Tidal wave of complaint

Helpdesks are buckling under an onslaught of user problems, writes Julia Vowler

Helpdesks are buckling under an onslaught of user problems, writes Julia Vowler

End-users are an ungrateful lot, as any IT professional knows. They get given the best quality kit and the latest software but are they happy? No, they're forever on the phone, whinging away to the helpdesk, wanting to know everything from exactly what was the illegal operation they have just performed to why their last e-mail came back undeliverable. Whinge. Moan. Haven't these people got jobs to get on with?

Apparently not. Xephon's latest research into the demands being made on corporate helpdesks shows that end-user calls to their helpdesk have increased by nearly half in the past three years. In 1997 users made about 18 helpdesk calls a year - now they're making 26 a year. That's once a fortnight for every user.

Dumb and dumber?

So are users just getting dumber? Without giving the obvious answer, the problem for IT is that the helpdesk is heading for breakdown. As more and more calls come in, helpdesk teams have swelled. In 1997 each helpdesker could support 183 users - now it's only 129.

Worse, most of the helpdesk staff increases have been in the second line staff (developers), whose salaries are up to 25% higher than first line staff. So when a query is escalated to second line, it costs five times more to fix than if it's cracked at the first line. And from the end-user point of view, it takes longer to fix, so customer satisfaction with the helpdesk drops as the cost to the helpdesk increases.

Can anything be done to corral the helpdesk explosion - in people and costs - before we reach the stage of every user having a personal IT minder of their own?

Some think to outsource the helpdesk is the answer, although according to the survey only a quarter of respondents have done so in any degree (a 1% increase from 1997). They do so to improve the service, fill the skills gap and reduce costs.

"Outsourced user support services seem to be more successful and less expensive than those provided by internal staff," finds the report.

Outsourced helpdesks have higher productivity at the first line, and escalate fewer calls. Customer satisfaction is higher too.

On the downside, demands on the outsourced helpdesk could be fewer because users are constrained by service level agreements, and there is the issue that bespoke applications, rather than universal desktop packages, may need in-house knowledge to help users.

Going online

Another way to reduce costs may be to go for online support, either by e-mail or intranet. The report sees little take-up so far - the telephone is by far the most popular means of communication with the helpdesk (but not when there's call centre interactive voice response technology, which end-users regard as an instrument to distance them). But there will be a drive towards online support anyway, says the report's author, Noel Bruton, because it's up to three times cheaper.

But what is most sobering is that most calls to helpdesks are not because something has gone wrong (usually with the printer) but because the end-user doesn't know how to do something he needs to do. This indicates a gap in training - as well, of course, as a generally universal condemnation by most end-users of the abject non-intuitive unusability of most desktop software. There is a good case for claiming that helpdesks are there to fill the gap caused by bad human interface design by software suppliers.

Supporting End-users - Helpdesk Survey 2000 by Noel Bruton (www.bruton.winuk-net)

Published by Xephon

Tel: 01635-33823

Helpdesks: five things to do today

What can IT managers do, right now, to put their helpdesk in order? helpdesk consultant Noel Bruton urges the following:

  • Do some immediate management information on helpdesk performance. Gather the statistics on what types of questions come in and how long they take to fix. Then you can extrapolate, scientifically, what increase in support you need, and plan for it proactively, not reactively by adding more staff piecemeal.

  • Discover the true price of the helpdesk to the company. Even the simplest calculation of the hourly value of any employee (divide annual turnover by the number of staff and the hours worked) will show that staff downtime costs money.

  • Control the level of the helpdesk workload by ensuring user competence. First, the desktop can be locked down so tightly that end-users can only use exactly the functionality they need for their job - why solve problems they don't need to have? Second, institute "just in time" training, where instead of end-users asking the helpdesk how to do something they get a trainer to teach them, on the job. They're far less likely to forget than if they were sent on a full-day's training course three weeks later.

  • Anticipate the likely impact on the helpdesk of new incoming applications. Involve the helpdesk at implementation phase so they can advise on usability issues from their own experience of end-users, and can advise on how much training they will need. They will also know what to expect when the application goes live and the phone lines start to hum.

  • Accept that users want human beings to help them - the phone is the most popular means of logging helpdesk calls. Users may feel brushed off by call centres and referrals to Web pages.

    Call waiting

    The three most popular calls to the helpdesk are, says Noel Bruton:

  • How do I ....?

  • What's happening with my problem?

  • My printer is broken/I've forgotten my password.

  • Read more on Business applications