Service Desks: Here’s what you need to know

What is a service desk?

A service desk is the single point of contact (SPOC) between a company and its employees, customers, and partners. Businesses rely on myriad IT systems to produce and deliver goods and services, including: the organization’s tech stack, software implementations, APIs, devices used by employees, and more. This entire ecosystem must be maintained, updated, and augmented to keep the organization running, which means someone must oversee upgrades, fixes, bugs, and user errors. The service desk is a hub where employees, customers, and partners can seek help locating data, troubleshooting and resolving issues, and assisting with changes or evolutions in company hardware, software, and product releases.

Service Desks: here's what you need to know

Service desks typically comprise of a knowledge base of information that both external customers and service agents can draw on; automation for service tickets to triage and assign issues as they arise; and reporting and tracking of issues to ensure that they’re resolved. Typically there is also a staff of experts who can provide service beyond what is available through self-service and Tier I — or general — assistance.

What is service desk ITIL and ITSM?

ITIL is an acronym for Information Technology Infrastructure Library, a globally accepted system of best practices, definitions, and guidance on how organizations in all industries can manage IT. ITIL defines IT Service Management or ITSM as “The implementation and management of quality IT services that meet the needs of the business. IT service management is performed by IT service providers through an appropriate mix of people, process and information technology.”

The implementation of ITSM differs from industry to industry and company to company. Because of the rapid development and deployment of new technologies, a static library of data is no longer practical, and ITIL has evolved its approach to focus on core principles rather than tactics.

In these principles, it lists service desks as one of four key functions along with technical management, application management, and IT operations management. The service desk empowers the company’s investment in all IT systems because it ensures that the people using those systems can use them effectively and efficiently to further the organization’s goals and KPIs. 

Service is emerging as a competitive differentiator. Consequently a company with a great service desk will have an advantage over those without one.

How IT uses service desks

Any time an organization adds or switches out hardware/software, or makes any change to the system, there are downstream effects, and a risk that the change could cause problems. Employees or customers could be unfamiliar with how to use the new system, or not be set up to integrate the change. These issues result in a slowdown in productivity and/or a negative customer experience. The change could also impact the organization’s systems directly—accidentally taking down the website, for example, or disrupting an API the company depends on for its partner relationships.

The service desk plays a key role in supporting change managers, letting them know how their change is impacting the customers, (including employees as internal customers). The service desk also supports the customers through the change. Service desks are crucial in supporting ITSM responsibilities such as change management, release management, and configuration management

Change management includes such things as a company implementing a new software or a new version of an existing software or introducing a new hardware device. People learning to use a new technology always run into questions and issues. The service desk provides the training and support for customers using new IT. 

Release management generally refers to a business’s release of a new software or features. The service desk may play a role throughout this process. For example, it may be the service desk that identifies issues or opportunities to create a viable new product based on customer inquiries or feedback. They may then play a supporting role throughout the development. The service desk will play a key role in helping customers adapt to the new product, thus contributing to a more positive customer experience and facilitating the success of the product. 

Service desks also help with Configuration management such as integrating a new API into the existing system. Again, the service desk has the greatest familiarity with customers’ experience with various IT systems and can help with the implementation as well as supporting customers learning curve once the implementation is complete.

What are service desk best practices?

The Service Desk Institute has released a Global Best Practice Standard for Service Desk. This document is nearly 100 pages and outlines dozens of specific rules for best practices. But all of these rules fall under nine basic concepts. The institute identified four levels of maturity of companies’ adoption of these concepts. 

The four levels of maturity include:

The nine concepts are: 

  1. Leadership: All levels of leadership and other staff in management roles inspire and drive continual improvement. 
  2. Policy and Strategy: Service desk leadership incorporates the organization’s values and quality concepts into the definition, communication, review and improvement of service desk policies and strategies. 
  3. People Management: Service desk leadership supports and enables staff to realize their full potential. 
  4. Resources: The service desk has access to the resources and tools necessary for staff to achieve objectives.
  5. Processes and Procedures: The IT support organization identifies, reviews, documents, and revises its processes and procedures in order to deliver optimal levels of support.
  6. Managing Employee Satisfaction: Service desk staff are supported and empowered to drive the quality of service and support. The organization’s perception of the service desk acknowledges its ongoing business value.
  7. Managing the Customer Experience: The service desk manages and improves upon customer touchpoints and interactions throughout the customer lifecycle for the purpose of meeting or exceeding customer demands and expectations, in order to increase customer satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy. 
  8. Management Information and Performance Results: Actual IT support performance is measured against planned performance. The results are used to support management in making decisions about the actions required to meet its strategic and tactical goals. 
  9. Corporate Social Responsibility: The service desk has strong morals and ethics and embraces a diverse and inclusive culture both internally, externally and within the local community.

