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Thanks to application support the Service Desk contributes to value creation

Posted on 16 November 2011 by Pierre Picard

Jean-Pierre Le Treut, Service Desk Manager, Bull France

Manager of Service Desks and Software Support for Bull, Jean-Pierre Le Treut is responsible for Bull’s Service Desk centers in France and Morocco and manages several major Help Desk outsourcing projects. Since 1994, he has held a number of posts including Director of Outsourcing Projects, Customer Director, Pre-Sales Director, and most recently, Director of Strategy, Marketing and Partnership in Bull’s Outsourcing division. He initially spent some five years working on computer simulations in the research laboratories at Schlumberger Industries, before he joined the Bull.

Experiences with some telecoms operators’ hotlines and direct marketing call centers have seriously harmed the image of telephone support. Yet it is an essential element of organizations’ operational efficiency, because if it is well organized and based on best practice it can genuinely contribute to value creation by freeing users from technical concerns, minimizing the number and duration of outages, and contributing to the continuous improvement of information systems. By making the Service Desk the first point of contact for the incident management process, the ITIL approach has made a significant contribution in recent years to structuring and reinvigorating these activities. It is also becoming clear that both public and private sector organizations are gradually moving away from a logic driven purely by drastic cost-cutting which has prevailed until quite recently, and which often results in deteriorating service quality, user frustration and an explosion in hidden costs (eg time wasted by users trying to fix their own problems). The current trend, to integrate and industrialize application support within the Service Desk, is a clear illustration of this growing awareness.

Application support involves business applications regardless of the area they cover (management tools, computerized processes, Business Intelligence…) or the technologies used (software packages or bespoke developments). It is all about offering users a single point of contact for any questions they have about how one or more applications work or are used. This may involve functional issues (“How do I print a batch of invoices?”) or a perceived failure (“I can’t seem to log on at the moment”). Establishing an applications support function makes increasing sense as applications become more and more mission-critical. They are already the key engine for business processes, but new architectures – which allow greatly increased numbers of users and ways to access and use them – also mean a proportional increase in connectivity issues, problems with networks and more. By dealing rapidly with incidents, support calls or change requests, effective application support strengthens application security and performance. It can also help to make the investment profitable by increasing the speed and quality of usage of an application, and by enhancing users’ confidence in the tool they are using.

Respecting Help Desk fundamentals

If it is to deliver all the expected benefits, application support must first and foremost respect the fundamental characteristics of a good Help Desk. It must:

  1. Always be accessible to users, and respond to them straight away
  2. Resolve the majority of issues during the first call, and rapidly transfer more complex problems to the most appropriate support group
  3. Track each incident through to its resolution, sending reminders to support groups if necessary and remaining the single point of contact for the user
  4. Ensure that support tickets can be effectively tracked and measure the quality of responses
  5. Contribute to the constant improvement of the organization.

To fulfill its support role, the application Service Desk will be using the same tools as an office automation Help Desk: telephone infrastructure, a support ticket management tool and a knowledge base (both of the last two items can be given to the supplier by the customer).

Specific characteristics of application support

If it is to respond effectively to users who are generally experienced and speaking in their own business language – and completely understand often highly specific and complex applications – application support has three main characteristics.

1. Effective coordination with the IT Department

Whether it is run internally or outsourced, located on the customer’s site or at a remote facility, application must keep in close contact with the IT Department. As a key player in the main support processes described in ITIL, the Department effectively plays the role of an interface between the end users and those who contribute to the application (analysts and operators), as well as acting as a filter (by processing the vast majority of support calls itself) and a source of information (relaying alerts, consolidating requests…).

So as to provide fluid and consistent support, there are three ways of organizing application support in relation to the Help Desk:

Figure 1 – The three ways of organizing application support in relation to the Help Desk

  1. Application support is independent and receives user requests directly: this is the simplest organization structure to put in place, but users must decide for themselves whether they need to call the Help Desk (for desktop systems, networks) or application support (for applications), which requires some capacity for self diagnosis
  2. Application support is independent, but the Help Desk receives and transmits requests on its behalf: this solution has the advantage of maintaining a single point of contact for users, but it breaks the chain of support. Application support has to call the user back after the support ticket has been logged by the Help Desk, and outgoing calls are always less efficient than incoming ones.
  3. Application support and the Help Desk are integrated: this is the ideal solution from the user’s point of view and in terms of service quality, but it is also more expensive to set up, because it requires multi-disciplinary telephone support staff working with what can be an extensive range of legacy applications.

2. Skills development

Given the cost of expert skills and the difficulty of mobilizing them, application support aims to resolve as many incidents as possible at the first level in the support chain. In order to provide high-quality application support that actively creates value, it is essential to ensure the quality of the people in all job roles (from front-line telephone support agents to supervisors and project managers), to minimize sub-contracting and turnover so that they can capitalize on their technical skills as well as the quality of their call handling, their customer relationship management experience and their understanding of the customer environment. The team’s human values are essential to be able to provide long-term, high-quality services.

In addition, the supplier needs to develop a specific methodology to guarantee that its teams rapidly become immersed in the customer’s environment, and then gradually enhance their skill levels. On its application support projects, for example, Bull is committed to ensure that its front-line telephone support agents are trained by representatives from the customer’s business functions, and are fully part of the stage when applications are being received and tested, as well as being a key stakeholder in the proactive management of problems by getting involved in programs of work and technical boards involving levels 1 and 2 support, to tackle recurring incidents, open tickets, and those that could (or might from now on) be dealt with at level 1.

3. Project management

To ensure continued high-quality support, it is essential to put in place a continuous operational improvement loop, involving not only people’s skills but also process optimization. The supplier should be constantly tuning its organization and costs to stay aligned with the customer’s strategy, constraints and sensitivities. Day to day, this requires dynamic management of service delivery by supervisory staff. To do this, they will need to use dashboards that let them optimize not only service quality and productivity, but also user satisfaction (as measured by periodic surveys), in a balanced way. At a more structural level, it implies the ability to run improvement projects (covering organization, procedures, etc), which the supplier should undertake to run while remaining constantly aware of the need not to disrupt normal operation, so as to not affect service quality.

Making the most of developments in support

When application support is integrated with the Help Desk in this way, it can take advantage of all the latest initiatives in this area including, in particular, multi-channel access to the Service Desk. For a long time now, Service Desks have operated in synchronous mode (where the user talks directly to a support agent on the phone), but asynchronous mode is increasingly used by people who want to contact the Service Desk via email or a portal.

  • Self Care: in their private lives, users are sometimes more used to solve problems themselves, with the help of forums or on-line knowledge bases. Enterprise Service Desks are also increasingly offering their users direct access to knowledge bases to help them fix simple problems.
  • Information portals: an important channel of communication not just for the Service Desk but more widely for the whole IT Department, these kinds of portals let users create support tickets and access knowledge bases (see above), as well as a whole raft of other information relevant to their interaction with information systems: incident status, current problems with national systems, planned upgrades and changes…
  • Multi-facility organization: whether it is in order to manage issues of language, cost (via off-shoring) or skills gaps, nowadays the Service Desk can operate as virtual facility, built around several different physical facilities to guarantee security and operational continuity for an organization structure that is becoming increasingly essential to the business.

Bull Outsourcing Services has, and continues to develop, all these skills, as it delivers large-scale, made-to-measure application support contracts for a number of major customers via its network of facilities in France and internationally.

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