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2/1/07

Competing for Performance

Motivation is one of the great challenges of help desk management. Keeping good morale among analysts and encouraging them to strive for continuous improvement is difficult in a line of work where there are so many customer requests, and most of them come from frustrated end users who have already tried everything to resolve their problem on their own.

One great enabler of positive morale in this environment is to set individual goals for analysts and create a competitive environment. By seeing each other's metrics, each analyst will see objective measurements that compare them to their peers. For most, this is enough motivation to strive for continuous improvement. For those who are not driven by these types of goals, you as the manager will still be able to see where they stand in relationship to their peers and coach them toward improvement.

Many managers are squeamish at first when considering competition. How will it affect the people on your help desk? Will it destroy teamwork and be counterproductive?

There are several ways to make a smooth transition into a competitive, metrics-based culture. One approach is to create a comparative report but replace all of your analysts' names with a label, such as Analyst A, Analyst B, etc. Each individual only knows what their label is, and can see where they stand in the ranking.

Another approach that has been used successfully is to generate both individual metrics and team average metrics. Reporting these on the same score card and distributing to each analyst only his or her own metrics, compared to the team averages, lets each analyst know if they are above or below average. As everyone strives to be above average, the average rises higher, encouraging more competition and continuous improvement.

When each analyst sees only his or her individual scores against the team average, you can also set up a second competitive initiative -- Star of the Month. By making a big deal about your top performer and sharing this individual's metrics, your top talent will strive to become the star. This higher band of competition will take people with a lot of drive and initiative to the next level and reap tremendous rewards. Performers who are below average may not even consider reaching this level, but they will still have the intermediate goal of the team average to move them up to above average.

What metrics should be included in the competitive mix? Typical measurements include: average speed of answer; first call resolution; percent of schedule adherence/availability; case backlog count and follow up; and customer satisfaction. Focus only on the most important metrics so that analysts keep a clear focus and are able to perform.

Let the competition begin.

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Priority Reports for Support Teams

One of the greatest frustrations of customers and help desk associates alike is when a help case must be escalated outside of the help desk. These are the requests that fall into a black hole. The customer calls up regularly to inquire about the status. The help desk contacts the support technician assigned to the case for a status. The customer is frustrated because the delay is affecting her work. The technician is frustrated because there are so many support, project, and operational tasks assigned to him. The help desk is caught in between these two and is usually powerless to help either.

This is one of the most important areas for help desk leaders to address. Implementing processes and tools that prioritize support tasks will benefit the support technicians, the help desk analysts, and even the customers. This month's tool is a prioritization matrix that the help desk publishes and distributes to the support teams and internally to the service desk.

The support priority matrix works on the assumptions that: 1) everyone is busy; 2) there's too much work to get done; and 3) customers are frustrated by not knowing when their help cases will be resolved. By publishing a matrix to the level 2 or level 3 support teams that sets the priority for each case and tracks progress with a service level objective or agreement, everyone can see how there doing in providing support services to your customers.

This matrix should be published and distributed daily to support:
  • elimination of zombie cases (requests that have been sitting so long that even the customer has forgotten)
  • reduction of average resolution time
  • customer inquiries about their help case status
  • relief for support staff, who can work on requests in order rather than being overwhelmed with all of them
  • proper staff support resource assignment by managers
  • objective communication of service level performance
  • healthy competition among teams to minimize queue sizes or red lights
The matrix is generated either by or from your help desk management system. If your system does not support this, it can also be accomplished in Microsoft Excel or Access. It should be a spreadsheet format that consists of the following columns:


Informational Columns
  • Case number
  • Case type/category
  • Case description
  • Customer name
  • Status
  • Last modification date
  • Date created
Calculated Columns
  • Age of request (today's date minus the date created)
  • Service level expectations (based on type of request)
  • Priority (automatically calculated using the age of request, the SLA, and any other factors that are important)
  • Red, Yellow, or Green light (where red has exceeded SLA, yellow is approaching SLA, and green has comfortable margin)

The requests listed in these columns should be grouped by the support team to which each case is assigned. The support team may be displayed as a header for each section of the report.

