The True Cost of Desktop Support
Does anyone really know?
Workshop Desktop support is something every organisation does using a variety of tools, people and processes, using both trained and qualified staff through to the unsanctioned, and often badly informed “I know someone who can help” approach.
In many organisations, it is noticeable how many end users base their entire perception of IT service delivery around their interactions with the help desk and IT support staff with whom they interact. As a consequence desktop support is possibly the most high profile activity undertaken by the entire IT department, yet few organisations have a detailed idea of the economics in this area.
There are many reasons why this should be the case. As in nearly every aspect of IT service delivery, it is by no means a simple task to accurately measure the full cost of the desktop support service.
First there are the obvious, and relatively simple to track, costs centred on the salaries of help desk front line personnel and the cost of the tools they utilise. These might include some form of service desk software perhaps coupled with asset management systems to ensure that the help desk does not need to ask the end user irritating questions such as “what version of windows are you running” and "what mix of applications do you have installed”. Such systems help to illustrate just what configuration the user has in front of them compared with what IT thought they should have, along with details regarding the hardware they have running now.
In organisations that make more sophisticated use of tools, the software employed by the help desk workers may also stretch to some form of remote monitoring / remote control solution to help actively remediate distant machines without people having to go physically to the user. Such tools are extremely cost effective, especially in organisations where users may be spread over many sites or move outside the organisation’s own buildings as part of their work.
But then things start to get less transparent. Should the PC support costs reflect the use of any elements in the broader systems management infrastructure? These might include the backup and recovery solution stack, data replication systems, or end–to-end systems monitoring tools. There is also the question of the extent to which security software charges should be allocated to the help desk. Additionally, should the cost of automatic software distribution and updating software be borne by the help desk budget, or accounted for elsewhere? And what about the staff and general infrastructure costs of those in the larger IT pool that may be called upon to help the service desk, when second or third line expertise is required for troubleshooting and remedial activity?
This last point is particularly important. Over much of the last few years, there has been a marked trend to utilise less skilled and experienced staff on the support desk. This certainly has resulted in lowering the direct help desk staffing costs, but de-skilling on the front line can lead to second and third level IT specialists being called upon more frequently to help resolve support problems than used to be the case. As no one wants to own the problem of accounting for non-direct resources consumed, the risk is that you then have even less visibility of the true cost of support.
Another factor well worth considering when looking at the cost of supporting desktops is wrapped up in the question of how quickly users are helped to get back to productive work. Clearly the quicker this takes place, the more productive they should be in helping the business generate value from its operations. Thus, any initiatives that might lower help desk support effectiveness may prove to be costly to the business as a whole, even if the apparent expense of the support desk itself is reduced.
It is also worth bearing in mind that, as end user perception of IT is often heavily influenced by satisfaction with the desktop help desk, anything that lowers the quality of service risks negatively impacting overall contentment with IT as a whole. And when IT is not valued highly by end users and their line management, it can result in the business seeking new avenues by which desktop services might be provisioned and supported. Keeping user satisfaction high with desktop support services therefore benefits IT perhaps more than anything else it could do; it’s not just about the business keeping users up and running.
A final element that is often overlooked is the additional costs encountered remediating problems that have been aggravated by the intervention of “helpers”, i.e. enthusiastic users who think they know the answer to a problem but instead make it much worse.
With all this in mind, some of the keys to driving improvements are to be found in automation tools, effective asset management and help desk tools - elements to which many help desk staff have told us they do not have access. In addition, the remote control tools mentioned earlier, along with automatic software distribution solutions, can also reduce costs and boost service levels. New solutions to improve desktop availability that directly exploit new resources available in modern desktops may also come into their own in the near future, including various desktop and application virtualisation solutions.
With IT services now under intense scrutiny it is likely that the pressures on the help desk to demonstrate the effectiveness of its operations will intensify, with an increased demand for accurate reporting of the ongoing cost. We are interested to hear how you measure the service quality delivered by your help desk, and to what level of granularity you report on the associated costs.
While I agree with a proper system management solution being a necessity (automated network auditing basically), knowing that X user has WinXP with the standard corporate stack installed, and is up-to-date with patches, does not help L1 very much if they're the "less-skilled, cheap" support staff. At that point, L1 becomes merely script-readers and glorified reception/routing staff for the L2s. It is this lack of skill that we all bemoan when we get one of these "did you try rebooting it" people when requesting RMAs and the like.
