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Simplifying the essentials of IT support
As technology becomes embedded in virtually every business and aspect of daily life, support for the technology, known as IT support becomes a critical need in virtually every organization. Internally, when support is provided well people are able to be more productive, but when technical services are provided to external customers, IT support becomes even more important as it forms the basis for overall satisfaction with the business providing the technology.
IT support is generally viewed as the technical support activities provided to end users by IT personnel, but it’s more than that. Essentially, IT support represents the warranty aspect of service delivery:
Ensuring the service is available and performs well
Performing day to day maintenance tasks
Performing operational tasks related to the service
Providing just in time training and support to end users
Resolving product/service issues
IT support is everywhere and part of every business. IT support is also an area that is currently undergoing transformation:
Light-out operations mean that many of the day to day maintenance tasks and response to issues has become automated, leaving personnel available for more strategic and proactive work
Chat bots are replacing IM, providing just in time support to end users, with more difficult issues being ticketed for support personnel or transferred to a staffed chat queue
Predictive analytics are enabling the automation of responses based on patterns of past behavior: alerts can be responded to automatically or proper personnel engaged
As the IT support landscape changes, it’s important for organizations to be ready for the change and a thorough understanding of IT support can assist with this.
Given that IT support covers two main areas, operations and support, understanding the essentials of each is important. Operational IT support is concerned with the ability to effectively operate systems and services and address issues when they arise. There are three primary areas of responsibility:
Production support: Providing day to day support for routine tasks like monitoring batch jobs and printing as well as ensuring maintenance tasks like backups are properly performed and available via an off-site location. Much of this is now automated, with staff ensuring automated functions have been performed successfully. In a lights-out operation, IT support staff will monitor consoles, restarting jobs and addressing issues for a large number of systems, rather than performing the tasks themselves.
Operational support: Managing issues as they arise, making repairs and ensuring systems and services operate effectively. IT support personnel will be engaged in incident management, by investigating issues and restoring service, but will also be heavily engaged in looking for the root cause of these issues or at operational patterns of issues, looking for areas that need to be addressed more permanently. This is problem management and is focused on proactively avoiding issues that affect performance and availability.
User support: Providing IT support to end users of a system or service, answering questions and offering guidance on use, addressing issues the end users experience (as distinguished from system-wide issues) and supporting computing equipment and accessories they use is a key part of IT support.
When IT support is performed well, and systems are stably operated, it is the end user support that is most visible and by which most organizations are judged, so it’s as critical to get end-user support done well as it is to be able to support the systems and services themselves. There are several key factors to providing successful IT support to end users:
Ease of engagement and availability of multi-channel support
Ensuring clear service expectations
Recognizing and resolving common end-user issues quickly
Providing knowledge self-service support
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Getting these basics right is the first step of providing great IT support and the basics begin with end user support. Responsiveness and customer service are two of the most basic areas in which to focus, but these are dependent on the scalability of the IT support model. As systems and services grow and as companies expand, IT support organizations need to be able to scale without continually adding staff, while maintaining responsiveness and service. Automation is a key component to being able to do this, and the design of the IT support environment is critical. It begins with the channels used for IT support.
Ease of Engagement and IT Support Channels: At its most basic, customer satisfaction with IT support will begin with how easy IT makes it to engage IT support personnel. This is where support channels become important. Traditionally, IT support offered a single channel: phone. As email use grew, a second channel was added. Today, there are multiple support channels, each with their own benefits and disadvantages, as shown in the table below.
Of the options shown, chat, chat bots and the concierge desk offer more innovative options for to delivering IT. They represent both an inexpensive and scalable option and a more expensive, but high-touch option. IT support options should be considered from the viewpoint of the customer and the expected outcomes. For example, while the concierge desk approach may be more expensive than operating a service desk, it is an effective way to lower some desktop support costs by centralizing support in a building, while increasing customer satisfaction (consider the success of the Apple genius bar and Best Buy’s Geek Squad walk up window and how they transformed home computer support).
Consider the following costs when looking at the financial viability of establishing concierge desks:
When properly staffed and managed, a staff person can drop by on their lunch hour, before or after work, getting near-immediate resolution. This increases the end user's productivity.