To enhance this report, include a bar chart that shows each support team's queue with separate sub-bars for red, yellow, and green cases. This will allow a quick comparison of workload and service level performance by team and will motivate teams to look good on the report.

Help cases come in fast, and priorities may change rapidly, so it is essential that you generate this report daily. As with any help desk report, automate it right away. If you can't automate it, you will probably stop reporting on it within three weeks.

Supplement your report with a daily review meeting. This will allow support team managers to communicate any delays or issues with high priority cases. Peer exposure will also motivate them to keep up with their cases.

Manage priorities well, and you'll please everyone who interacts with your help desk.

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Finding the Voice of the Help Desk Customer

Do you know what your service desk customers think about the quality of service they receive from you? You may think that you understand their expectations and current performance. You may be unsure, but hope that you are doing well. Finding the voice of the customer and defining your service catalog and service levels around their expectations will guarantee a level of satisfaction higher than will shooting in the dark.

To help you become more certain of the voice of the customer, you should use a disciplined approach to find the voice of the customer.

First Things First
Start with a bunch of large PostIt Notes and brainstorm with your team. Ask, "What do our customers expect from our help desk?" List as many things as you can in 15 minutes. Write each idea on a separate note and place it on the wall. Encourage free thinking by emphasizing the speed of the exercise and discouraging discussion of the ideas. Let your team know that you will have further discussion later. If people slow down, ask exploratory questions like:
  • What do they expect about response time?
  • What do they expect about resolution time?
  • What do they expect about their conversation?
  • What do they expect about communication on their case?
The Many and the Few
Now that you have your long list, ask the team group similar ideas by physically arranging them on the wall. This is a get-out-of-your seat exercise that can be fun and very beneficial. Try to keep the number of groups under seven and eliminate groups with only one idea by combining and rearranging with the team. When you feel that your groups of ideas make sense to most people, ask the team to give a descriptive category name to each group.

The result of this exercise is a list of critical to quality (CTQ) goals. These are your starting point for finding the voice of the customer. Most help desk goals center around:
  • Availability of analysts
  • Turn around time for requests
  • Empathy and customer service skills
  • On-going case communication
Your help desk may have more or less of these, but they are common CTQ goals for a help desk.

Trust the Trustworthy
Now you have a concept of what the voice of the customer may be. It's time to take it for a spin. Ask your peers and those who you think will give you an honest assessment of your CTQ goals. Don't try it out on your customers yet. Get feedback and refine your concept of customer satisfaction. Ask your confidants if you are missing anything that is important to them or if any of your ideas are unimportant. Let them share their horror stories without retaliating. Be open to allowing them to shape your concept of the voice of the customer.

Talk to the Big Names
You are now at the point where you need to break out of closed doors and share your CTQ goals with some of your business-critical customers and some of your most frequent customers. This is where you will need to brace yourself. Gracefully accept their feedback and share with them that you want to serve their needs better. Let them know that you will follow up with them periodically to check on progress. Once again, you should not dictate to them what is important to them, but let them know that this is a starting point. Allow them to shape your concept of the voice of the customer.

CTQs for Every Occasion
Now that you have refined your CTQ goals, start sharing them with your team, your manager, your peers, your customers, and everyone with whom you come into contact. Create posters and hand outs. Base your customer surveys on the CTQ goals. Get excited about them and share your excitement -- you have found the voice of the customer.

Get to Work
Now that you have found the voice of the customer, captured in your CTQ goals, develop strategies and tactics that help you to satisfy customers in these areas. Find opportunities to implement best practices that will reduce your expenses while improving customer satisfaction.

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1/1/07

The Help Desk: Dumping Ground or Focused Performance?

Many help desks become the dumping ground for security, administrative tasks, training, non-support communication, change management, and ID setup. In addition, many second or third level support teams use the help desk as a shield to keep away from customer interaction. Most of these things are distractions that cloud your main purpose and prevent you from serving your customers effectively.

The distracted help desk causes stress for the managers and team leads that oversee it and requires a highly reactive management style. The successful help desk, on the other hand, focuses on the essential service desk disciplines and resists the urge to heap unrelated tasks on an already lean team of support professionals.

