Help Desk Outsourcing Companies Playing with Fire

Help Desk outsourcing companies serving higher education continue to play with fire without regard for their client’s CIO’s getting burned let alone the needs of their client’s customers – the students. The help desk outsourcing companies are continuing their practice of delaying staffing up in time for the semester which places their customers at risk. I am not going to name any names because we all know who they are and they should be ashamed of themselves. It is almost as bad as oil companies and gas prices, but in this case the outsourcing company drops staff too soon and delays adding them back in time to be trained all for the sake of profits.

Help Desk Operations

Help Desk operations is one of the most well understood aspects of IT there is. It doesn’t matter if you are running a Service Desk or a hybrid of a call center or contact center the function is still very mature and easy to optimize for performance. Unlike other areas of IT support there is plenty of data on the function from sources like the Help Desk Institute (HDI) that allows it to be thoroughly analyzed and optimized for effectiveness and efficiency, cost and user satisfaction.

There is a predictability to help desk operations and a science to managing them effectively. That is what makes them ripe for outsourcing. The vendor can look at a sliver of call data and ticket histories and easily predict their cost and margin to deliver the same of better quality of service. And when they are dealing with a poorly informed client, or one that doesn’t understand Help desk outsourcing, they can add in additional margin while avoiding service level commitments and performance penalties. Some go so far as to game the client by anticipating the hidden support volume they will find for additional fees.

Every help desk has a cyclical nature to its call volume. For some it is a cycle around the time of day, while others is by day of week. In many industries you also see trends over the course of a month and month to month. And in some industries like higher education there are seasonal cycles to help desk volumes.

Surges in support volume at the start of fall semester which declines over the term and another lower surge in January. It is very predictable as you can see here in these two examples from one institution. The first shows the cyclical volume of calls over a four-year period and the other shows that same four-year period just in a year over year format.

Help Desk volume over four year period showing the cycle and trend over timeHelp Desk volume over four years showing it year over year and the matching cycles.The cyclical nature and trends in call volume year over year and seasonally are abundantly clear – especially to those who do this as their core business. Besides the odd blip in the volume usually from a new system being implemented or a failed change the cycle is predictable on any campus. The cycle will also look the same from one college to another, small or large, the only thing that changes is the scale on the graph.

Help Desk Outsourcing Issues

Most help desk outsourcing contracts are structured around a fixed price for a given total call volume with some provision for a defined service level of support based on the category and type of call. Overages in the call volume come at an agreed price per call and service level breaches might have specific penalties. But these provisions almost always heavily favor the outsourcing provider where the penalties either never kick in or the cost is not a sufficient deterrent to breaching the service level agreement (meaning the cost of the breach penalty is less than the cost of performing within the service level).

What makes this situation particularly problematic in higher education is when the vendor decides to use a variable staffing model where the base full time staffing level is based on the nominal support volume which is then flexed up by temporary workers during peak periods. In this approach the help desk outsourcing company follows a constant cycle of on-boarding and training the additional staff just-in-time for the peak load of each new semester, then scales help desk staffing down as the call volume subsides then back up again and so on. The delta in headcount required by the help desk outsourcing company is significant and can be whole magnitudes higher if they support a large number of institutions.

The staffing model alone is very problematic for the outsourced help desk customer and their users as the result of the vendor not being able to re-acquire the same people from their temporary labor sources. This has the effect of creating an astronomical hidden turnover which affects service quality that is made worse by the outsourcing company that doesn’t allow enough time to train the new first time temporary staff.

Finally, vendors who are under their own financial pressures will deliberately game the staffing model by scaling down the staffing prematurely ahead of the curve and not staffing up in time to complete adequate training for the surge. As the vendor gambles with their customer’s help desk service they are also picking winners and losers between their customers. Ensuring those with contractual service levels are properly resourced over those without them or with lower targets all of which is automated in their call management systems making it easy to control.

If this hasn’t offended you yet, perhaps when you realize you are paying a fixed rate each month and that your vendor is making huge margin on you in the lower volume periods and while still profiting from you in the peaks when you are not getting the service you paid for – I don’t know what will. The thing to remember is you are not paying for butts in seats. Instead you are paying for a service to be performed at a particular level and quality. Unfortunately, your contract is probably not written that way and your vendor is taking advantage of it and of you. This is core to the issue of why outsourcing fails.

CIO’s Job

Contractual obligation or not, every help desk outsourcing company knows what their obligation is and CIO’s with the support of their CFO need to remind their vendor of the expectation to perform in good faith.  CIO’s should also move to amend the help desk outsourcing contract to incorporate specific operational and performance provisions essential to protecting your interests and ensuring the vendor delivers on their obligations.

Sometimes it’s helpful to realize you have other options. In fact it can be rather empowering to know if you had to, you could go to another provider and not suffer significantly in doing so. By considering your options you might be surprised to learn that a large number of outsourcing companies offer help desk services who have fantastic reputations who are not in higher Ed but who can support your needs. You shouldn’t be surprised given the percentage of calls related to higher Ed specific applications is pretty low and those applications are no more complex than any from other industries.

Finally, trust but verify. I have always had one of the highest call volumes to my help desk as a deliberate strategy to eat my own dog food when I have problems or service requests and to show others how to use the service. I am also a fanatic about looking over the numbers behind the reports and trending them. But more importantly, you have to proactively work your vendor ahead of the anticipated staffing changes so you are not on the losing side of their staffing decisions. The squeaky wheel you know and sometimes holding back payment until you get renewed commitments is your best bet.

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