Exploring help desk outsourcing as 24/7-support option

Colleges and universities of every size looking to alleviate internal IT staff of “level one” support calls

The IT department at Widener University in Chester, Pa., was at a crisis point. Unexpected IT staff turnover and high demand for more technology resources intersected, leaving the university grappling with how to provide help desk support. The school had walk-in centers that were open into the evenings, but overall, coverage wasn’t keeping up with demand.

“We needed to improve our game, both in terms of availability and knowledge,” the university’s CIO, Peter Shoudy, says of the situation that occurred about five years ago. “So, we started talking about outsourcing as a way to be more strategic.”

Widener isn’t alone in seeking to expand its help desk capabilities without increasing staff numbers or busting an IT budget. Colleges and universities of every size are exploring whether outsourcing can alleviate internal IT staff of “level one” support calls, which include identifying and prioritizing problems.

Getting the help, gaining more time

At Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, several factors went into the decision to outsource, says Dana Walters, director of the ITS Project Management Office. Most notably, call volume increased, putting a significant strain on the internal help desk.

Cuyahoga now pays an external support provider, Ellucian, about $400,000 a year to handle help desk calls, which currently total about 35,000 a year. That covers any technology not in a classroom or lab setting. Calls for help with classroom equipment are handled by on-site IT personnel who can fix issues, such as AV interoperability, more quickly than a provider could.

Walters says he appreciates the technical aptitude available at the provider, which Cuyahoga would have a difficult time matching. That aptitude includes proficiency with a wide range of software, including several mobile platforms. In-house support might not know the deep nuances of PowerPoint, for example, but an outsourcing provider would.

“There’s such a broad range of knowledge that we’d have to hire quite a few people to get that same level of support,” he says.

Alicia Christy, Cuyahoga’s project management analyst, notes that Ellucian provides ongoing stats on technology trends, and its staff will make suggestions about upgrades or tweaks that will reduce support needs. The provider also keeps a library of articles and reference materials that’s frequently accessed by Cuyahoga IT staff.

Selecting help desk services

When first selecting a provider, Widener’s IT team found a service located in Kentucky. But officials began to get complaints about calls being routed “offshore” from callers who heard unfamiliar accents. So, administrators turned instead to a locally based firm, DSS, which had helped the school with past PC deployments. The partnership allowed Widener to provide the 24/7 coverage it had lacked in the past.

Also, because DSS is local, Shoudy could drive to the facility for meetings and strategy sessions. The service costs about $70,000 per year, and it is currently handling around 1,500 calls per month. Unlike the first provider, DSS uses the same ticketing software as Widener, which is very helpful in creating synergies, Shoudy says.

“We didn’t go with them thinking about system integration, but it turned out to be a huge plus,” he says.

With its previous outsourcing partner, the ticketing systems were different, which created interoperability problems for viewing information. This impacted productivity, since time had to be spent comparing the data in both systems to make sure tickets were being handled correctly.

8 reasons officials may choose to outsource help desk services

  • High demand for assistance can’t be met by existing staff.
  • Limited resources don’t allow for 24/7 support.
  • Staffers don’t have the skills to answer student and faculty questions.
  • Ongoing training can’t be offered to campus help desk employees
  • The IT department is unable to assist with mobile device support.
  • There’s a desire to expand help desk capabilities without an increase in staff size.
  • IT administrators need to free up more time for strategic planning.
  • The firm can provide technology trend data, which can help in planning for equipment upgrades.

One of the biggest benefits of outsourcing has been freeing IT staff of level one support. They can now do more long-term technology planning. Officials are now able to consider doing more online courses, for example, because the school can support students and faculty who would be logging into those courses in the evenings and weekends.

That’s likely to have a ripple effect—the expansion of graduate studies programs in particular—since they tend to take advantage of all-hours online courses more often.

As a matter of security, DSS doesn’t have the authority to handle password resets. But agents there have been trained to walk callers through a self-service password tool that often resolves the problem, Shoudy says.

Also, obtaining support for mobile devices is becoming more popular for both students and faculty, and DSS has the ability to support multiple device types, from smartphones to tablet computers.

