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Refuse to under-staff IT departments

Kent Blake offers some tips on how to figure out how many people your support department should have and how to convince management to give you that number

Imagine you manage the desktop support function for your company including the help desk. You have three outstanding technical support people, each with seven years of desktop experience in your company, the interpersonal skills of Jay Leno, and the work ethic of a West Virginia coal miner.  Plus, you have three more people who are rising stars. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Astonishingly, when your end-users are polled, the results show that everyone hates your department and the lousy customer support you offer. You don't blame them. The phone queue is usually backed up. Response time to end-user requests is slow and end-user training is rare. If an employee's computer dies, he is out of the water for way too long, and your software and hardware documentation is horrible.  What's going on here?

The problem is your six technicians are supporting 1,200 people. If they were responsible for 600 employees they would be the dream team.

What is "right-sized"?

Users can be overwhelmed by technology but technologists can also be overwhelmed by users. When deciding how many technicians to employ, the question really is what level of customer support do you want to offer? Are you going to provide a Ritz Carlton experience, a Black Flag Roach Motel experience, or something in between? This decision will determine the number of employees you hire. When setting your service level agreements/headcount, consider:

  • How long should customers wait on hold?
  • How long should they wait for desk-side support?
  • How smooth do you want computer replacements to run?
  • Do you see the value of maintaining current documentation?
  • Catalog those services and a dozen other jobs technical support does in the best companies but often doesn't do well, if at all, in the rest.

Then figure out your headcount.

Managers in overwhelmed departments direct our attention on our technicians on board. Can't they work faster? That's probably the wrong way to look at it.  Previously, I blogged about  the value of experienced technicians. Mix that strategy with a well-staffed department and then...

Find out where the buck stops -- and go get it

A few years ago the technical customer support manager at a small company where I worked resigned. He had been in the position eight years and had been asking the President of the company to buy a ticketing system for about that long.  I told this manager, after I had been promoted into the position, that I would be making the case for a ticketing system. He thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.  He said, "Forget it. Not going to happen."

After I had been there a few months and had a little credibility with the President I told a story in a senior management meeting. I mentioned how we had recently failed some important customers because we had lost track of their service requests. Really, I said, it was to be expected since we had a ton of requests and no tracking software. There was no way to avoid having some customers fall through the cracks.

The President did what he should have done -- and what I hoped he would do -- he got upset. That day I received the approval to research a product. Two weeks later I presented it to about six executives. The $13,000 for the ticket system was approved in two days.  Six weeks later it was customized and in service.

To implement most of the suggestions I have made will require that you make cases to senior management, up to the board in some cases, for more money. Here are some ideas on how to be successful:

You must become a salesperson who anticipates the primary objection and is the first to mention it. If it's funding, for example, you might say, "spending money to retain experienced technicians and maintain a full staff is expensive... but being good, in the long run, is not as costly as being bad."  (Price vs. Cost)

In this economy it's tough to get a substantial budget increase unless, through good stories, you demonstrate how profits will be increased by greater competency, or, if you prefer a current buzzword, greater "efficiency."

Likewise, be ready to de-bunk the concept of the IT department as "cost center." The standard definition is: "A cost center has no control over sales or over the generating of revenue." To say the IT department is a non-revenue-producing element of an organization is deceptive over-simplification. It is more accurate to say that IT departments do not directly produce revenue. There is a world of meaning in the word directly.

Get inside the mind of people who hand out money

CEOs and CIOs are usually hard-wired to think "Cost Benefit Analysis" and that's a good thing. They understand they can spend money to make more money. Be passionately fluent with these types of themes:

  • Inefficient technical support results in peer support.  Explain what peer support is and how it costs the company money.
  • Management sometimes knows the price of new hardware and software but they don't know the cost of old hardware and software. "Susan's four-and-a-half-year-old computer crashed and the hard drive data could not be recovered. We can minimize this in the future if we swap machines out on a three-year or four-year schedule." Explain how dated hardware and software costs the company money.
  • Explain the fury/cost of employee downtime waiting on the sophomore technician who can't fix the problem or answer the question because he has only been there a year or two and hasn't, understandably, put enough of the pieces together to get the employee with a moderately tough problem back to work.  (Executive managers get priority support and they think everyone else is getting the same. Hahahaha.)  Explain how experienced technicians SAVE/MAKE the company money.

