CXO

Keep the bottom line in mind when providing support

It is more important than ever to make sure that the IT department is in line with the core business goals. The help desk can play its part by being smart about triage.

It is more important than ever to make sure that the IT department is in line with the core business goals. The help desk can play its part by being smart about triage.

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In this period of economic crisis, I am sensitive about how support pros will make out. The IT budget in most companies is large enough to stand out on the balance sheet, and it can be tempting to try and whittle that number down, especially when profits are suffering. Sadly, it seems that within most companies, IT support capacity is treated like auto insurance: management pays as little as possible for it and hopes it won’t ever have to be used. Executives would rather put money into IT projects that will improve revenue or save money. The question for us then is how do we make sure IT support is relevant?

To ensure that the support team is indispensable, techs need to be mindful of how their work affects their company’s bottom line. Any time a computing problem results in a work stoppage, then productivity suffers. But not all problems are created equal. If it’s a salesperson experiencing an issue, then the very ability of the company to earn revenue is suffering. By making sure that the most costly problems are solved expediently, the help desk won't be mistaken for a cost center. It is actively protecting revenue and generating value.

Does your triage system take into account the “cost to the business” of each individual issue and then allocate resources accordingly? Some consideration about how your company conducts its core business can shine a light on where the help desk’s problem-solving efforts will be the most valuable. If you are providing support that is responsive to the needs of the business, then you are on your way to making sure that your help desk remains a vital asset.

19 comments
boxfiddler
boxfiddler

can be 'individual'. [i]Does your triage system take into account the ?cost to the business? of each individual issue, and then allocate resources accordingly?[/i] A successful business is such because it is able to integrate business needs with customer needs with employee needs with social needs... 'Individual needs' strikes me as errant phrasing. Further, one of the big problems with business today is too much attention to the bottom line as the individual metric for success. This isn't working particularly well, it seems. People are the 'bottom line' in any undertaking, not least of which is business.

reisen55
reisen55

My colleague, who is brilliant, has not a whit of business sense. For a major client, he made a recommendation to purchase a new server (3 months ago) and the server was sent to his home for configuration (2.5 months ago). With Windows OS 2008 which may or may not be compatible with Windows 2003 (he does not know that, I think there will be issues) and he has kept the server all of this time. Why? Procrastination. We have a Raiser's Edge conversion going on for 5 months that he has ignored. Why? See above. He got himself involved with their phone network at a new location and carries the attitude that everyone in the world is wrong and he is right? Bad deal. I would have possibly pursued the server, but with OS 2003 as a guarantee of work and integration. To say that I am experiencing major bumps in our working relationship is an understatement.

jkimball
jkimball

Weak blogpost. Barely asks the question of "do you know what triage is?" and doesn't even bother to offer any insight or tips on how to go about it. The introduction into the current economic crisis is unecessary and the description of computer problems in the second paragraph is reminiscent of what you'd tell your daughter on Take Your Kid To Work Day. Next time, offer some actual insight as one Professional to another.

Joe_R
Joe_R

The environment with which I'm most familiar is a company full of engineers and designers, whose billing rates push (or exceed) $100 per hour. If any of them (or many of them) find themselves dead in the computing water, that's a lot of lost billing dollars. So in a way, it might not be how much we directly save the company that's the most telling, but rather how much we keep the company from losing because of lost productivity. A percentage of [i]up time[/i] speaks volumes as to the job we're doing, and when there is [i]down time[/i] (which can't always be avoided), perhaps it can be after-hours or addressed with contingency plans. I haven't kept exact records, but over the years, my [i]up time[/i] has to be over 99 percent. But that's just one type of environment. Others might be evaluated differently.

williamjones
williamjones

In my post for this week, I try to frame how the help desk can be an economic asset within the company. I'm interested to know how you guys quantify your value to your employers. We're always encouraged to make sure that our accomplishments can be articulated in hard figures. How do you measure the effectiveness of your help desk?

williamjones
williamjones

...so perhaps using the word "individual" merely confused things. I agree that we support people, first and foremost, but there are lots of ways that techs could be deciding what problems to fix first, and some of those may not be well considered. I've seen lots of instances in my work where people think that being a squeaky wheel will get their problems addressed. It can be tempting to cave in under that pressure, even when the problem may not be severe, just to make that troublesome client go away. Some inexperienced techs are also inclined to work through the queue from oldest ticket to newest, without taking a problem's severity into account. Rather than using a subjective method of deciding where to apply their efforts, I propose that techs should consider where their attention can best serve their employer. I don't mean to put profit on a pedestal above the user, but the help desk is accountable to the business mission. That's the mission that all employees have signed on to pursue, right? And profit/loss shows the impact we're having on the business in a quantifiable way. My perspective usually has me considering issues from the perspective of a support tech to internal clients, but things aren't that different for techs who support external customers, are they? I mean, you pay closest attention to your biggest clients, right?