“At this point, people feel comfortable calling the help desk for all types of issues, like formatting a document or handling AV problems,” he says. “Outsourcing level-one calls like that frees us up to focus on other services.”

Reconsidering outsourced support

Even though outsourcing can be a big win, not every implementation works the way that campus officials anticipate. For example, Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., began outsourcing its support four years ago, but is now in the process of bringing level-one support back in-house.

Initially, the school appreciated the 24/7 support availability, but Technology Liaison Joseph Munoz says the majority of calls were placed during the day, when the university had enough staff to handle the issues. Also, a significant number of calls placed in the evenings or on weekends had to be referred back to Pepperdine’s IT office anyway.

Outsourcing IT: Support levels to consider

Level one: Help desk support options

  • Answer calls and emails requesting support
  • Identify and prioritize problems
  • Diagnose problems such as print queue issues, password resets (may be handled by level two), document problems, access issues
  • Transfer calls to other support resources as necessary
  • Identify trends that require deeper IT support

Level two: More complex IT support

  • Implementation of new technologies
  • Cloud-based backup
  • Non-user implemented upgrades
  • Network security
  • Long-term strategy

“We felt like we weren’t providing a consistent service, with the way the tickets were going from the outsourcer back to us,” says Munoz. “We decided that we’d rather put our focus on hiring, particularly student employees, and do more training.”

Although stepping away from outsourcing will remove 24/7 support, Munoz says “anytime availability” isn’t as important as most people might think. He’s found, through surveys, that most callers are content as long as they know someone is working on their problem—even if that means they have to wait longer for resolution.

Some callers might even see their issue resolved faster if it isn’t bounced back from outsourcer to internal support because of network security concerns.

The switch will also allow Pepperdine to spend more IT budget funds on self-service tools, which should lower support call volume, says Munoz. “We’re looking at automating processes, more scripting, better training. Setting up an iPhone isn’t rocket science, so why pay an outsourcer to guide students through that?”

A similar situation caused the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., to bring its level-one support back into the university. Still, CIO William Morse says the experience showed officials how important consistency and knowledge were to students and faculty.

Morse believes that a service desk at any institution is difficult to manage because help desk staff need to have a broad range of expertise, yet high turnover can keep that knowledge pool from deepening. “Also, you run into inconsistency with service desk personnel,” he says. “If it’s not going well, [users] view your whole IT department as a failure.”

Outsourcing may be a strong option if an institution lacks ongoing training for help desk professionals or if 24/7/365 support provides key benefits for students, faculty, and staff, he adds.

Vendors can also provide a breadth of support, from learning management systems to mobile devices, and stay current on version changes and upgrades that might otherwise overwhelm a smaller IT staff.

But outsourcing can also cause a sense of disconnect, particularly for smaller schools that pride themselves on more intimate class sizes and higher overall service levels, Morse says.

“Not having that personal touch will be hard, because students are at a place where they’re paying for that sense of community,” says Morse. Also, outsourced agencies can lack depth, so a caller might get to a certain point in an IT issue and then get transferred back to the school anyway.

School size often plays a major role in outsourcing decisions, says Munoz of Pepperdine. If the institution was larger than its 7,500 users, then outsourcing would probably be a more permanent strategy, he says.

“We’re just not getting the traffic to justify that strategy,” he says. “So we’re using the funds for something else. But if our call volume went way up, I could see how outsourcing would make sense.”

Making the decision

In general, IT officials at any institution considering outsourcing help desk support will need to weigh the pros and cons to determine whether budget and IT operations mesh with an external provider.

One of the most important factors, says Widener’s Shoudy, is what can be implemented if level-one support calls are removed from an IT department’s plate. For some institutions, that strategy might create more problems than it solves if there’s significant resistance or communication issues. For others, it could be a way to funnel all those password-reset requests elsewhere so that help desk personnel can focus on more complex issues.

“For us, outsourcing created an opportunity to think about the future and make more long-term plans,” Shoudy says. “Also, we admit that there are just some knowledge areas that our outsourcing providers do better, so we see them as part of our team now.”

Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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