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Best Practices that help your Service Desk win
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Your IT service desk is the heart of the support operations of your company. It is the frontline for engaging with end-users, the face of your IT organization and a critical service to keep your users and business processes running smoothly. IT support and the processes the Service desk manages also likely represent some of your largest staffing investments. Ensuring your service desk processes, tools and employees are operating at peak efficiency is essential for both cost management and ensuring service quality.
The good news for IT leaders and service desk management is that you aren’t the only company with an IT service desk and the challenges, needs and opportunities you face are not unique. For most companies, IT service desks can leverage standardized job roles, process best practices, and outside-the-box tool capabilities – eliminating the need to determine these needs yourself. Utilizing IT service desk best practices within your organization can not only lead to better cost performance but also enable you to provide better quality service to your user community.
The key driver behind most IT service desk best practices is scalability. Service desks are typically large-scale operations (with many support agents). With this scale comes an increased need for efficiency. A few extra clicks, an inefficient process step or a lack of supporting information that slows ticket resolution by 10–20% may not seem like big deals individually (a few minutes on a ticket). When you multiply inefficiencies by the number of agents or number of tickets your IT service desk manages during a typical day, even small impacts are magnified and become costly to your company.
Leveraging IT service desk best practices can help your company establish a baseline level of productivity as other companies have achieved. That’s good because it means your costs will be comparable too. IT service desk best practices also enable you to refine, tune and optimize your operations – addressing process bottlenecks, improving the quality of service and leveraging new technology to improve support performance. While you could identify improvement opportunities yourself and develop your own solutions, that takes time and limits you to only the ideas you are able to develop internally. IT service desk best practices give you access to the collective learnings from the entire IT industry.
Your company invests in providing an IT service desk because the productivity of end-users and business functions is important. Disruptions to normal business activity are costly to the company and the service desk’s primary job is to return users to work quickly to minimize the impact of these disruptions. It is understood that most technical issues take some time to resolve, which is okay. The time that users spend on-hold or waiting in a queue to engage support isn’t adding any value, it just creates waste. IT service desk best practices suggest what you can do to minimize the amount of time your users spend waiting for support – reducing unnecessary waste and helping your users resume their day-jobs quicker.
Your users’ time is valuable. Every minute they spend waiting for IT support is a minute they are not spending on their normal job tasks. The opportunity costs of disrupted business activities that technology issues cause are often much more than the resource costs of your service desk staff. Consider the impact on the revenue a salesperson is not generating or the products your manufacturing staff aren’t producing. Your service desk agents must understand how critical it is to keep your business processes running smoothly and enabling your employees to remain productive.
IT service desks are costly operations and, in most organizations, are considered overhead costs. IT leaders are constantly applying pressure to service desk management to reduce costs. While keeping costs reasonable and appropriate is important, it is essential that costs be considered in the context of TCO to the company, not just the direct costs of the service desk. A good example of this is the push towards self-service capabilities. In most cases (not all), your end users are higher-paid resources than your service desk staff. A common service desk activity is installing new computing equipment. Many companies are transitioning to self-service provisioning and installation as a means of cutting service-desk costs. What they are failing to realize is that not only are they shifting the activities to higher paid resources, but also they are incurring the opportunity costs of the end user's normal job tasks that aren’t being done, because the person is performing tasks that a service desk agent could be doing.
Wait time does not need to be downtime. This is the ideal time to utilize self-service capabilities to collect data that the agent will need, perform diagnostics and enable users to browse FAQs to potentially resolve their own issues. Chat Bots, IVR systems, support questionnaires and automated-diagnostic capabilities can be integrated with your service desk tools to enable users to be productive in helping to resolve their support issues while they are waiting for an agent. In some cases, they may be able to resolve the issue entirely themselves, in other cases, they will be able to provide background information to accelerate ticket resolution. Both are better than time spent idle. If nothing else, then engaging users in support-related activities while they wait can distract them from the wait time itself and reduce frustration.
In a typical service desk operation, not all teams are equally and constantly busy. By monitoring queue volumes and projected wait-times, peak workloads can often be distributed to other teams (or team members) enabling users to receive support faster. Your ITSM system can be configured to help. By using workflow-routing rules that span teams and queue-volume thresholds, wait times can be significantly reduced.