The concierge desk personnel combines the cost of a service desk analyst plus a desktop support analyst into a single role, while increasing end-user productivity. In a traditional setting, both a service desk analyst and a desktop support analyst would touch a single incident ticket and spend time working it.
It may seem like many of these channels are duplicative and effort should be made to consolidate, but that’s not the case. People of different ages and technical ability will opt into different support styles and it’s the end user’s ability to choose what’s best for the situation and their comfort level that drives up satisfaction with the services provided by IT support.
Service Expectations: When IT support is unable to deliver service immediately, the customer’s expectations need to be managed accordingly. There needs to be an understanding of how long it will take to obtain the requested service, regardless of whether it’s a break/fix or request fulfillment situation. IT support organizations can address this with service level agreements. These are formal agreements between IT support and their customers, or at the very least publicly available information about service levels that can be expected. Service level agreements or targets are critical because they set the customer’s expectation and let the customer know up front that they may need to escalate something if they are on a particular deadline. Without them, customers will expect immediate service, then complain that IT support is not meeting their expectations when they don’t receive it.
Quick Resolution: When customers engage IT support, they expect the IT support person to know the resolution to their issue and be able to walk them through it. This can only be achieved through a combination of knowledge base use and training or experience. While many IT support organizations are not as proficient in developing knowledge as they could be, this is an area with great potential. Knowledge not only helps level one technicians resolve issues quickly, it also forms the basis for chat bots and self-service. Thus, IT support’s investment in building knowledge increases overall satisfaction by meeting the customer’s expectations, but it reaps many benefits later on.
Providing Knowledge and Self Service: This investment in building knowledge supports the last key basic for IT support. Once knowledge articles are created for service desk use, they become available for self-service use via a service portal and support chat bot functionality. This is where the time spent creating that knowledge begins to provide dividends: not only is it available to enhance IT support provided by the service desk to end users who may be a bit hesitant to do it themselves, it also supports chat bots and self-service channels. From a scalability standpoint, chat bots that are well designed and make it seem like you’re interacting with a human can help bridge the gap between using knowledge and calling the service desk as the hesitant end user may feel they are being supported by a person.
Feedback Loops for Development and Operations: another fundamental of IT support is ensuring that back end support processes are aware of front-line issues. This provides the ability to proactively manage the issues people are reporting. To achieve this, IT support must be able to provide the trend reporting needed to identify support issues and product quality issues that need further research and resolution. There are several aspects to this:
Identifying usability issues that could be resolved with better design
Understanding operational errors and issues that can be permanently resolved
The only way to accomplish either of these is to ensure that all issues are logged in a service management tracking tool and able to be trended and reported, requiring the ability to turn customer contacts into actionable information. To accomplish this, all IT support channels offered need to include tracking or ticketing of the issue (using an external IM product that drives a need to manually log the ticket after the interaction is going to result in lost data as IT support analysts likely won’t take the time to do so).
The ability to categorize information in a way that supports analysis is critical. There are two aspects to this:
Ensuring all IT support channels create a contact record (as mentioned previously)
Creating a categorization structure that is complete enough to understand the issue, yet simple enough to ensure accuracy
The first aspect is a function of tool capability. All support channels offered should be supported by the ITSM tool, providing the ability to log an incident or request record from every contact, including chat and chatbot contacts.
The second is a design concern. Many organizations build a category structure that is so granular trending becomes impossible. When the organization has well defined services and a sufficient configuration management database (CMDB), they should be able to build a categorization schema that is small enough to be able to trend issues by service or understanding the type of issues the service experiences. A good rule of thumb is no more than 10 categories, with 5 sub-categories each. Very granular structures with hundreds or thousands of combinations make it impossible to distinguish the actual issues needing research.
