Paging The IT Organization: You Need To Support The People Not The Technology

Sorry but I’m “frustrated of Peterborough” (but not directly at IT for once).  Having just come off a half an hour call with two “major credit card provider” customer service staff, I’m frustrated to within an inch of screaming at someone. In some ways this blog is my outlet (but there is interesting stuff eventually).

You might think I'm overreacting, however, when one’s time is so limited these days, it is difficult to rise above the fact that I wasted 20 of the 30 minutes most likely because the “major credit card provider” has off-shored its customer support to save money (please note that the off-shoring is an assumption on my part based on my interactions).

But what has this to do with IT?

Hopefully you didn’t need to ask this question … I had an issue with a credit card service; many have issues with corporate IT services. We all call up, we all expect a quick resolution, and many expect to be treated in a customer, rather than supplier, focused manner.

Oddly enough, I spoke about this exact point at the itSMFUK London Regional yesterday … from an IT service management perspective (well specifically a service/help desk perspective). That we are now too focused on the mechanics of things (tool and process, AND scripts) and that, in some ways by virtue of this, we have “dumbed-down” the IT service desk.

This is not intended as an insult to service desk people, they have a difficult job: a job where they day in, day out, deal with the fallout from IT failures and the potentially unhappy customers. In an environment where there is very little “good news” or praise.

So what went/goes wrong?

Oh, I could bore you to death on this (if I haven’t already). But here are a few customer service low-lights that translate to the IT service desk world:

  • Point of entry “etiquette”: asked three times via the automated interface, and then by the first customer service agent, for my credit card number. I’d lost my card and I am not at home. I didn’t have the number. The second customer service agent asked me for my credit limit as a security question, how am I expected to know this without my credit card statement (I’d already admitted that I wasn’t at home)? We need to think carefully about how we ask customers for information at the initial contact; how does this set the tone and possibly the course of the ensuing interaction?
  • The system is always right: oh, this is a biggie for me. Telling a customer that they are wrong because the system says otherwise is a big mistake. “Your account was closed in May,” my response: “then why did you send me the new card two months ago and why do you write to/email/text me weekly to start using it?” Then, as if by magic (OK, through looking a little harder), the “open” account was identified.
  • Dealing with customer frustration: the first customer service agent was too “bound” by her scripts (in so many ways and instances). It was obvious I was becoming frustrated (but hopefully not angry); the next thing I know, she had returned me to the automated call handling system with no warning or explanation (if she hadn’t been struggling I’d have assumed it an accident).

Thankfully a very helpful customer service agent picked me up (although they were in the wrong part of the business to help) and passed me back to where I needed to be. Same-old-same-old though, “your account has been closed” (this time with the added repetition of things due to “language issues”).

I asked to escalate my call due to my frustrations over their inability to help me and, as often happens with off-shore call centers IMO, the request was ignored and even more effort applied to helping me. Thankfully, and hopefully, I will now have a replacement card in five working days.

So what can IT learn?

Yes, I know the above is a big moan but it does closely mirror where I think we are within IT. Most of us will have experienced at least one call to either a corporate, or supplier, IT service desk where the following of scripts and the inability to “effectively communicate” has caused us frustration and delayed our ability to get back up-and-running quickly. Most likely ultimately caused by a financially-based decision to staff, operate, or even locate the service desk based on price rather than quality of service.

IMO it’s a massive mistake that I&O organizations continue to make. The service desk is the business’ “window into IT” and a major part of how the business perceives IT performance. We shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot by not placing greater attention on how well our service desks perform; not at a mechanistic level, but at a people level (the caveat here is where the business has specifically asked for a “cheap and cheerful” service desk, the equivalent of Ryanair over British Airways, but it is a demand rather than supply-based decision).

We not only undervalue the importance of our service desks, we undervalue our service desk people.

So ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is a service desk only as good as its people?
  • Where do service desk analysts sit in the IT hierarchy?
  • How are they chosen?
  • How are they rewarded, educated, and trained?
  • How is their performance viewed?
  • How are they valued?
  • Do we value the part they play in the business’ perceptions of IT?

Ultimately, I believe that, when it comes to the service desk, we should recruit “better” people, pay more, BUT also expect more. We need problem solvers not script readers. We also need people people.

The changing business and IT landscapes (increased customer expectations, the consumerization of IT, competition/the loss of the internal IT monopoly, etc.) mean that we need to up our IT service desk game. It’s like in poker where they recommend that you “play the person, not the hand.” We need to support the people not the technology.

What do you think?


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Service desk workers

Totally agree with the sentiment that the service desk must improve, and that workers should be paid better in exchange for higher quality of work. However, most of the problems you experienced are the result of poor decisions (mainly motivated by money) much further up the food chain. The majority of service desks face the same problems and consequently spend most of their time fighting against the processes and systems forced upon them. In short, IT and the business must do a better job supporting support.

I agree ...

... in some ways but can't help think that IT (and its people) is still a big part of the issue ... such as not understanding the business/"personal" impact of IT failure, not thinking that the end users are "customers," not being able to think beyond what is written in front of them (scripts), etc.

The reality for many (most?)