The biggest bottleneck in service desk operations is often in frontline support teams and the initial triage of new issues for impact, criticality, complexity and the need for specialized skillsets to resolve them. Fortunately, triaging issues isn’t a difficult skill to learn and with some basic training, anyone in your service organization can help. IT service desk best practices suggest that everyone in your service desk organization be trained as a frontline agent, even specialized support staff, and managers. If the normal frontline queues are overloaded, then underutilized resources should be empowered to help – minimizing wait-times for users should be a top priority.
The purpose of IT service desk metrics is to drive behaviors within your service desk organization. There are countless activities, processes, situations, etc. within a service desk that could be measured. While some metrics are required for high-level monitoring and to survey the big picture to understand where processes, systems, etc. are working well and where there is a need for improvement, too much measuring (or presenting too many metrics) can be a distraction to your staff and management.
Most of the measurement performed within your IT service desk should occur behind the scenes and be obscured from staff involved in day-to-day service activities. They only need to know when a situation exists that requires attention. The sensors on a car are a good analogy. The driver doesn’t need to know the car’s computer is monitoring temperature, tire pressure, and coolant volume during normal operations. The driver only needs to be aware of these functions if abnormal tolerances are indicated and some sort of exception has occurred that requires his or her attention. The same principle applies to your IT service desk. You may measure many operational functions, but not all your metrics must be visible unless they require action.
When you are defining your service desk metrics and considering the behaviors you want to influence, be aware of the unintended consequences of focusing too heavily on one area or another. For example, if all your metrics focus on speed-of-ticket resolution, then your agents may begin to cut corners just to hit their targets. If your metrics focus heavily on customer satisfaction, then agents may avoid difficult tickets or spend more time than is necessary trying to please the end-user. The key is developing a healthy balance between the quality of support you provide users, the speed, and quantity of the work accomplished and the thoroughness of process adherence (such as creating knowledge records and documenting work).
Process metrics do not provide a complete picture of what is occurring with your IT service desk operations. User sentiment, staff morale and business perceptions are also important factors to consider. Your IT service desk metrics should integrate both objective qualitative measures with subjective feedback from stakeholders to give management a holistic picture of your service desk performance and to identify potentially problematic behaviors that must be addressed. Your helpdesk or ITSM tool should provide capabilities for correlating survey feedback with transactional data to put the complete situation into context.
The purpose of your IT service desk is to provide service to your end users and the business community. It doesn’t matter whether your staff thinks they are doing a good job or whether there is consistent adherence to SLA metrics. Users will provide their own subjective assessment about whether you are addressing their support expectations. Most users weren’t involved in negotiating SLAs or defining your IT service desk processes. As a result, there is often a mismatch between defined SLAs and what users expect when they contact you for support. They expect you to respond to their issue as soon as they raise it, not within some arbitrary response-time target. They expect their problem to be solved as quickly as possible and if they think they are being kept waiting without active work on their problem, then they are likely to become frustrated. It is important your service desk staff understand that for end-users, their perception is their reality.
One of the most important areas of IT service desk metrics is understanding costs. How much does it cost to resolve each issue? How do your organizational structures (such as specialized support teams) impact your costs? What are the organizational costs of your end-users’ time and lost business productivity? Measuring and tracking costs accurately and consistently provides service desk management with insights into how their structural decisions impact the overall ROI of the service desk function. It also provides a mechanism to assess the potential value of proposed changes and optimization activities.
A common mistake with service desk metrics is continuously changing what and how you are measuring your operations. The value of metrics is understanding the impact of changes during a period of time. You can only do that effectively if you measure consistently. SLAs are a good example. When does the SLA clock start and stop for your support tickets? Are there certain statuses that are excluded from SLA calculation (such as waiting for a client)? If you change how you measure SLAs or what you include, then you lose the ability to make side-by-side comparisons.
You hire smart people to work at your helpdesk. They understand their performance is being measured and evaluated. They will quickly learn what they can do to make themselves look better to the management. That is okay if they are changing their behavior to improve the quality, speed, and thoroughness of services being delivered. Beware that some people will learn how to “game the system” to manipulate metrics without changing their behavior. Combining metrics with subjective feedback from users, peers, and other stakeholders is a good way to identify this problematic behavior.