Staffing a help desk is seldom senior management's priority, so discussions are often more about outsourcing rather than adding the needed head count. This increases the importance of maintaining or reducing costs while improving service levels. To do this requires focus.

To lead your support team successfully, focus on these fundamentals to raise help desk performance to optimum levels.

1. Real-time handling of support requests
Spend time each week looking at call volume and email workload on an hourly basis. You will find trends for each day of the week and each hour of the day that help guide your scheduling. Analysts must clearly understand your expectations on phone availability time, email time, follow up time, and any special projects you assign. By using a schedule that you create based on call and email volume, you will make dramatic improvements in customer satisfaction. To be precise about your scheduling, use Erlang C calculations to predict the number of analysts needed per hour.

2. First call resolution
Few things will delight your customers more than resolving their support request when they call, or within a short time of their email. Your efforts to improve first call resolution will help them get on with their day and improve your interactions with them. In addition, it will lighten the load of the support teams that receive escalated cases. To make the most of your limited training time and money, focus training on improving first call resolution on an analyst-by-analyst basis.

Your measurements should tell you which types of cases you receive most. If your categories are too broad, you may need to look a subcategory to make these measurements meaningful. Working in order from the most frequent types of cases, tailor a training plan for each help desk analyst that will improve his or her resolution in the case types that make up 80% of your cases. Supplement this with a well-maintained knowledge management tool to further improve first call resolution (see Creating a Support Wiki for one approach).

3. Open case follow-up
Work diligently on closing open cases that could not be resolved on the first call. Set expectations that each analyst should update each case with status information on a periodic basis. Unless you can measure this and show analysts how they are doing, many cases will be left without updates and will frustrate your customers. Set service level expectations with your level three support teams and hold them accountable as well.

4. Process improvement
Spend time each week identifying, planning, and implementing process improvement opportunities. Research new technologies, training approaches, and trends in running a help desk. Automate all of your metrics. Innovate. This will allow you to improve the quality of your services while decreasing costs.

5. Career development
While you are focusing on performance and the quality of your services, make sure that you are satisfying another critically important customer -- your help desk analysts. They will provide the best service when they enjoy the work, are treated fairly, and are given growth opportunities. If you staff your own help desk, you need to think of yourself as a talent machine. You take entry-level people in, train them and help them to develop career growth potential, and after a few years, you help them find work in another department of your company as a result of the skills they learned on your help desk.

In summary, focus on the fundamentals. Say no to work that steals momentum from these essential areas, and create an engaging, professional support services team.

-Steve McElwee

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Help Desk Performance in a Single Chart

One of the challenges in measuring the performance of any support team is to create a meaningful view of performance. Although it is not possible in a single chart to capture all of the facets of peformance, there is one chart that provides a great monthly peformance dashboard.

This chart, shown below, provides a look at the backlog of open support cases at the beginning of a month, the number of new cases received, the number of cases resolved during the month, and the average turnaround time for the resolved cases.



With the first bar, the backlog of open cases, you can see if your backlog is higher than expected. You can also see if what you are doing to reduce backlog is effective by looking for a downward trend in this measurement each month.

The second bar, new cases this month, shows the trend of your case volume, to see if you are experiencing heavier support request volume. You can use this to adjust by reassigning resources or changing processes to shift workload of certain types of cases.

The third bar, cases resolved, shows the actual cases resolved during the month. This provides an at-a-glance measurement to see if you are working through backlog, only completing new requests, or adding more to your backlog by completing less than your new requests.

The line represents case turn around time for the given month. With this, you can see if you are improving, staying the same, or getting worse at resolving cases in a timely manner. It provides enough information to see if you want to drill down deeper to isolate problem areas.

This chart requires a little bit of work to create the first time, but after you have created it, you can reuse it easily.