When virtually everything a business does is supported by technology, IT support is critical, providing the following benefits (at least):
Increased employee/customer satisfaction
Increased business productivity and/or revenue
Proactive identification of issues
Increased Satisfaction: Regardless of whether it is increased customer satisfaction, resulting in greater revenue, or employee satisfaction, resulting in greater retention, IT support’s ability to provide prompt and effective support does result in downstream benefits. While increased revenue is a benefit of the ability to provide excellent external support, employee retention is a great reason to focus heavily on excellent IT support internally. Personal satisfaction is a key factor in employee retention and unreliable systems and services combined with poor support impact productivity, which has an impact on personal satisfaction with the job. With millennial turnover costing $30.5 billion annually in the US (according to Gallup), and the cost of replacing employees ranging from 30% to 400% of annual salary depending on level every activity that increases employee satisfaction provides a cost benefit to the organization.
Increased Productivity: There is a cost associated with downtime, both at the system and employee level. With virtually every activity supported by desktop or device use, businesses cannot afford to have an employee off-line for any lengthy period of time. IT support is a critical asset in this respect. Organizations who focus only on system issues and put employee issues on the back burner are costing their companies money in terms of lost employee productivity, equal to the amount of revenue the employee could produce in a day or the cost of paying them to achieve few results while their equipment is unavailable. Even worse, when employees turn to personal devices to be productive when company-provided assets fail, they expose the company to security risk. IT support must develop the ability to manage both system level and personal computing issues effectively. To be effective, IT support needs to find a balance between addressing critical system failures while still having time to address individual issues in a timely manner.
Identifying System/Service Issues: The feedback a central IT support function provides to application and infrastructure teams is a priceless benefit of IT support. This feedback enables improvement efforts that are critical to effectively operating a service effectively over time. It enables IT to proactively address system issues and improve availability and performance. Taken to the individual level, knowledge of the personal issues reported to IT support also enable teams to address issues with design and usability (or function). These are equally as important as system-level issues as they impact worker productivity. Poor performance related to design can slow down the use of a product, making workers less productive and lowering overall company revenue due to the lack of productivity.
Taken externally, the ability to provide a well-designed digital experience makes a product more competitive. Thus, IT support’s ability to identify customer issues with external services translates to higher customer satisfaction and revenue. The products that succeed in a fast-paced digital environment are both stable and usable. Customer feedback provides critical information to improve usability, providing the IT support organization is able to distill it from the tickets logged by support personnel. Where they can, the business is at a distinct advantage over the competition.
When business is highly dependent on IT tools and services, the impact of support is easily felt, whether that support is internal or external. Externally, good IT support, generally in the form of customer service will lead to increased revenue and customer retention. Internally, good IT support leads to increased employee satisfaction, inside and outside of IT and greater staff productivity. When IT support is good, people don’t think about it. It’s when IT support is poor that it becomes the focus of customer and/or executive attention.
Employee and/or customer satisfaction is often shaped by the people in service desk or customer service desk positions, both of which are considered entry level jobs. The less visible factor is that when the service desk is unable to resolve an issue, the back-end IT support teams may be unresponsive or busy tending to system outages or improvements. When this is the case, all of IT support looks bad in the customer’s eyes. Good IT support results in the following benefits for the business:
Increased customer or employee satisfaction
Identification of issues leading to higher quality goods/services
Identification of business process improvement opportunities
When IT support is not meeting the needs of the business, the converse is true, employees become unproductive and costs of achieving intended business outcomes increase.
Coverage is one of many factors to consider when building an IT support team. A global organization will look very different from a small organization with just one corporate office, but both have the need to provide IT support and one IT support team structure will not work for both.
Another consideration is hours of operation and the two can be looked at together. The following considerations should be part of the overall IT support organization design:
Hours/days of operation
Level of support provided
Needs will vary by organization, so the matrix below provides an example of how to graph out the support needs of an organization. This makes the needs more visible and can make it easier to design for the coverage needed in an organization.
For example, consider an Internet based company that provides external web support, high touch business to business support and internal support in both English and Spanish speaking countries. Their support needs could be graphed as follows:
There are many different combinations of this type of matrix, the takeaway is to graph organization needs in a matrix of this nature to help with the design process.