As for budget accounting charged to the help desk budget: does it serve the helpdesk? An IDS/IPS or firewall isn't a helpdesk cost. Antivirus/malware? Sure. Remote control? Definately. Patch management system? No. Why? That would be desktop management people's responsibility, unless you task your L1s with ensuring desktops are patched up. I don't. Servers? Nope. The ticketing software and system auditing software runs in a VM and has little-attributed cost (besides licensing).
I can think of another cost not normally accounted for...
What about the psych treatment costs for frontline support people, engendered by having to deal with users all day, every day? Those eventually end up in the company's insurance premiums, don't they? (I wish...)
I'm inclined to suggest help desk staff be rotated, with off-rotation staff assigned to something else. You'll end up with more technically-competent people on the desk more often, because they'll have a chance to learn more about company systems than how to tell a user they've done something stupid without offending them. In turn, fast call resolution will improve. And they'll be less likely to be going through the motions while thinking "I want to dismember you one limb at a time with piano wire," which is likely to be good both for morale on the helldesk and the impression the rest of the company gets when calling in.
I'm tempted to suggest other subdepartments of IT rotate through helpdesk as well, to get a better idea of what's really going on in the field. (avert the SNAFU principle) These people would be the ones in a position to address common global problems instead of having to play whack a mole. But I consider not having to deal with users on a daily basis to be a significant perk of standing slightly higher in the hierarchy, so I think I'll stop short of that.
Paris because she's less irritating than users.
Systems mgmt = win
Whatever the formulaic approach for calculating Helpdesk 'cost', our school district has found to be true, as the author of this article touches on, one of the main factors in taking out much of the guesswork and man hours of going back and forth between end user and IT staff is finding the right systems management tool. There are many options out there, and we decided to deploy KACE since it can be run in a VM, but the luxury of already knowing what every asset on the network, not just limited to desktops, has us flowing through L1's nothing short of an order of magnitude more quickly.
I thought we called them "Service Desk" now ;)
Ahhhh ITIL, when will you ever deliver any value other than new words and ways of rearranging existing functions into new buckets?
Oh, so it's not my area but the Help Desk metrics that I've seen:
- Time to answer (x% within y-seconds or minutes)
- % resolution at L1
Quality metrics around routing tickets correctly seem to be a popular ask from clients. As someone who owns L3 teams, if i could I'd have a rework metric to slap them upside the head for getting tickets with the dreaded "Default Contact" or not having followed their scripts and/or documented the results (i.e. "mail not working"... WTF does that mean?).
Funny part is that one of my (very large) clients has different outsourcers doing L1, L1.5 (remote desktop management) and L2 (onsite). I have no idea how they account for that, but I'm pretty sure everything other than projects gets dumped into IT
Cutting (or at least loosening) the Gordian knot
Virtaully every organisation I've worked for has at one point or another embarked upon the same excerise and when you really start trying to calculate that it can become impossibly difficult. It 's everso easy to keep unravelling the minuatae of every process, work instruction and interaction, for instance; how to you calculate and cross-charge the cost of an engineer's time wasted by a user-inflicted IT issue (such as installing unauthorised software) or by a user who's lied or withheld a crucial nugget of information required to diagnose the fault (c'mon, we've ALL done it!).
I did work for an emplyer who must've eventually worked it out as all of a sudden desktop computer equipment was charged to the budget of the department requesting it (inc. cost of replacements and third-party engineer visits), the same for software too. Departmental projects that required the services of tech support would have to budget for the cost of the bodies they'd need.
However even with a rough idea of the cost and some measures of mitigation so much in a more general sense comes out of the IT budget than really should. Our cost centre used to bear the brunt of the cost of servicing and maintaining infrastructure equipment bought using capex. The reason the equipment had been capexed was that it comprised the core systems everyone used so it shouldn't come from one budget!
While many of the examples I've used admittedly involve shifting wooden dollars around sometime the best method of prepresenting 'The True Cost of IT' s to position the department almost as if it's a contractor, calculating and billing each department for the services and equipment they use. Whatever your approach, first agree a upon a level of detail you won't exceed, one that's managable for you and your business