by Raegen Pietrucha

“Disruption” — perhaps the most overused word of 2013. (Last year’s was “solution,” FYI.) Yet when it comes to what the help-desk staff of any technology-related business is witnessing these days, it seems no term could be more fitting.

A few big disruptions taking place today will undoubtedly serve to give the help desk a new face in the future. First and foremost, there’s technology — from the cloud to apps to even the very devices employees bring to the workplace.

“There are so many different types of devices and platforms that an average IT department may not have the skills to support everything — not to mention the available time and staff to spend on training — so a help-desk service is a great way to complement and expand their services,” said Jason Bystrak, director of sales, Ingram Micro Services Division. But supporting the plethora of devices clients have once they’ve decided to entrust them all to you isn’t exactly the easiest of feats.

Workforce disruptions are also affecting the help desk. Not only are there fewer employees in end-user environments, but economics and, once again, technology have led to new and disruptive staffing opportunities — even for the help desk itself. “Physical location (of the help desk) is probably not as dependent as it was 10 years ago,” said Justin Crotty, senior vice president and GM at NetEnrich. “Technology and mobility have gotten to the point where you can basically staff or source help-desk functionality from almost anywhere.”

Given that fact, your choices get more complicated: Can you afford to provide all levels of help desk in house? Can you afford not to from a customer satisfaction perspective? Do you staff the first line of help-desk support employees remotely — whether onshore or offshore — and keep the higher levels of support in house? Do you consider some other combination of in-house and remote capabilities? Or do even you, as the service provider, completely outsource the help-desk function yourself?

With a sea of devices in and out of the office and countless options to choose from when it comes to supporting them, how can a company offering managed services, including MPS, best go about providing help-desk services to its clients? How can a dealership overcome the help-desk disruption?

The first key: Leverage the proper technology

While the point of the help desk is to address customer complaints, from a print perspective, the type of tool that’s growing more and more essential by the second is the kind that eliminates the need for the help desk to intervene at all — at least on more minor issues. “A lot of the technology for print is now trying to make it as easy as possible for the help desk not to be involved in the day-to-day administration of printers,” said Louella Fernandes, associate director and analyst at Quocirca. This, simply put, translates to a need for automation in client environments. Fernandes pointed more specifically to “a centralized print-management tool … that provides service alerts, rules-based printing” and more, in the case of MPS.

 Along similar lines, other remote monitoring and management tools are also becoming indispensable. “There’s been an evolution of some of the software tools that are used by help-desk agents to remote in and take over that device to fix things or show a user how to use it,” Bystrak said. And that technology continues improving, enabling service providers to save money through proactive fixes and the avoidance of physical calls.

Although the cloud is in part driving the disruption of the help desk, customers and providers alike are moving to the cloud, and help-desk providers will be able to use it to service customers more efficiently because of the greater uptime it typically provides, the broader scalability it offers, etc. So cloud-based tools will play a greater role in the help desk as well.

A variety of “mobile” technologies — not just phones, but other tools that can be taken on the road — will become essential for conducting help-desk tasks. “There are more people who need real-time information, and on top of that, that information has to be actionable; the only way it becomes actionable is for people to be empowered with mobile hardware and software,” said Mike Stramaglio, president and CEO of MWAi.

From GPS mapping of service techs to parts tracking on the go, electronic signature capture devices and more, mobile tools will enable help desks to respond to calls more effectively and strategically, allowing customers to possess that real-time information and allowing dealerships to prevent redundant calls due to missing parts, incorrect diagnoses, etc. Even mobile printing — something dealers are teaching clients about quite often these days — is a tool techs themselves can use when responding on site to a call received by the help desk.

As the help desk grows more complex and MPS providers begin to offer services beyond print management, additional technologies can improve customer satisfaction when it comes to the help desk a dealer provides. Some type of front-facing portal — in most cases, a PSA solution — is good for this purpose, said Mike Cullen, senior vice president of sales at N-able. If you want customers to stick to phone calls, though, it’s still in your best interest to leverage an effective ticketing solution, Crotty said, because “that ticket management capability is going to be able to take the inbound user requests but also link into your infrastructure management platform or toolset that you’re leveraging” and make your job much easier.

For the more advanced service providers, social tools like chat to connect with the help desk are the topic du jour. Sometimes people have quick questions and don’t want to pick up the phone, and chat enables that. Chat also provides instant gratification to customers who would otherwise either be waiting on the line indefinitely or waiting for a callback. Most importantly, though, chat can get a larger number of calls out of the queue more quickly. “What I like about a chat service is that a help-desk employee can work on four or five different cases at the same time and be engaged with four or five people sorting them all out,” Cullen said. “I’m not suggesting it’s a one-to-many relationship, but often techs will do something, and then they need to wait a couple of minutes while that task takes place to see if (the attempted fix) solved the problem. So that type of functionality makes them more efficient.”

