Service Desk: Structure and Primary Elements

The service desk is the critical interface point where you interact daily with your customers. To deliver outstanding IT capabilities and service, you need to ensure your service desk performs at a high level. From ITIL and other industry resources you can obtain the outlines of a properly structured service desk, but their perspective places the service desk as an actor in production processes and does not necessarily yield insight into best practices and techniques to make a world class service desk. It is worthwhile though to ensure you start with ITIL as a base of knowledge on service management and here we will provide best practices on this reference page to enable you to reach greater performance.

Foremost, of course is that you understand what are the needs of the business and the levels of service required. We start with the assumption that you have outlined your business requirements, and you understand the primary services and levels of performance you must achieve. With this in hand, there are 7 areas of best practice that we think are required to achieve 1st quartile or world-class performance.

Team and Location: First and foremost is the team and location. As the primary determinant to delivering outstanding service is the quality of the personnel and adequate staffing of the center, how you recruit, staff and develop your team is critical. Further, if you locate the service desk where it is difficult to attract and retain the right caliber of staff, you will struggle to be successful. The service desk must be a consolidated entity, you cannot run a successful service desk where there are multiple small units scattered around your corporate footprint. You will be unable to invest in the needed call center technology and provide the career path to attract the right staff if it is highly dispersed. Nor should you consolidate down to one location. It is appropriate and typically optimal for large organizations to have two or three service desks in different time zones to optimize coverage (time of day) and languages.

Locate your service desk where there are strong engineering universities nearby that will provide an influx of entry level staff eager to learn and develop. Given staff cost will be the primary cost factor in your service, ensure you locate in lower cost areas that have good language skills, access to the engineering universities, and appropriate time zones. For example, if you are in Europe, you should look to have one or two consolidated sites located just outside 2nd tier cities with strong universities. For example, do not locate in Paris or London, instead base your service desk either in or just outside Manchester or Budapest or Vilnius. This will enable you to tap into a lower cost yet high quality labor market that also is likely to provide more part-time workers that will help you solve peak call periods. You can use a similar approach in the US or Asia.

Knowledge Management and Training: Once you have your location and a good staff, you need to ensure you equip the team with the tools and the knowledge to resolve issues. The key to a good service desk is to actually solve problems or provide services instead of just logging them. It is far less costly to have a service desk member be able to reset a password, correct a software configuration issue, or enable a software license than for them to log the user name and issue or request and then pass it to a second level engineering group. And it is far more satisfying for your user. So invest in excellent tools and training including:

  • Start with an easy and powerful service request system that is tied into your knowledge management system.
  • Invest in and leverage a knowledge management system that will enable your service desk staff to quickly parse potential solution paths and apply to the issue at hand.
  • Ensure that all new applications or major changes that go into production are accompanied by appropriate user and service desk documentation and training.
  • Have a training plan for your staff. Every service desk no matter how large or small should have a plan that trains agents to solve problems, use the tools and understand the business better.  We recommend a plan that enables 8 hours of training per agent per month. This continuous training keeps your organization more knowledgeable on how to solve problems and understand how incidents impact the businesses they are supporting.
  • Support external engineering training. We also recommend fully supporting external training and certification. When your service desk staff get that additional education or certification such as Windows or network certifications, your company now has a more capable service desk employee who could potentially (eventually) move into the junior engineering ranks. This migration can be both a benefit to your engineering team, and enable you to attract more qualified service desk staff because of the existence of such an upward career route.
  • Foster a positive customer service attitude and skills. Ensure your service desk team is fully trained in how to work with customers, who may arrive on the phone already frustrated. These important customer interface skills are powerful tools for them to deliver a positive experience. Give them the right attitude and vision (not just how to serve, but being a customer advocate with the rest of IT) as they are your daily connection with the customer.
  • Communicate your service desk vision and goals. This regular communication ties everything together and prevents the team from wandering in many directions.  Proper communication between operations, knowledge management, training, process and procedures ensures you focus on the right areas at the right time and it also ensures the team is always moving in the same direction, striving for the same goal of high performance at very competitive price points.