The reality for many (most?) businesses is that the only recognition of the importance of people in and on the service desk is when there is a complaint. As in, "the only problems on the service desk are when the people screw up." Of course it never had to do with how much we value and support the service desk ;-)

A matter of culture

Stephen, I agree with you, especially with your statement that organizations have to support their people to empower them for making an excellent job.

Your story remembered me of the misuse of my own credit card in July 2011 when both my Amazon and my DHL account were hacked and a fraudster had ordered several notebooks via my Amazon account - pretending online that she/he was me. The fraudster had been exhausting my credit card limit within three days and I hadn´t received any notification from VISA that there might be a misuse. The first thing I did, as in your case, was to contact my bank to cancel the credit card. Explaining what (might have) happened to the bank, to the police, to Amazon and DHL was nerve-stretching, especially the phone calls with their service centers. I was connected and re-connected and put on hold several times. I just wanted a quick help and advice what I needed to do and to consider to get my money back as soon as possible.

Although I stayed calm (at least in most of the calls) I was wondering how leading and well-known organizations like this can offer such a poor service by phone. And why they provide their contact center agents with such a low level of knowledge and/or without tools for accessing relevant knowledge fast. I mean, I´m not the only one who happens to face a credit card misuse! This happens constantly. But even if the service desk personnel were better educated they would struggle with their company´s culture and attitude towards supporting their clients effectively.

I can only guess that most organizations don´t spend a thought on your last questions "How are they (service desk people) valued?" and "Do we value the part they play in the business’ perceptions of IT?". While carrying outsourcing initiatives to the limit, companies with external call centers shouldn´t forget that their most important service link to clients is not a part of their own organization and culture. How should service-oriented companies cope with this cultural gap?

Customer Perspective

The issue can come from how the customer see what they think is the help desk. I worked at one for an IT Security Provider and we had two different techs from the Middle East. They were both very competent and could solve most issues, however some customers would asked to be escalated immediately because they felt they were being serviced by an off shore helpdesk.

I agree that the service desk must be able to do its job, but customers should not assume that the person on the other end cannot help.

At the same time, there are many times when the automated system gets you so frustrated that when you get to the off shore helpdesk you've lost all patience.

Lets elevate the great

I completely agree with 'We need to support the people not the technology', and at the Service Desk Institute its our mission to enable organisations to do just that.
Thankfully at SDI we are seeing some encouraging trends. The results of the recent SDI benchmarking survey show that some Service Desks do 'get it' with many of the Service Desks surveyed stating that the main indicator of success of their Service Desk was based on customer satisfaction measures. Its no surprise that these are the desks that recruited based on customer service skills, not technical ability, invested the most time and resource in customer service training and problem solving skills and understand the importance of employee engagement.

As behaviour breeds behaviour the more we do to elevate these types of Service Desk as shining examples to the rest the more will follow…

IT Excuse Generators

Great post Stephen. I feel that gripes are always a good place to learn because the chances are that if a reasonable man is frustrated, there are a dozen more that are quick to anger that have taken it far more personally and voiced their opinion much louder, "colloquial" fashion.

I'm a big supporter of IT supporting the people rather than operating as excuse generators "Well the system says X, so unfortunately you're not an important enough customer and you're out of luck“

Metrics more than Technology

Often the failing at the Help Desk is less to do with technology than with metrics. It is difficult to measure what you correctly identify as valuable: The ability to problem solve on behalf of the customer and to treat the customer well. This is the difference between "grading essay questions" vs. "grading multiple choice."

Most service metrics are simplistic. How long did it take to "handle" the call? In other words, how fast did the call get handed off? In your example, how fast did you get passed back to the automated queue?

Help desk personnel "survive" by learning what is being measured and meeting the metrics. The ones who try to help the customers get laid off.

Computer says no

Couldn't agree more. Unless the company have specifically requested a low cost no frills desk any IT service desk should be staffed with the emphasis firmly on customer service with good generalist IT skills coming a close second. There is still far too much emphasis on scripts to drive "consistent user experience" . If your experience is that the call takes too long and you have to go through too many irrelevant steps to get to a result - well at least its consistent with everyone elses experience so it must be good - right?.

I have run several service desks and I hate scripts with a passion. Too often it is script out, brain off. They are demeaning and demoralising to the service desk staff who feel constrained and no matter how good their knowledge or people skills they quickly turn into automatons where "the computer says no" is about all they can manage.

Its time IT departments put the emphasis firmly on the services we provide and not the servers we provide. Dumping the scripts and upskilling and empowering the service desk will undoubtedly help improve the perception of IT and generate real value for the business. If we can articulate that value and support delivery with appropriate measures and service levels then most businesses would support this approach. If we don't start thinking service rather than servers and get an understanding of our cost to serve and service provision options versus business value we may as well shut up shop now because its certain business leaders will just keep chopping the budget until we can no longer operate.

2012/13 will in my opinion be another rough couple of years for most companies IT Departments. Turnover and profit have been hit in many companies and budgets are being constrained. Business leaders are clued up on IT and alternative strategies for service provision. The companies that survive will be the ones that understand all their costs and drivers and make appropriate investment decisions which add value by optimising performance/reducing costs/reducing time to market etc. IT can help significantly with these initiatives and it us up to us to demonstrate the benefits of collaborative engagement. That will only work though if IT is seen as efficient and effective and that brings us back to the window on our world that is the IT service desk.

"computer says no" anybody?