Help desk outsourcing serves company's needs

An investment counseling firm solved its problem of poor technical support by outsourcing its help desk. Find out the key elements of the project's success.

It's difficult for corporations and companies to acknowledge that their expertise might not extend to a particular area. At Stein Roe Investment Counsel (SRIC), a major independent investment counseling firm, management sat down and took a long, hard look at the company's core strengths—and weaknesses. In 2001, after splitting from a larger entity, SRIC continued to rely on its former parent company for help desk services. The solution, however, was only temporary, and the management team had to quickly determine the best course of action for the company's future.

"We could have internalized the help desk function, or we could have gone with a partially outsourced solution," said Ken Kozanda, SRIC's chief operating officer and senior vice president. "Ultimately, we decided that we wanted real experts—a provider who could offer a depth of resources we couldn't possibly maintain on our own." After researching and evaluating several possibilities, the company chose to completely outsource its help desk needs to SEI Information Technology.

Part of the decision stems from SRIC's size; the company employs about 160 employees in four cities. To bring an adequate IT department, with high-end consultants, specialists, and enough staff to cover vacations, illness, and ordinary computer crises, the company would have had to nearly double in size.

"We did try briefly to handle our own IT needs, but we realized very quickly that we didn't have the strength to maintain an acceptable level of service. It would have been prohibitively expensive to bring in enough IT people to do what we needed. SEI understands that we rely on them not only for our day-to-day service needs, but also for our strategic technology vision," said Kozanda.

Six months before SRIC and SEI forged a relationship, SRIC's employees' biggest complaint was poor technical support. The company didn't even have systems in place to gauge network availability and the number of support calls handled daily, let alone how quickly issues were resolved.

"We estimate that we had 400 help desk calls a month. SEI's first priority, starting in June 2002, was to stabilize our network. When the network was running at 99 percent uptime, we saw a dramatic reduction in support calls, down to 300 and then to 200 calls monthly. Technical support gets an 85 percent approval rating from our employees now," said Kozanda.

Not knowing just how bad the situation is at the outset is a common problem in the companies SEI partners with, said Chris Ciccolini, SRIC's account manager at SEI. "We often have customers who intuitively know something is wrong but can't identify a specific problem. One of our first steps is to create a proposal that shows clients what their needs are, where their problems are.” SEI uses highly structured support assessments to identify gaps in the IT process. Solutions are proposed and phased in over a set period of time.

To ensure a smooth transition, SEI sent in a team to shadow SRIC's IS employees for four weeks. At the same time, Kozanda and SRIC's IT head traveled to SEI's headquarters in Fargo, ND, to view the call center they would be connected to.

"It's a little bit of a leap of faith," said Kozanda. "There was definitely some trepidation going in, but once I saw their operation and met the team that would handle our calls, I felt more confident. And the transition went so well, I was actually quite pleasantly surprised."

SEI maintains a physical presence at SRIC's Chicago offices. Ciccolini said this is standard practice and cites it as one of SEI's key success factors. "In order to truly be engaged with our clients, to really partner with them, we need to have our teams integrate into the client site. That way, we're available and able to understand the business and technical environment at a deep level."

Instant communication with onsite representatives certainly speeds response time, said Kozanda. And as call rates drop and SEI's team has more time to spend on other IT issues, SRIC hopes to gradually shift support of some of its proprietary applications, as well—something SEI is fully capable of.

One of the key elements for a successful outsourced relationship, said Ciccolini, is for an open exchange of knowledge. "Documentation is critical. Clients have to be willing to transfer technology, down to its deepest levels. Supporting custom applications is one of our core strengths. For SEI, or any outsourced solution, to be able to provide high-level support, we need to internalize the knowledge base."

Ciccolini stressed that when companies have clearly outlined their goals—reduced IT costs, higher levels of service, etc.—it's much easier for a service provider like SEI to step in and create a plan for realizing those goals. The relationship works best, he said, when both companies understand that an outsourced relationship is really an intimate partnership.

"We prefer to work with clients who don't think they're simply handing over a function to us. We work most effectively when there's a level of trust and openness that allows us to maximize the relationship and work as a partner."

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