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Help Desks Relieve Computer-Related Headaches

For businesses suffering from computer-related headaches, help desks may be the painkiller.

And trends are now emerging to improve that medicine, believes Sunny Gupta, founder and chief executive officer of iConclude, the Bellevue, Wash.-based provider of problem-resolution management solutions.

One trend Gupta notes is the information technology infrastructure library (ITIL) approach becoming widely adopted and used to drive help desks' functionality. According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, "ITIL is a framework of best practice processes that claim to facilitate the delivery of high quality information technology (IT) services. ITIL outlines an extensive set of management procedures that are intended to support businesses in achieving both quality and value for money in IT operations."

Another trend is across-the-board centralization and consolidation to break down silos of IT expertise in enterprises, Gupta says. One more trend he notes is increasing complexity in supported applications.

Not unexpectedly, though, real concerns exist with help desks. One concern, according to Gupta, is too many alerts and incidents flooding the help desk. Always being in the "firefighting" mode is another, as is help desks being manual and repetitive with ad hoc troubleshooting procedures, he says. And yet another he notes is the lack of effective, centralized, supporting knowledge base.

Agreements count

What can make help desks better? The service-level agreement (SLA) is something Gupta hears from end-users. "Most organizations run IT operations by SLAs," he observes. "But the more sophisticated organizations actually separate SLAs from operational-level agreements (OLAs)." iConclude's experience shows that nearly 100 percent of its clients mention SLAs, while only approximately 10 percent mention OLAs.

A service level agreement is a formal written agreement between the service provider and the client. The operational level agreement is an internal document owned by the service management team that defines the working relationship between different functional areas within the organization.

But without an OLA or with insufficient OLAs, then a functional SLA is toothless and meaningless, believes Phil Verghis, founder and principal of The Verghis Group, a global-service consultancy in Cambridge, Mass. The outcome of this situation? "You're essentially setting up the customer for frustration." He notes that in ITIL, expectations with customers are set during the service-level management process; specifically, in an SLA. "It defines service goals and essentially sets the expectations for exactly what service will be provided.

What's required additionally is an OLA, which also sets expectations - though not for what the service provider will deliver, but for what the service provider can expect to receive from other IT groups, Verghis says. Not having an OLA leads to potentially unpleasant consequences. "The customer assumes that you will be the one providing support on any topic, delivered in any manner, at any hour of the day or night exactly as the customer wants it."

Gupta notes that clearly established processes improve help desks. One example of such a clearly established process comes from Cambridge, Mass.-based software developer Aspen Technology Inc. "We have a very formalized process and procedures," says Michele Triponey, senior vice president of global customer support and training. Aspen offers tiered-type services that call centers have typically provided. Response times vary from level to level, with "gold level" giving the fastest.

The key to delivering good service is managing customers' expectations. "If you do not, they will set the expectations for you," Verghis emphasizes.

C. Kenna Amos,, is an Automation World Contributing Editor.

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