Modern infrastructure and production tools:  The service desk is not a standalone entity. It must have a clean mesh with the production, change, asset, and delivery processes and functions within IT. It is best to have a single production system serving production, change and incident leveraging a single configuration database. The service desk request toolset should also be tightly integrated with this system (and there are some newer but very strong toolsets that deliver all aspects) so that all information is both available at each interaction and the quality of the data can be maintained without multiple entries. As the service desk is really the interface between the customer and these IT processes, the cleaner and more direct the service desk mesh the better the customer experience and the engineering result. You can also use the service desk interaction with the customer to continually improve the quality of the data at hand. For example, when a customer calls in to order new software or reset a password, you can verify and update a few pieces of data such as the location of their PC or their mobile device information, etc. This enables better asset management and provides for improved future service. In addition to a well-integrated set of software tools and production processes, you should invest in a modern call center telephony capability with easy-to-use telephony menus. You should also have  internet and chat channels as well as traditional telephony to exploit automated self-service interfaces as much as possible. This is the experience that your users understand and leverage in their consumer interfaces and what they expect from you. You should measure your interfaces against a bar of ordering something from Amazon.

Establish and publish SLAs and a service catalogue: As part of the equation of providing an excellent service desk experience, you need to set the users expectations and provide an effective way to order IT services. It is important to define your services and publish SLAs for them (e.g., a new PC will be delivered in two days, or, we answer 95% of all service desk calls within 45 seconds). When you define the services, ensure that you focus on holistic services or experiences rather than component pieces. For example, ordering a new PC for a new employee should be a clear service that includes everything you would expect to get started (ids, passwords, software, setup and configuration, remote access capability, etc) not a situation where the PC got there in two days but it took the user another two months to get everything else they need subsequently discovered, ordered, and implemented. Think instead of target user result or experience. An analogy would be the McDonald’s value meal: as a consumer you do not order each individual french fry and pickle, you order a No. 3 and drink, fries, meal, etc come together in a value pack. Make sure your service catalogue has ‘value packs’ and not individual fries.

Mature leverage of metrics and feedback loops: with the elements above you will have a strong base of a service desk. To move it to outstanding performance, you must leverage the track of continuous improvement. Use the metrics gathered by your service desk processes to track where key data that is actionable:

  • Chronic issues – use Pareto analysis to determine what the biggest issues are and then leverage root cause to identify how to eliminate the issues from occurring. The solutions will range from better user training to eliminating complex system faults within your applications. But these remedies will eliminate the call (and cost) and remove ongoing problems that are sand in the gears of IT’s relationship with its customers
  • Self-Service opportunities – again, Pareto analysis will show you what volume requests you receive that if you heavily automate and move to self service, you can take significant work out of your IT shop and provide the customer with an interface they expect. This is not just password resets, it could be software downloads or the ability to access particular denied pages on the internet. Set up a lightweight workflow capability with proper management approvals to enable your users to self serve.
  • Poor Service – use customer satisfaction surveys and traditional call center metrics to ensure your staff are delivering to a high level, Use the data to identify service problem areas and address accordingly.
  • Emerging trends – Your applications, your users, and your companies needs are dynamic. Use the incident and service request data to understand what is emerging as an issue or need. For example, increasing performance complaint calls on an application that has been stable could indicate a trend of increasing business usage of a system that is on the edge of performance failure. Or increasing demand for a particular software package may indicate a need to do a standardized rollout of a tool that is used more widely than before.

Predictable IT delivery and positive cross engagement: The final element to ensuring an outstanding service desk and customer experience lies with the rest of the IT team. While the service desk can accomplish a great deal, it cannot deliver if the rest of IT does not provide solid, predictable service delivery. While that is quite obvious, you should use the service desk metrics of how well your IT team is delivering against requests to judge not just the service desk but also to identify engineering team delivery issues. Did you miss the desktop PC delivery because the service desk did not take down the right information or because the desktop implementation team missed its SLA? Further, the engineering component teams should be meeting with the service desk team (at least quarterly) to ascertain what defects they are introducing, what volume issues are arising from their areas, and how they can be resolved.  On a final note, you may find (as is often the case) that the longest delay to service delivery (e.g. that desktop PC) is obtaining either the user’s business management approval or finance approval. With data from the metrics, you should be able to justify and invest in a lightweight workflow system that obtains these approvals automatically (typical via email/intranet combination) and reduces the unproductive effort of chasing approvals by your team.

So quite a few elements of a successful service desk. Perhaps one way to summarize these elements is to view it as a sturdy three-legged stool. The seat is the service desk team.  Knowledge management and training are one leg.Processes and metrics and the telephony infrastructure and tools are the other two legs. The legs are made sturdier with effective communications and a supporting IT team.

Please read our other pages that provide additional knowledge and technique for service desk. Also, make sure you review the material on the key ingredient: service desk leadership.

Best, Jim, Bob, and Steve.

One Response to Service Desk: Structure and Primary Elements

  1. Pingback: Turning Around a 'Helpless' Desk | Recipes for IT

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