Next is to look at the locations where there may be an existing support framework. For example, if this business had corporate offices in the Americas and Europe, a follow-the-sun support arrangement could provide two sets of IT support staff providing 12 hours of coverage each, rather than providing 7x24 support out of a single location. Additionally, the fact that this will be a 7x24 operation to support external Internet-based customers means that the other inputs can assist with determining how many staff are needed on each shift, each day. Finally, if call volumes are low in the US overnight hours, a consideration may be to hire people who can perform both either the service desk or operations role to keep staffing needs to a minimum during periods when lowered call volumes are experienced.
This is a somewhat simplistic view of IT support, as it leaves out the more technical second and third level roles, which should be considered. If the organization has achieved light-out, automated support, on-call rotation may be sufficient to handle the occasional incident that requires intervention. In a less mature organization, technical roles may need to be staffed at higher levels into the evening hours. Thus, is only one of the IT support design decisions to be made. To fully understand and design an IT support organization, the following should be considered:
IT Support Roles
Local vs. Remote IT Support
IT Support team structure
Hiring for IT Support manager
Skillset required for IT support
IT Support Roles: IT support roles can be different than positions on an organization chart, as one person may fill several roles. The roles presented below are broken up into the areas of IT support being discussed:
Production/Operations support roles are also often part of the computer operation’s department or network operations center and one person can perform production support while also performing operations duties. Computer operators are trained to perform daily support work and monitor systems and applications for failures. They execute routine, repetitive production support tasks, managing data backups, nightly maintenance and using run books to address known issues that occur in the operational environment. Typically, these roles include:
Entry-level computer operations positions
Network operations center (NOC) personnel, with a bit higher technical background
Data Librarian (manages back up data operations and back up tapes/drives
Operations and NOC shift leads
User Support roles will typically start with help desk, service desk or customer service representatives who provide support via the telephone or chat but extend to the second level technicians who provide desktop or on-site support. Application support delivery may be provided via a dedicated second level application support team but is more often provided directly by the application development teams themselves.
Where practical, providing a team that can perform general application support is more cost effective than using programmers for this task. It may have other IT support benefits as well: personnel who are focused on user support are likely to provide a better customer service experience than programmers who have other responsibilities and using programmers to provide user support can make it necessary to add programmers at a higher cost than providing an application support role. A recommended alternative is building sufficient application knowledge articles that enable service desk personnel to resolve at least 80-90% of known application issues, with the others falling into the area of minor defects.
Higher Level Operation roles: IT support teams also need people that can focus on building the knowledge and self-service capabilities the organization needs to support the varied channels and capabilities needed to deliver world-class IT support.
IT support organizations also include technical management and application management teams. Roles within these teams will vary from entry level technical or programming positions to administrator and eventually senior engineering roles. These technical support roles will be responsible for a variety of infrastructure management tasks that go beyond the repeatable operations tasks performed at the entry level:
System configuration, installation, administration
Issue resolution, hardware repair
Troubleshooting and incident management
Application support roles will start with basic coding and second level application support, but in an IT support capacity will typically refer to those roles that provide end user support and defect repair for operational applications.
Key user support roles include:
Level 1 support analyst (service desk/help desk analyst)
Level 2 support analyst (desktop and applications)
Support leads, which can include specialized functions:
Incident manager focused on end-user incidents
Major incident manager, which includes escalations and coordination
Support desk manager
Self-service administrator (develop self-service capabilities within the ITSM tool or work with the person/people who perform this role)
Remote IT Support: Providing IT support to every location within an organization can be challenging. This is why remote support is a critical feature of every IT support organization. Remote support covers every call taken and resolved at the service desk level for general how-to’s, but also includes remote resolution of configuration and software problems as well as walking users through making small fixes and repairs themselves. Even when hardware repairs are considered, IT support organizations should strive to fix approximately 90% of issues remotely.
One key tool for remote IT support is remote control capabilities. Remote IT support tools enable the service desk or centralized desktop support technician to take control of the PC and directly work on and/or repair configuration and software issues, even re-installing software or reimaging computers. This capability makes it possible for IT support to remotely handle everything except the larger physical computer failures that require installation of internal parts.
Remote break/fix for small items may involve shipping replacement cables, accessories and small part and walking the end user through their installation. Some of this can be performed by operating a depot-style operation, where end users can use self-service to identify the issue, obtain parts from IT support and install them, using instructional videos and even chat bots for installation support.