  1. Using Microsoft® Excel, create a data table like the one below.


  2. ABCDE
    1DateBacklogNewResolvedTurnaround
    2
    1/1/20065008008205.5
    3
    2/1/20064808238735
    4
    3/1/20064307507794.9
    5
    4/1/20064018308814.8
    6
    5/1/20063501,1449445
    7
    6/1/20065509001,1004.5
    8
    7/1/20063508108404.5
    9
    8/1/20063207959054.2
    109/1/20062107507803.7
    1110/1/20061808108403.5
    1211/1/20061508808753
    1312/1/20061557008002.5

  3. Select the values from A1 through E13.

  4. Select Chart from the Insert menu.

  5. Select a column chart, using the default column chart format, and click Finish.

  6. Right click on one of the columns in the Turnaround series and select Format Data Series.

  7. On the Axis tab, select the SecondaryAxis radio button and click Ok.

  8. Right click once again on one of the columns in the Turnaround series and select Chart Type.

  9. From the Standard Types tab, click on Line, using the default line chart format, and click Finish.

  10. The mechanics of your chart are done. Now right click on the background of the chart and select Chart Options to add titles and change the format.

Now your chart is finished! This chart works well as a stand alone spreadsheet or as part of an Access database report.
-Steve McElwee

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Service Catalogs and Service Level Agreements

The first step in creating Service Level Agreements (SLA) or Service Level Objectives (SLO) is to create a service catalog. At its most basic level, a service catalog is a list of all the services your help desk will provide. In most cases, an SLA is used to define the support requirements of a team to which the help desk escalates cases.

The helpdesk may have internal goals for first call resolution, average speed of answer, and so forth, but PC repairs and debugging application issues often fall into a black hole when they are assigned outside of the help desk. It is these escalated cases as well as the issuing of new user IDs, PCs, and software, that will benefit the most from defined SLAs or SLOs.

Creating a service catalog to begin defining your service levels is always easiest where you have a help desk case management system and good data to measure. If you have already divided your cases into meaningful categories and/or subcategories, you can start by reporting on the categories that have the highest volume of cases in a given month. This will vary from company to company.

After you have listed your categories from highest volume to lowest, review the list and think through the value of a defined SLA or SLO for each. If it doesn't make sense, also determine if your category is appropriate. You may need to look at more detailed information or redefine your categories to make them more or less descriptive.

With your list of case categories that should have defined service levels, report on the actual performance against those service levels. You may find that installing software takes one day to turn around, but creating new user IDs takes three. You may find that deploying a new laptop or mobile device takes two weeks when you thought it was only taking a few days.

Now that you have a basic service catalog and a baseline of performance metrics, you are ready to begin the process of defining service level agreements with your support teams. Implementing SLAs is outside the scope of this article, because it is an intricate process that requires working through management and people issues that may lie outside of customary organizational boundaries.

Get started now on your service catalog, since it is your first step to achieving SLAs. It makes escalated support performance objective and helps put you in control of case management.

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11/23/06

Training for Help Desk Analysts

Help desks can create great entry level positions, since responsibilities can be divided according to skill level, with senior analysts handling the difficult calls and entry level analysts handling more routine calls or email. With this in mind, it's especially important to create a logical progression from entry level to senior level analyst. This will help you to retain the help desk analysts and keep people motivated to do their best.

One of the most important parts of career progression is help desk training. You may choose to send your analysts to a training course or to develop your own training materials. Often a combination of both is best.

When considering help desk training, make sure it is balanced and customized to the needs of the individual analyst. For example, if you have good metrics in place, you can target training to topics that will improve first call resolution in areas where the analyst is weakest.

Make sure your help desk training program covers:
  1. Your own help desk processes, which should be documented and have related training materials.
  2. Customer support skills that help with soft skills, like handling difficult calls.
  3. Business application support skills that cover standard business applications as well as custom-developed applications.
  4. Technical skills for resolving trouble with remote connectivity and PC issues.
  5. Career growth training in areas like ITIL, knowledge management, service desk management, and Sarbanes-Oxley.
Help desk training is one of the best ways to promote career development, improve effectiveness, and get great results.

-Ashley Glenn

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9/4/06

Daily Service Desk Metrics

The service desk or help desk is a high transaction function. In a perfect world, every case would be resolved in 15 minutes or less. While this is a lofty goal, it demonstrates the transactional characteristics of the service desk.