williamjones
williamjones

... being a tech who doesn't have a rudimentary understanding of business concerns? IT pros should understand that they are supporting the company's business goals as much as its employees. Providing holistic customer support means understanding the client's business interests. In my experience, techs who don't get this are a liabilities in just the way you describe, reisen55. Projects run overbudget and over deadline because someone has blinders on and only connects to the technology involved. They don't see the context. So, it sounds like you're feeling that your colleague's lack of business sense is causing problems. Has this cost you clients? Are you considering severing your relationship?

williamjones
williamjones

I appreciate your editorial critique, but maybe you'd like to offer something to the topic under discussion. How do *you* ensure that you're acting in the best interests of your customers?

williamjones
williamjones

Up time is a way to quantify stability, certainly. I guess one of the things I've been struggling with is how to measure effectiveness when problems *do* happen. I've used/heard up time in network management contexts, where defining "functioning" vs. "not functioning" is pretty easy. For professionals who specialize in Support, we have to assume that there will be problems for us to respond to, though. We need to standardize ways of demonstrating effectiveness of support response. How bout some of these: * Reporting average response time for "Critical" work stoppages. * Reporting average "solve" time for critical problems * Measuring improvements over time, i.e. "We have improved our avg. solution time by 7 minutes in the last year, resulting in x dollars of salvaged productivity." The problem with quantifying support is that its value is not as obvious as other IT projects might be. Our work is intended to stem the loss of productivity, but it's difficult to quantify exactly how much money would have been lost if we weren't there.

santeewelding
santeewelding

I had intended to stay out this. But, William, that last thing you said about "your biggest clients" struck me as troublesome at the time. Client, patron, customer -- whatever; I find myself paying generic attention to the big ones, whether in terms of size or purse. "Generic" in my case is of a high order. I would have been out of business long ago were it otherwise. It's the small ones that get my full, personal, all-out attention. They very frequently are monetary losers. But I am all over them. I spoil them rotten. And seldom, I think, do they realize it. That becomes their norm. I have no intention after 33 years of doing any differently according to "big".

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

to treating my few clients right. I try to do the same by my students. I try to do the same by the staff I now support. My bottom line isn't measured in dollars and cents. Which is of course problematic in other 'life areas'.

reisen55
reisen55

And in this marvelous economy am working three jobs at once - my own company, my relationship with this brilliant meathead and third a new gig I just picked up to supplement income. He has cost me income really, wrecked a lawyer's office phone system last year by doing VoIP which he never did before. Almost a lawsuit. The odd thing is always that he thinks he is right and the world is always wrong. Discovered that one of our best accounts is having issues with him regarding my first complaints above. Gee, no surprise? On my view: I have a medical office, 20 computers some of which are 4 to 5 years old but they meet standards, are working fine so I do not have a business case to upgrade. I would like to, but there is no damn reason TO DO IT. And I have told them this for honest evaluation. If it is working, do not fix it as you can fix it worse. If something is needed, evaluate on your client's business parameters of finance and not your own finance. I always work as if I am on client's payroll and not my own.

Mazamack
Mazamack

Uptime isn't as relevant to Help Desk as it's more an Engineering, Availability Management "thing"(granted, all of IT plays a part). On the front-lines the clock starts ticking once you get that call(or ticket, etc.). I think you're on the right track with tracking resolution times, response times, FCR, and all the other classic metrics and KPIs. I'd add two things in particular: 1. Trending is key. In isolation a metric isn't going to mean much to a business exec no matter how good it is. They'll always want to know "Why isn't is lower/higher/better?" You can show them FCR of 90% and they'll ask for 92% by next quarter just because 92 > 90. Comparing to an industry/competitive benchmark of some sort would give context, but being able to compare to yourself is even better(esp in conjunction to industry/competition). For example, show that we've gone from 80% FCR to 85% in two quarters. Then correlate this improvement to all sorts of goodies. Of course, if you're NOT trending for the better then you have another issue on your hands, though this *could* help make a case for increased resources - if that's the root cause. 2. Tie it back to $$$. I know it sounds simplistic but when push comes to shove and the budgets need to be trimmed this is what it's about. And an ambiguous estimate of value might as well have a sign that says "Cut me!" around its neck. So, let's say you're presenting trending metrics for Avg Resolution Time. Let's say it's been improving over past two qtrs. Yay! Now, so what? What's that mean in terms of $$$? Answer that question(it isn't easy or even exactly knowable many times) and you're speaking their language. For example, I consulted with an IT Director that had worked with her Service Desk Manager to quantify the fully-burdened "costs" of all company employees(estimating in some cases). They fed this information into the SD tracking system. Now, they could easily calculate that if Person X was down for Y amount of time it cost them $Z. Then, she made cases for additional resources(staff, tools, training) based on how these resources would positively impact these $$$ figures. Ex: "If I had one more Level 1 team member, I could drop that Avg Resolution time by 10%. Based on FB costs of downtime for incidents we resolved over the past qtr this would have saved us $X". There are a number of caveats to this approach, of course: $$$ isn't really all it's about, then how do we factor in user satisfaction, productivity, quality, etc. The point is, though, tie it back to $$$ somehow. Work with Finance and get their buy-in and support, too. Of course, once you get things in $$$ terms then you're much more visible and decisions are made much more "in black-and-white" -- this can make things tough in many cases. But we don't mind good challenges, right? We know we do necessary and value-adding work, right? So we'll fight the battle ;) Good luck! Zomack Seattle, WA