For larger items, the IT support organization needs to have a plan for on-site support. This can range from a single individual supporting a number of sites in a region to outsourcing support to a vendor who performs this function. A third way of performing this is by shipping replacement devices, then repairing and restocking the returned device. While this increases shipping costs, it may be more cost effective than the other options in some organizations, primarily depending on scale and volume.
IT Support team structure: IT support organizations will vary, but the most effective structure will be one that separates IT support from development, for the reasons addressed concerning application developers. Once separated, the IT support organization can have a single reporting structure with two managers, Operations and Support. A typical organization follows, but IT support organizations can take many formats, depending upon organization size.
Hiring for IT Support managers: When hiring for IT Support managers, it’s important to consider customer service or business skills along with the technical. While the technical skills needed to do the job are important, there are several capabilities that should be sought in an operations manager, along with the process knowledge needed for the role:
Innovative support thinking: open to new support technologies
Proactive approach: understands the importance of feedback loops and problem management
Leadership skills: setting a good example and ability to lead teams
Analytic knowledge: ability to determine what data is needed to manage the team and ability to provide it
Customer service skills: really #1 on the list, but the manager should be a customer advocate
IT support managers have a tough job, they are the personnel on whose shoulders operational issues will fall, even if they are simply coordinating the efforts of others. They need to have a high energy level and the ability to manage stressful situations, while leading a team and growing the skill sets of their employees.
Skillset required for IT support: IT support roles are high visibility and high stress, with the need to provide great customer service. Whether the person is in operations or end user support role, they will need to be able to manage system outages, upset callers and executive communications. It’s not unusual for a key stakeholder to call IT support directly when there is an extended outage, even if it’s just to get the most recent update. Thus, the people on the front lines needs to be able to communicate well and clearly with customers of every level within the organization. Typical skills to consider include:
Sufficient technical capabilities to perform the task
Good communication skills:
Ability to listen and interpret information being given by a customer
Ability to communicate with people of every organizational level
Ability to follow written instructions (run books or knowledge articles)
Writing, documentation capabilities
Empathy, customer service skills
Ability to learn quickly
Anyone with a basic technical background, who can learn technology quickly can be trained to support the systems and applications in use in the organization. The softer skills, such as communication and customer service skills are more difficult to train. Good knowledge articles can help get a relatively smart technician with good customer service skills on the phones quickly and help them be effective at the entry level in only a short period of time.
Career path of IT Support professional: There are many career directions available to IT support personnel, depending upon their interests. They can certainly grow to manager and executive level roles within their organization (in most cases a college degree will be needed for this). Those with leadership capabilities, who enjoy providing support are well-suited for this direction.
Many IT support team members join an organization in an entry level role as a way of building their career in technology and then join technical or application teams. Organizations can benefit by making these growth opportunities available to IT support team members as they understand the organization and the services provided and can provide a valuable perspective to the technical teams they join, as compared to qualified external candidates.
Others may be interested in a career that focuses on service management and specialize within certain process areas like change management, or within process design.
The key is that many IT support positions give a junior employee the ability to understand the organization and see what types of roles might interest them. They can then combine education, certification and on the job training to build their career. Effectively, there are three directions they might take:
Growth to management positions within IT Support
Technical or development careers
IT/Enterprise service management careers
There are many certification and career development programs available for IT support personnel who wish to grow their careers. Once they have the technical knowledge they need, certifications in service management frameworks like ITIL will help them take the next step. ITIL certification provides a common language and provides a foundation in what good IT support looks like, making it a great way to begin building a longer-term career planning effort.
Certification in service management helps people understand the role of IT support and the benefits it provides to an organization. It also provides a background on support processes and how they work together to provide the key foundation for great IT support:
Alignment of services with business initiatives
Design of services that are stable and appropriately designed for their intended function
Knowledge of the operational issues that could be experienced in using a service/application and instructions on how to address them
Proactively managing operational issues and errors
Constantly improving support and products offered by IT
These foundational elements help organizations establish world-class IT support. Understanding them and being able to provide them on a daily basis distinguishes the IT support organization.
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