To keep such transactional work on track, it is not sufficient to have a monthly or weekly meeting to review performance. To be successful you need a daily view of performance metrics.

What metrics should be reviewed daily?
  • Critical incidents
  • Non-critical case priorities by support team
  • Count of open cases in individual's queues
  • Service level performance
  • Case aging
It is important that you automate these metrics quickly, since manually generating them every day will lead to putting them on the back burner when workload increases. Look at options in your help case management system or at external reporting tools that will send you daily reports via email.

But wait. There's more to do. Pulling these daily metrics are only the starting point. You need to set up a daily forum for reviewing the metrics with the managers of your support teams. This holds everyone accountable to meet their goals and to prioritize according to predefined standards. This meeting works best if it is held first thing in the morning to help set the course for the day.

Keep an eye on the daily performance metrics. Your monthly performance will look good, and what's more, your customers will be satisfied.

-Steve McElwee

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1/2/06

Case-by-Case Customer Satisfaction

One of the most revealing ways to measure your help desk or service desk performance is to survey your customers. There are many approaches to surveying, but some are more effective than others.

Many companies will annually send a customer satisfaction survey to the whole company to gauge performance. There are several problems with this approach. First not everyone surveyed will have used your help desk's services. This will either make your percentage of responses low or add irrelevant responses to your data. Since you only request this information once in a while, you will be tempted to cram too much information into the survey. Often these surveys lack focus and do not give you a clear picture of performance.

A better approach to help desk customer satisfaction measurement is case-by-case surveying. Each time a case is closed, meaning the problem was resolved and the resolution was already communicated to the requester, a short survey on the case is sent to the requester. Some companies limit the number of surveys sent to the same end user in a given month.

Here is a sample survey, based on critical to quality (CTQ) goals that you may have already established.

Please describe your satisfaction in the following areas for your recent help desk case:

Availability - how quickly we responded to your call or email:
  1. Very satisfied
  2. Somewhat satisfied
  3. Somewhat dissatisfied
  4. Very dissatisfied
Turn Around - how quickly your request was completed:
  1. Very satisfied
  2. Somewhat satisfied
  3. Somewhat dissatisfied
  4. Very dissatisfied
Courtesy - how well we listened and empathized with you:
  1. Very satisfied
  2. Somewhat satisfied
  3. Somewhat dissatisfied
  4. Very dissatisfied
Communication - how well we communicated with you on this case:
  1. Very satisfied
  2. Somewhat satisfied
  3. Somewhat dissatisfied
  4. Very dissatisfied
Comments


When reporting on your results, you can measure customer satisfaction for each of your CTQ goals. Simply report on the percentage of responses that were either 1 or 2. For example:

Customer Satisfaction % = [Number of 1 and 2 responses]/[Total responses for CTQ]

Taking this to the next level, you can review the comments provided by your customers. By reporting on comments where one of your CTQ goals was 3 or 4, showing dissatisfaction, you will find suggestions for improvement. Reporting on your 1 and 2 responses, showing satisfaction, will show you what you are already doing well. This is great information for continuous improvement.

Another way you can use the results is to tie the case ID back to the analyst who took the call. This is a good way to balance individual analyst performance with other internal metrics, like first call resolution. For this it is important to embed the case ID in the request for the survey, since end-users may not remember their case ID.

If you want to be successful in customer satisfaction measurement, you need to automate everything. If surveys require time from other important work, it will quickly go by the wayside. Automate both your requests for completing the survey and your collection and reporting of the data. Some help desk management software will do this for you. If yours does not, consider customization that will enable it -- it's worth the investment.

Good luck with your surveying. Hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

-Steve McElwee

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11/3/05

Create Clear Channels

How easy is it for your help desk or service desk customers to understand how to communicate with you? Many times, it is assumed that the end users know how to follow your predefined processes and that they will follow them naturally. The exact opposite is generally true.

Contacting You By Phone
Let’s start with your phone prompts - when end users call your help desk. Your prompts must meaningful and relevant in two directions.