Outstanding tech support hinges, in huge part, on talented, experienced, well-staffed departments. That's why turnover matters. What must change before the line of people waiting to get on the help desk is longer than the line of talented, experienced technicians trying to get off the help desk?

First, consider generous compensation, additional vacation days, training in the location and, on the subject of the technician's choice, and/or bonuses tied to performance. Second, place a few servers under help desk control. The Blackberry or Anti-Virus server are two possibilities. Consider putting IT Training under the help desk. Try to break the day up so that no one works more than five hours on the phone each day.

There are dozens of moves to make the help desk more of a career stop rather than a detour. When technicians work in an IT department filled with opportunities, variety, and compensatory rewards then retention and great customer support begins to take care of itself.

Kent Blake, kblake44 on TechRepublic, strives to present an authentic “ground-level view” of the service desk by joining twelve years in technical support with a degree in journalism.

19 comments
msteenbe
msteenbe

Anticipate - calibrate sufficient staffing when things are good... then apply consistently. Use metrics or estimators like "other support" groups in firm like manufacturing maintenance - speak like the KEY Delivery teams

kblake44
kblake44

This blog was originally one blog but it was waaay to long so it was broken in half. The first part is located at: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/tech-manager/?p=2336&tag=content;leftCol Ignore the title of the first blog and the first three paragraphs and you will be off and running. The blog is about the hidden value of experienced techs. Second, based on the comments, it looks like most of us are on the same page. Several mentioned just because WE recognize the validity of adequate staffing and the importance of being a well-financed dept -- convincing sr. management can be another story. I'd be happy to work with anyone on-site to "survey" their currently staffing/services and sell management on upgrading departments. Justifying greater IT investment in tech support and showing how it pays for itself is something I do well and a third party takes the pressure off you. Email me at kent.stillwaterhr@comcast.net. My rate can be positively affected by the proximity of area golf courses/ski areas. I am (half) joking. If there is a mutual interest I will detail my credentials.

DeirdreMooney
DeirdreMooney

Sounds eminently sensible to me! well done -- I partiularily liked the story of how to get the helpdesk Ticket system! Deirdre Mooney www.efficient.ie

d.miliano
d.miliano

I worked for a large travel company with employees who were great at selling travel but were technically challenged when it came to computers. My director hired me to built a team that would meet their needs. In a few months, my team was successfully delivering 90% first contact resolution, 95% customer satisfaction and praise (along with a bonus) from the president of the company. Then, the company was sold and the new owners cut IT staff to the bone. I watched the quality of my team's service delivery drop so I went to the CIO with facts, figures and metrics spanning many months. I even supplied direct unhappy customer feedback. The result? My boss and I were sent packing. The old joke, how many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb came to mind. The answer is, only one, but the bulb has to want to change.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

We cannot show what we save the company or the money we "make" by doing our jobs. The best we can do is show the TCO of the departments we are serving. It would be best if IT moved to a service model that focused on the services each department consumed and have a cost associated with that service. Each department that costs that much for the company to run. This give IT a positive spin and can give a quick guide to management how much it actually costs to run their business without proper IT staffing.

dallas_dc
dallas_dc

You are correct in your recommendation. However, sometimes, no matter who you go to, and how you present it, upper mgmt might be unwilling or unable to meet your needs. (Some businesses are struggling to survive, as you are all aware.) In some situations, no matter how you state your case, you can hurt your career just by being the one willing to speak up. I have personal experience here. That being said, a backup approach is to set expectations for the level of service you can provide, given the resources you have. If you cannot have the resources to "right-size" your group, what will be the resulting level of support? Let mgmt know that your SLA for time to resolution will be X (hours or days). Let them know that you will no longer be able to provide 24 hour support because you need all of your people working between 8 am and 6 pm. You get the idea. If they say they want "right-size" level of support with "wrong-size" resources, grit your teeth, and tell them you will do your best. Then do your best, while looking for a job in your spare time.

drmicrocw
drmicrocw

This article hits the nail on the head. As a victim of 4 Budget related layoff/terminations in 6 years, I wish I could've show it to some of my corporate management. I've tried to explain to management for years that IT is not a cost but lack of IT will definately cost. I watched my departments get whittled away as management cuts the "fat" and doesn't have a clue as to why the response is down and the employees scream because they can't get support. IT must not be doing their job.. In my last position, I was an outsourced hardware manager over a large server farm(350+ servers supporting a retail enviroment),24X7x365. The corporate management decided that a single person could do it to save cost. I was told that there were resoures available if I needed some time off. The first time I asked for some time I was terminated for not being a team player. Now the client no longer has onsite support. The closest tech is 2 hrs away which while it is within the SLA window defeats the purpose of an onsite manager. They did not hire anyone to replace me(IT cost savings). The whole point of being onsite was so they had someone on site and available 24x7x365. I had asked for time to go to CompTIA for a week as SME for Server + certification Development. Go figure. As long as management sees IT is a "COST", we continue to see bad IT decisions.

awestbro
awestbro

So what is the "correct" user to helpdesk technician ratio?