Having the best technologies deployed at a help desk is only half the battle in this business. “The help desk typically is the first line of communication between the customer and the service provider, so it’s extremely important that the relationship goes well,” Cullen said — and that relationship ultimately boils down to the people part of the equation.

Sadly, “(finding) technical talent is always a challenge,” Crotty said. “You need to be able to hire folks who can pick up the phone, be competent and very outgoing with clients, and do a great job serving those clients who are calling in. You also need to have the higher-end technical expertise to handle the bigger issues.”

In the world of MPS, end users do at times resist having any help-desk function outside of their own four walls. “Some customers may choose to retain control of their own help desk, and then their IT administrator would be monitoring that,” Fernandes said. “However, most of the large enterprises would prefer to not have to worry about managing that themselves and would rather let their IT department focus on more strategic activities. In that case, a third-party provider can take over that help desk and regularly monitor the printer fleet.”

Either way, the challenge of finding qualified people remains. But in the case of a dealer providing help-desk support, the somewhat touchy subject of where that dealership might decide to look for that technical talent is raised. Will it outsource help-desk functions or keep them in house? Regardless of the choice, the help-desk staff will have to be able to learn and support the swarm of brand-new technologies that seem to land in the market daily. And there will probably still be various levels of help-desk escalation depending on the severity and technical complexity of the issue at hand, with the corresponding employee possessing just the appropriate amount of knowledge needed to address it.

Outsourcing help-desk functions to remote or offshore partners has its perks. Not only can this option provide wider geographical service coverage, but it can also allow for a longer window of help-desk coverage. “If you outsource to a larger, quality help-desk provider, (it will also be) able to support a larger portfolio” than a dealership could provide itself, Bystrak said, which is a nice perk.

Keeping help-desk functions in house at the dealership has its benefits as well, though. “Help desk is a very customer-intimate function, and solution providers should strongly consider staffing some level of help desk themselves,” Crotty said. “One, it keeps you in touch with your customers and helps you understand the types of issues they’re having as those issues come in the door. Two, it provides local, regional or national language support for those end clients, which is important.”

There is no one right answer, in this case. Each dealer’s choice will likely boil down to what types of support are required of it and the cost associated with providing its help-desk functions. “It’s cheaper to deliver near-shore or offshore support versus onshore,” Bystrak said. “Some people are willing to pay more because they want it onshore, and sometimes it’s just preference of the end clients and what they are looking for as far as the type of service that they’re getting.”

Vision of the successful help desk of tomorrow

Although we have more technology at our disposal than ever and technical support staff is getting smarter alongside it, the jury’s still out on whether either will help the costs associated with help desks go down in the future. Bystrak was optimistic. Crotty was on the fence. Cullen thought costs would simply shift around.

So perhaps the greatest potential one can see — and what may become the greatest measure of success in this area of business — is within the vendor/customer relationship itself. “There are always going to be problems with printing, and it’s always going to be the help desk that will be the first point to call,” Fernandes said.

How will that call play out in the future? “The skill sets are going to be better inside that dealership, and the client is going to feel the improvement in customer satisfaction because these dealers are going to be extremely empowered through technology, and that end-user client is going to be able to validate all that information and support right through the portal,” Stramaglio said.

And it’s this technology that allows not only greater customer satisfaction, but greater business opportunities for a dealership. “Everyone knows the help desk and service organization is the front line to repeatable business,” Stramaglio said. “It’s not just a support function, but a customer experience function, which means I’m going to give customers every opportunity to improve their operating condition.”

Just like calling a credit card company, getting an answer to a question, and then being informed about new products and services, your help desk can offer customers products and solutions after it resolves a customer complaint. But unlike a credit card company, when it comes to any kind of managed service — including MPS — the chances that the type of “upsell” a dealership offers customers will be truly valuable and needed are far greater because that solution can be more highly targeted.

The upsell opportunities don’t have to end when each phone call does, either — not if you’re using technology to its fullest advantage. “Calls create a database; you know who’s calling and what they’re calling about,” Bystrak said. “You start gaining business intelligence that you wouldn’t know unless your client was under a help-desk service, and that can create reasons to call customers and the opportunity to provide proposals to help them increase the way they use IT and do better.”

This means there will be much more of a convergence between the help desk and sales functions of a dealership. “The sales group, I think, will actually become something much different than what it is today,” Stramaglio said. “And the metric for the help desk will now include not just calls, call avoidance and elimination of calls; there’s actually going to be a revenue-production number for them as well because of the inclusion of the sales function. So they will actually go from being considered an expense to being seen as a contribution.”

Through creating synergies among all departments of an organization, it seems the vision of a successful help desk actually extends to a vision of a successful company as a whole — one that, due to a newfound cohesiveness, will undoubtedly be much better prepared to handle all the challenges the future has in store.

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Ingram Micro

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of The Imaging Channel.