In-depth: How to change the business via the IT service desk (Next-generation enterprise IT)

Peter Bartram uncovers the secret of how to use insight gained from your IT service desk to change your business for the better, in the fourth article in our series on next-generation enterprise IT, produced in association with IBM.

Peter Bartram uncovers the secret of how to use insight gained from your IT service desk to change your business for the better, in the fourth article in our series on next-generation enterprise IT, produced in association with IBM. There is also an accompanying podcast providing an overview of how your IT support desk can change your business for the better.

When Chris Dunne, director of customer service at financial transaction service provider VocaLink, looked at some statistics from the IT service desk, he noticed an irritating trend. A lot of the calls concerned laptops.

"When you have a problem on a laptop, it's quite a labour-intensive thing to handle because you have to fix it on that laptop," says Dunne. "If 25 people have the same problem on their laptops, you have to go and fix it 25 times."

But people love their laptops, unless you can offer them something better. And at VocaLink a shift to a central services environment meant people could work from the office or from home without the need to carry a company laptop around with them.

"It's only people who are truly mobile - sitting on trains and planes - who need that laptop," notes Dunne. So the shift in approach has ensured that most of VocaLink's staff have as good an IT service (or better) than when they were hunched in a foetal position over cramped laptop keyboards.

And the moral of the story? It all happened because the IT service desk could see what was happening and had both the wisdom and internal clout to feed back its conclusions to the rest of the business. Result: a change in IT support strategy which saves costs, but matches more closely to what the business needs.

More IT service desks ought to be taking this proactive approach to helping align IT more closely with their companies. But not enough are. It's not that they don't see the opportunity. It's more a question of them being so busy fixing day-to-day problems, they don't get round to the proactive work which could make them heroes to the rest of the business.

Quality improvement mechanism

"We see the service desk very much as a quality improvement mechanism for IT," says Howard Kendall, founder and chairman of the Service Desk Institute (SDI). "That message has pretty much got across to most people. It's just that not everyone has made the investment to make it happen."

One company that has is Danone, the international food business behind brands such as Actimel yoghurt and Evian water. It has installed a new help desk system to cover 17 countries in northern, eastern and central Europe. Help desks across the countries have an aggregate 200 staff serving 6,000 users.

And like Dunne, Aurelian Sin, Danone's IS manager for south-east Europe, has a story about how creative use of the service desk can feed back into helpful changes in the business. "We have sales people taking orders on their PDAs," explains Sin. "But we were having a lot of problems and most of the critical ones were coming outside working hours. As a result, they weren't being resolved as fast as the business would have liked.

"We used the service desk database to analyse the problem and realised that most were coming from a few individuals, rather than the salesforce in general." The solution: more training for the sales people who hadn't yet mastered the intricacies of booking sales on their PDAs.

Positive role

There is plenty of scope for more IT service desks to play a positive role in guiding IT so that it serves the business more effectively. But one problem is that not all service desks are a large operation, such as Danone's, using up-to-date software systems - in its case, the BMC Service Desk Express Suite.

Howard Kendall estimates there are between 8,000 and 12,000 IT service desks in the UK. "If you pinned me down, I'd go for the lower end of that range," he says. But only a fraction of them have 200 or more service desk professionals manning the phones and the keyboards - possibly as few as 20 or 30, according to Kendall. A large proportion would have around seven to 10 people and some even fewer.

When the IT service desk is this small, it becomes more difficult to develop a range of expertise across the technical, management and communications skills which define a best-in-class operation. It may also be more difficult for the IT service desk to get its voice heard in the boardroom.

That's not a problem for Sin, who sits on Danone's board of directors in Romania - although he points out that service improvements based on data gathered from the service desk are normally agreed at departmental level. "IT assesses the feedback from the service desk and, subsequently, makes and agrees proposals with the respective departments across the rest of the business operation."


