Mind the skill gap

July 2010

Mind the GapIT service desk efficiency is vital for any organisation in order to be able to conduct successful business operations, regardless of the sector they operate in. Steve Connelly, Head of Service Management at Plan-Net, explains how service desk efficiency begins with the support staff.

Many IT service desks are far from cost-efficient and still have much work to do in order to reach their full potential. Inefficiencies and excessive costs might be the consequence of one or many factors, for instance when the various service desk software applications do not fully integrate with one another or there is a lack of clear procedures for change management.

But purchasing the latest tools and technologies might not be enough to overcome issues as a significant part of the problem is often the distribution and skill levels of support staff. The service desk consists principally of people - are they efficient enough?     

A recent Plan-Net survey found that the average service desk is composed of 34 per cent first line analysts and 66 per cent second and third line technicians.

In many cases, an efficient organisation of resource would have the weighting of resources change more towards first line. The demand for desk-side support can often be due to the inability of first liners to deal with a large number of incidents, perhaps because of a lack of appropriate skills, insufficient training or not having the right software to deal with most calls remotely.

Whatever the cause, there are two main problems with this allocation of resources. First of all, second liners have more specific skills and demand higher salaries, so it can become increasingly expensive to employ a large number of them - according to Gartner statistics, a first line fix costs on average between £7 and £25 whereas a second line fix usually costs between £24 and £170. 

However, a high number of incidents may not require the specific skills of second line technicians or even desk side visits to be resolved.

In fact, some simple and repetitive incidents such as password resets do not require support staff to be resolved: in fact this task can be automated by software packages. It must be noted, though, that these still need some improvement in order to become more credible and secure and ultimately gain more trust among organisations and consultants.

Secondly, this allocation of resource can prolong downtime and create disruptions. Desk-side staff take longer to fix incidents as they have to physically go to the end user’s desk instead of making a quick fix remotely over the phone.

It could take a few minutes if they have to go up four floors and much longer if they come from another building or city - in some cases getting to the user’s desk can take a two-hour drive. This all adds up to time users cannot use their computers, access their databases or use important applications, and adds to the time the analyst is not available to take other calls.

Sometimes the issue is not only the time it takes to resolve an incident, but also the number of people involved, which can slow down the service desk massively. A recent survey carried out by Forrester for TeamQuest Corporation found that on average, resolution of an incident affecting service may require between two to five support staff. The Forrester data also shows that resolution can be a lengthy process.

35 per cent of organisations taking part in the research are in fact not able to resolve up to 75 per cent of their application performance incidents within 24 hours. It is easy to see how the cost of resolution mounts up. If there are numerous members of staff involved and their hourly salary is high due to their expertise it can be very expensive, especially when resolving a longstanding major Incident.

The average industry figure indicates that an efficient service desk will be able to resolve 70 per cent of calls remotely at first line level, reducing the need for desk-side visits by second line engineers and making resolutions faster. With second line fixes costing up to six times more than first line fixes, it might seem sensible to find ways of reducing the need for them by investing in training and better management at first line level. This can be obtained with a few moves.

A first important step is to have staff adopt and adapt best practice processes, such as those described in the globally recognised Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework. This should be accompanied by the adoption of an appropriate integrated service management toolset.

With these in place, anything from incidents to changes will be taken care of in the most efficient way possible. It is important, though, that personnel receive extensive training to cover operational understanding of best practice and effective use of the technology at their disposal.

Another crucial up-skilling concerns soft skills. If a call centre engineer is able to communicate effectively and apply the appropriate questioning techniques to gather information, it will allow them to better understand what sort of incident they are dealing with, and this might reduce the number of calls passed onto second line. Furthermore, first liners who can empathise with users, build a rapport and generally deliver good customer service, play an important part in improving efficiency of the service desk and help keep user trust and satisfaction high.

Staff also need to be up-skilled to align with the new requirements brought upon by new technologies. For instance, with virtualisation and cloud computing services, server maintenance and email management are to be dealt with by the service provider, often eliminating the need for third-line analysts. Simple and repetitive incidents such as password resets, instead, can be resolved automatically with the implementation of purposely designed software.

With the simplest and the most complex incidents being taken care of, the service desk is left with anything in between. This means that to achieve efficiency first line analysts will need to have a wide ranging knowledge that will allow them to deal with the vast majority of calls, reducing the need for second line personnel and therefore reducing staffing costs, but also overall IT expenses in the long run.

In fact, organisations in need of some cost-cutting and worried about the cost of transforming their service desk should look at the outcome of this investment: through the efficient management of IT support staff, there will be less financial and business loss connected to downtime, degraded service, data loss and even increased user satisfaction.

Moreover, if IT is made to work with the business and not for it, it is possible to form a strategic partnership that can not only minimise losses, but create new opportunities. There can definitely be a lot to gain from more appropriate resourcing of the service desk, as it will further support the strategic partnership between the business and IT.

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    Andrew Todd wrote on 15th Jul 2010

    The author raises a number of interesting regarding the ideal resource profile for an effective service desk. One of the main challenges that I have seen in the past is the high turnover rate of first-line staff. It is difficult to establish and maintain the soft skills that are mentioned – rapport with users, organisation-specific common knowledge, etc, etc – while there are frequent changes in front-line staff. This makes the definition and deployment of efficient processes even more important, allowing new service desk staff to slot in with as little disruption as possible. A little common sense can go a very long way: there are few things more frustrating than contacting a service desk as a user only to find that you have to provide guidance to the first-line analyst, rather than vice-versa.

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