The best service desk organizational structures and models

The organizational structure and model that works best for an organization depends on the organization. 

Companies with a strong ITSM operation may choose to have local service desks—service desks run and staffed by their own employees in-house. This gives the most control over every aspect of the service desk from development of the knowledge base to training and expectations of service agents. In a company with a highly technical operation or product, this enables the company to be certain of the level of expertise and service provided. However, it’s an expensive option since it requires a company to bear all the expense of the service desk function. 

Alternatives include hiring a central service desk—a company that provides service desk capabilities to many companies. Obviously this reduces the amount of control, but also is less expensive and less to manage.

Remote service desks are hosted in the cloud. They also serve many customers, but the level of service and expectations are more customizable than packages offered, generally, by central service desks.

Many companies rely on a model of service that moves from the general to the specific through a tier system. Employees or customers may begin with self-service and then rise from assistants who have a lot of general knowledge of the IT, products, or services, and be escalated, if necessary, toward the experts. 

Another model is the expert system wherein each agent is an expert in some aspect of the IT, product, or service and contacts are routed to them directly if an issue escalates past a self-service or chatbot option. This is a more expensive solution, because hiring and training people with more expertise is costlier. However it may produce a better customer experience because of the reduction in times a customer is shifted to resolve a single problem. 

Tools to build strong service desks

Free IT service desk software: Because these are robust systems, generally for enterprises, some offer a free trial but are not free ongoing. Examples are Freshservice, ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus, and TeamDynamix which offer free trials.

Cloud service desk software: Examples of cloud service desk software–software that’s in the cloud and companies can pick and choose features–are Zendesk and Freshservice. ManageEngine offers comparisons between cloud-based service desks and on-premise.

Tips on building secure service desks: Automation is a key to service desk security. Technology like atSpoke uses automation and AI ensure that customers are routed to the best representatives instead of humans combing through tickets. Moreover, having a strong system of documentation and reporting makes it less likely that any entity can, undetected, sneak in and snag data. Finally, having a robust service desk is, itself, a security precaution, since data hackers prey on weaknesses in integration and systems that break down. Making sure someone’s always on top of that–for the organization–closes the window of opportunity for hackers.

Pricing for paid service desk software: Service desk software is priced many different ways, consequently it’s difficult to say exactly how much it will cost. For example, help desk software–which is a subset of a service desk–can be priced from a free trial; an open API; a monthly subscription; a per-user fee; or a software bundle. It depends on the number of people in the company and the type of contract.

Service desk software comparison: PCMagazine , FinancesOnline , and Techradar all pegged Zendesk, Freshservice, Jira, and Zoho as leading providers service desk softwares. Vivianto Pro was also listed as a contender.

Service desk jobs: How to hire service desk agents

Service desk agents must combine the hard skills of an IT expert with the soft skills of a customer service agent. This includes: 

One way many companies vet candidates for service desk roles is to give them an assessment test with questions and issues as well as the tools to respond to them. Let the candidate use the actual software they will be using as an agent to respond to queries from the customers for which they will be responsible. Have them handle difficult customer interactions and test their ability to handle stress. 

Cultural fit is important so clearly communicate cultural norms, values, expectations, and metrics and discuss those with the candidate. Ask about their entire work history, not just other service desk or tech jobs. Some aptitudes and clues to cultural fit are likely to emerge from more in-depth interviews.

Turnover for service desk jobs tends to be high. It’s important if you hire good candidates to have the culture and compensation to retain them. Hiring new employees is costly not only financially but in terms of institutional knowledge.

A business’s technology is its infrastructure. Nothing can operate without a strong IT infrastructure. Supply chain, communications, sales, service, all rely on it.  A robust service desk is as essential as a reliable supply of electricity. It’s an investment companies can’t forego. 

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