But the impact which its service desk makes depends not only its presence at the top table, but also on the way it is organised. At VocaLink, Dunne is just seven months into a reorganisation of the IT service desk which is already delivering big benefits.

It's based on the principle of creating one point of contact for internal users and external customers. The people who pick up the phone to customers are the same as those who do it for colleagues with an IT problem. Dunne's rationale for this approach is that people with customer service expertise are the best people to deal with any kind of problem.

"Ultimately, everyone is a customer whether they're external or internal, so it makes sense to concentrate them on one service desk," he says. "If you have people who are dealing, day in, day out, with incidents, they are really adept at doing it. And, to be honest with you, it's cheaper doing it this way."

The VocaLink service desk now consists of about 30 people. They seek to resolve any IT problems at the first point of contact. But, if they're not able to, they refer the thornier problems to a specialist IT team of six or seven "resolvers".

"This means we shield the technically expert resolvers from a lot of the pain," explains Dunne. "They're not picking up on irritating calls from people who've forgotten their password." And, because they're spending all of their time resolving real technical queries, they're becoming more expert at their work.

As a result, there's plenty of time for the service desk resolvers to sit down for thoughtful discussions with the rest of the IT team to explore how themes revealed in service desk calls can be fed back into providing IT services that more closely match business need.

Important implications

Moreover, this approach has important implications for the rest of the business. When anybody in the company calls the service desk, they get treated like any other customer. So they know exactly what it's like to be a customer with a problem.

Dunne is now planning to enhance the links between the service desk and the rest of the business. He had been running an automated e-mail survey after each problem fix, so that VocaLink staff could comment on the quality of the service and the relevance of the advice. But because that's been running for some time, "survey fatigue" has set in and return numbers have dropped.

So now he intends to start "surgeries" where members of staff can drop in to discuss their specific IT problems. "We want to capture the people who have slightly non-standard IT needs," he says. "We operate out of a number of different sites and an increasing number of people are moving between sites."

SDI's Kendall believes the imperative is for IT service desk managers to take a step back from the day-to-day hurly-burly and look at incident resolution in the context of change management. "Take an over-arching view of what is hurting you in terms of IT-based problems that are knocking down your business users' productivity," he advises.

"One of the great attributes of the service desk role is to get a great opportunity to see every other aspect of the organisation." It's a vantage point which the best service desks have already shown can help them to see - and fix - problems which other parts of the business haven't even noticed.

Case study – Irish Life & Permanent

Irish Life & Permanent, the Irish financial services provider with interests in banking, insurance and pensions, is another company which has solved the secret of driving benefit upwards from the IT service desk into the rest of the business. The IT service desk has 14 staff serving 5,000 users and uses Axios' service desk management software.

One of the ways Irish Life & Permanent has found that its IT service desk can drive more value up into the business is by answering the kind of "how do I do that?" question which some staff ponder when they're trying to make their computer screen do their bidding.

Colm O'Shea, IT customer services manager, cites the example of a bank teller processing a customer request. Irish Life & Permanent has banks all over Ireland and there can be quite a big staff turnover. So when a newcomer encounters a problem, he or she would invariably turn to the more experienced teller at the next window to help sort it out. "But that meant you had customers in two queues not being served," points out O'Shea. So now the teller contacts the service desk to get an answer to the problem - and customers get served faster.

Recently, the company installed a new front-end sales system. Staff were trained to use it, but the service desk acted as a kind of back-up training resource, taking calls from staff baffled by aspects of the new system.

"We ramped up the service desk to handle that," says O'Shea. "We analysed the calls and worked with the IT development people and the business to fix the outstanding problems which they revealed."

But not all IT service desks are yet delivering these kinds of value-added services back to the business. "Most still operate on a 'first come, first served' basis, rather than prioritising action according to business need," says Michael Allen, director of service management at Compuware, which provides enterprise software and IT services.

"The underlying problem here is that IT managers do not truly understand the financial cost to the business of poorly performing applications and, consequently, cannot prioritise fixing those problems."

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