ASBzone
ASBzone

This article was dead on... Viewing IT as a cost center, or arbitrarily removing costs from the IT budget will result in a business that is less capable, less flexible and less effective at doing the things it needs to generate money and maintain clients. -ASB: http://xeesm.com/AndrewBaker

JamesRL
JamesRL

The CIO likely was handed a budget and told to make it happen. If he was smart, he already knew there would be an impact on service levels and customer sat. He may not like it, but he didn't have a choice. You reminded him of that impact. Unless you ended with low cost/free ways of improving some of those numbers, he didn't see you as part of the solution. And maybe there wasn't a solution other than grin and bear it. Maybe getting the package wasn't the worst thing in the world, sometimes being around to try and clean up the mess is more stressful than job hunting. My desktop support team was ultimately outsourced to a third party. Most of my colleagues were given more responsible jobs. But I ended up with the task of trying to clean up the mess, and make the customers happier. It was actually an interesting challenge because the third party co-operated with me, but it could have been more painful. James James

FatNGristle
FatNGristle

I think a short list of cost based problems to rate tickets would help. This way you could present to the business manager a count of how many tickets were resolved that would have 'stopped communications with the client' or 'lost data' or 'incapacitated the user' etc.

arthur
arthur

In my exeprience, for a business/for-profit organsation: 1 tech per 50-80 users. In a non-profit organisation it could be double that. This takes into account the time off for illness, holidays, courses, visiting conferences etc. Most organisations try to do more with less, and end up with dissatisfied users, frustrated CIO's. But in reality it is their own fault. My last employer was convinced that 2 network techs, 2 server techs, and 5 PC support techs plus 3 telephone support people would be ample to cover the needs of 6500 users, in 20 different locations. Having to deal with the 24/7/365 character of the organisation (a large National Health Service in England) I gave up after almost 7 years of fighting for more staff. Now the department I worked for is staffed by outsiders that have no intention of keeping everything up to date, as they are not in it for the long haul. Still, the IT manager maintains his conviction that all is well. Since I left some 5 key staff have chosen with their feet as well. Sickness leave is averaging 15%, enough said.

dallas_dc
dallas_dc

You cannot establish a ratio, or even a ballpark number without a lot of details. What is your infrastructure like? How old are your desktops and laptops? Are they configured in a standard manner? Do you have a system for application distribution? Do you have one or two key applications or 2 dozen? Do you have a number of custom apps or is everything standard off the shelf software? Are you responsible for service desk only, or do you also include desktop support (go to the customer to fix the problem)? Do you have multiple locations or one? Do you have a lot of mobile users or none? I kinda got carried away, but I did not cover all of the variables. The short answer is, "it depends".

tech10171968
tech10171968

I don't think there is anyone here who would dispute your assertion. The problem, as I discovered the hard way a few years ago, is that the beancounters and CxO's see IT as a cost center only; in other words, we only cost a business money, rather than generating revenue. The trick is in getting the PHB's to see, as you say, how the IT department actually *saves* them money by enabling the company to do what it does.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

IT needs to get a little creative to prove we do a ton of footwork in the org.

JamesRL
JamesRL

It all depends. On the company, the environment, the amount of training users have, the technical needs, the network, so many factors. If every PC is identical, and only one standard suite of software is allowed, and every user gets good training on the suite, and software is distributed electronicly then the numbers can be lower. James

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

They only see costs and never believe that increasing Staff will actually produce more income. Been there done that and in every case the company involved is no more or as good as no more. ;) Col

kblake44
kblake44

The company I am with does a pretty good job of proprietary software development. I was speaking recently with an employee who left here and complained the new company did not put the software tools on his desktop like we do and it is costing him good money. Which means it is costing the company money since he's a salesman. That's funny, maybe IT does make a company money...duh. And the same goes for tech support who keep people up and running...funny how people feel like going home with their computer is down. It's because you can't work without one.

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