Your IT service desk processes are the backbone of your support operations and the structure that integrate your people, data, and technology to enable the services you provide to end users. Optimizing your service desk processes is the most effective way of improving the quality and cost of services your service desk provides. There are many general process improvement methodologies, such as Lean IT, Six Sigma, and various maturity models, you can use as general guidelines for process changes and re-engineering. To receive the most from these models, you must focus them on the parts of your operations that have the most impact on the service desk itself. Here are 6 process-optimization best practices specific to the IT service desk function for you to use as a starting point.
Every time a ticket transitions from one team or agent to another, there is an overhead cost of both resources and time for the transition. There will be times when a ticket must be transferred to another resource with specific skillsets or access to data; however, there are also many tickets which frontline agents can resolve. As you improve your processes, consider how many hand-offs occur in your service-desk workflows and ensure that each is both necessary and adds value to the service experience.
When an agent encounters a ticket for which he or she doesn’t have the skills, knowledge, access or experience to resolve himself or herself, common IT service desk practice is for him or her to reassign the ticket to another team or agent. Best practices suggest that taking a different approach might be better both for the immediate ticket and overall service-desk productivity. Instead of transferring tickets, agents should be encouraged to retain ownership of the ticket and consult with peers or subject-matter experts to gain the necessary knowledge and skills needed to resolve the issue. This avoids a hand-off, provides a consistent experience for users and enables the agent to broaden his or her skills and knowledge.
Most IT service desk operations aren’t unique and there are a number of outside-the-box processes available either through ITSM tool providers or through industry frameworks, such as ITIL, that your service desk can utilize. Standard processes are not only proven to work, but also your ITSM tools often support natively; and if you are hiring experienced service desk agents, then they may already be trained to execute them.
Some tickets require agents with specialized skills, knowledge or experience to resolve them. The sooner in your processes these specialized needs can be identified, the sooner the ticket can be routed to the appropriate resolver. The best place to look for these needs is in the frontline triage processes of your IT service desk.
Someone should own every ticket, from when it is opened until when it is closed. Even for tickets sitting in a queue, someone should be accountable for tracking and managing them. Defining ticket accountability also results in ownership of your process steps and is a good way to promote continuous improvement within your IT service desk.
Some tickets must be escalated. This should be an exception and not a frequent occurrence, so defining clear escalation criteria is important. Whether it is based on SLA targets, customer requests or skill gaps, agents should have a clear understanding of when escalation is needed and how to perform escalation hand-offs. IT service desk management should regularly review escalation trends for continuous improvement opportunities.
Queues (or backlogs) occur in your service desk processes where the flow of transactions is restricted in some way. This may be a line at a physical helpdesk, a phone queue, an email backlog for a support team or a backlog of tickets assigned to an agent. When a ticket is in a queue, the user is waiting, but no active work is occurring to resolve his or her issue. Reducing queuing is essential to improve the quality of service to your users and improve SLA performance
Many IT service desks leverage vendors and outsourced support services for portions of their service desk operations. Support vendors can provide you with access to capacity, skills, and processes you may not have internally as well as a flexible resourcing model to help manage service desk costs. Some of the best practices for working with vendors as a part of your IT service desk are:
Support vendors can be valuable resources to accomplish your service desk’s mission and leveraging some simple best practices can help you benefit the most from these relationships.
General ITSM knowledge-management processes and practices apply to your IT service desk and shouldn’t need too much adaptation. The biggest knowledge-management challenges are in the areas of mindset and behaviors – encouraging service desk agents to use knowledge resources actively and contribute to them. There are 4 knowledge-management best practices that service desk managers have found especially helpful in fostering knowledge management within their functions.
This is most commonly explained using the phrase “don’t re-invent the wheel.” Agents should be trained to ask the right questions to understand the problems and then, as the first step to resolution, they should consult with knowledge resources to understand how the problem may have been solved during the past.
Agents shouldn’t assume that published articles and documentation are their only resources. Most helpdesk and ITSM platforms offer capabilities for agents to search through ticket notes based on keywords. Some systems can even do keyword matching automatically, based on the ticket description.
It is common for the same user to contact the IT service desk multiple times for similar issues. User contact history and previous ticket notes can be helpful tools to see the big picture of the user’s issue and understanding guidance that has been provided during the past.
A big mistake of many IT service desks is deleting knowledge articles when someone thinks they are no longer needed. A common example is following a major system release or upgrade. Unless you are able to ensure the old system is completely gone and can never be used, the IT service desk will receive the first call from users when they need help with old systems. Storage is cheap. It is best to err on the side of keeping too much historical knowledge instead of deleting knowledge you may need later.
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