls.

      Hope that helps, best,


      • Satish Janardhanan says:

        The eternal quest!

        I am looking at the same problem just now but from the opposite end. I have oversight of program level delivery as a vendor making a service desk and a host of other services work from across the continents and yet yeild margin to a fixed price service commitment.

        I whole heartedly agree that resolution, prevention of repeats and the creation of self service options for known uncontrollable repeats is the way to play this.

        Additional value such as review based revision of root causes with evidence of elimination at the periodic governance forums, Declaration of a stability threshold and commitment to move service streams towards stability, an offer to add services [within reason] as older services achieve stability without proportionate additional cost etc could be key drivers of value perception for the client.

        Satish J

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  8. bharathi says:

    Excellent article explained step by step with proper KPIs. Found a similar article by ManageEngine, explained with some real-time scenarios – Service Desk Blog

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