williamjones
williamjones

i.e., I give the best possible service I can to each client. The qualification I have to that principle is that my best possible might vary client to client. I try let any discrepancy between the services I offer come down to the client's choice, rather than, my subjective (and possibly unfair) preference. For example, I'll offer all my clients after hours service, but it costs more per visit than my regular rates. It's not something that everyone want to take me up on, so not every client gets that service. I let all my clients opt-in to any "special features" that might elevate the service level. I find that I don't have clients that don't merit my best, since clients that abuse my kindly nature aren't my clients for very long. Thanks for the thoughts.

reisen55
reisen55

If I were to provide A level service to all of my clients, then that level becomes the standard level after time. Better to judge each client individually and apply service on a per-job or assignment basis. One major client thought it was funny if he said that he found somebody else to support his network for 2009. Ha Ha. Oh big funny there, and I took it privately rotten and publically with good humor but I have not forgotten it. Whenever I have a private chance to shiv something here, I do but always with good service and support. Do not let the magic happen all of the time. Remember the rule of Star Trek - always multiply your repair estimates by a factor of 4. A plus service should be granted to clients who consistently warrant it or deserve it.\ Otherwise, A or B service as standard.

Mazamack
Mazamack

Every customer deserves a "solid" level of service, no doubt. And "solid" can be defined numerous ways depending on your industry, client expectations, product/service, etc. But that's not to say that all customers deserve -- or, especially, get -- the same level of service. I know...it's sacrilegious to say that. Economics 101 teaches that due to limited resources(time, money, staff, etc.) we have to make trade-offs. There are opportunity costs. And if we're looking to make a long-run profit then decisions have to be made, which includes "targeted" service levels. An intro to Service Level Management(ITIL), for example, will provide more detail on this. Taking into account things like Customer Lifetime Value(CLTV) is key, especially as your client base grows and the technical support(Service Desk, Help Desk, Product Support, etc.) function gets more and more intertwined with Sales and Account Management. So, again, it's about targeted, customized and appropriate service levels. This process does, of course, tie back into $$$$(or at least should) -- though not ONLY $$$$. I'd say that all customers should get AT LEAST B service, which I define as "Average". Some, though, will and should get B+, A-, A, A+ and even A++ service. IMO, to think differently is unrealistic and doesn't address "real business" needs. Keep in mind that measurements are a point-in-time thing. So, at one point in time your service levels may average, say, an A. Now, if all your customers get A-level service(especially if with respect to your competitors) your service levels will, be definition, become B-level(ie Average)...and the bar must be raised yet again to attain greater than Avg service. Nothing wrong with this at all, but it does imply challenges to trying to provide A+ service levels to everybody all the time. Sooner or later you'll fail to meet expectations even though your intentions are to knock their socks off! Good discussion! Thanks! Zo Seattle, WA

williamjones
williamjones

Clearly, this is an issue people feel strongly about, but I feel like I'm being misunderstood a little. Being mindful of economics doesn't have to come at the expense of good customer service. If anyone thought I was advocating reducing every decision to solely considering dollars and cents, then they have misunderstood my intent. But I will stand by the assertion that considering business impact when performing support is a responsible thing to do. I'll throw out a hypothetical example here, santee, and you can chime in if you think you would handle it differently. Let's say I get two service calls at essentially the same time. Assuming I can't service both clients simultaneously, my first visit is going to be to the client who's losing the most productivity. If I can, I'll stop or slow their hemorrhaging, and then re-evaluate the situation. If the first client's bleeding has slowed considerably, it might be time to check in with my other site. That's how I'd handle things, regardless of how long I've had either of these clients, or how much they each have paid me in the past. I've gotten feedback from my clients that they appreciate that I am mindful how problems might affect their earning potential. It makes my triage methodology more transparent, and reassures my customers that I'm not playing favorites in some other way. Isn't this a "fair" way to conduct business? More fair than, say, making decisions based on who I've known longer? You're right to put me on the hook for saying "you pay closest attention to your biggest clients." Big clients don't deserve "better" care than small, and I shouldn't have implied that. But Big clients might require more attention. That might be totally appropriate. They may be paying for a particular service level, for instance. It depends on the particular situation. The problem with writing editorial pieces is that the work we do can be very subjective sometimes. I only hope that I can get people thinking and talking as I share my experiences. I'm glad you decided to share your thoughts, santee. Thanks for chiming in.

williamjones
williamjones

I cringed when I read it. Never tick off a lawyer! I have always tried to remember who's working for who when I have been freelancing. It's tempting to try and "generate" work in lean times, but that's sacrificing long-term credibility for short-term monetary gain. Seems like we're of a similar mindset.

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