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The True Cost of Desktop Support

Does anyone really know?

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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.

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