First, your voice prompts must have value for the customer. The customer must understand how the prompts relate to them. If you say, “Press 1 for business applications,” you’re likely to find that just about everything can be called a “business application.” Instead, try to be specific and use terms your customers will understand.

Second, your voice prompts must have value for service. If you have five options, and all get routed to the same queue, and everyone has the same skill set, you’ve just spent your customer’s time and not added any value. Instead, you should use your voice prompts to improve first call resolution, by grouping skill sets on your team around the voice prompts. Since most companies have a large number of applications and technologies to support, this routing will help your customer satisfaction significantly, since there is more likelihood of getting fast resolution.

One way to improve service is to use two levels of voice prompts. At the first level, find out why the customer is calling:
  1. Report a problem you are experiencing or get status on an existing problem.
  2. Order new PCs, peripherals, or software or get status on an existing order.
  3. Request logins for new or existing employees.
  4. All other requests.
Your second level can then point your customer to the queue that has the best skills to meet your needs. For example, if the user selects number one, above, the options may become:
  1. For problems connecting from outside of our office.
  2. For problems with Microsoft Windows, Office or other software installed on your PC.
  3. For problems with web-based applications.
  4. All other requests.
Once you are satisfied with your voice prompts, consider what answers you can give directly in the phone prompts. For example, if you have a standard answer for all questions regarding wireless support, record the answer directly into one of your phone prompts. The user gets an immediate answer and you don’t need an analyst to take the call.

Contacting You On the Web
After you have settled on the options users will have when they contact you by phone, be consistent for Intranet or web access. If you’re phone prompts work well, users will appreciate a consistent structure when contacting you through your web site. The only difference should be that your web channel should promise faster service through automation. This reduces the number of analysts needed to take calls and elevates your team to higher levels of service.

Think about the linkages between your phone prompts and web portal. If you carefully plan both, you will find that your phone prompts can direct customers to your web site for faster, automated self-service. You will also find that you can point customers from your web portal to the phone system for special requests.

Conclusion
There is much to be gained by using clear consistent channels of communication with your help desk or service desk customers. With some up-front planning, effective skill set grouping, and simple implementation, you can help guide your customers through your processes and provide outstanding service.

-Steve McElwee

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8/22/05

Erlang What?

So what's all the hype about Erlang C? What does this have to do with leading a help desk?

Erlang is a unit of traffic measurement. It is measured by looking at the usage time for all resources divided by the total time interval. It is used for telecommunications design, architecture, and call centers. It's a great fit for the help desk as well.

On the help desk, Erlang C is a way of calculating the number of analysts needed for each hour of the day. Inputs into the formula are simply:
  • the number of calls received in the hour you're looking at
  • the average duration of these calls (in seconds)
  • the acceptable average delay (in seconds)
Although you can calculate the number of analysts for each hour on your own, you can simply use one of the freely available Erlang C calculators available on the web, like http://www.erlang.com/calculator/erlc/.

Remember that for each hour of coverage, you'll need to do a separate calculation, since call volumes vary throughout the day. You can use this information to schedule analysts. Depending on the variability of the volume of calls, you may need to consider using part-time analysts during certain hours.

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Why Knowledge Management?

One of the worst labels that is often stuck on help desks at many companies is, "helpless desk." This name is a reaction to what end users feel when they call. Too often they get an analyst who knows less than they themselves know about supporting the product. As a result, the analyst takes up some of the end user's valuable time, only to create a ticket and assign it to a more specialized support team.

First call resolution and resolution within the help desk are two measurements that will show you how you're doing. If your first call resolution is as low as 50%, you'll find frustrated users, since one in two don't get the help they need as quickly as they should. Some of the best help desks have first call resolution that exceeds 85%.

Since many help desks have high employee turn over, the learning curve to prepare an analyst for optimal performance is costly and requires a lot of time. This also reinforces the "helpless" stigma.

If you find yourself on the low side of first call resolution, you may need an efficient knowledge database for creating, auditing, and using standardized solutions to end user problems. This will not only help boost first call resolution, but will also help reduce the detrimental effects of turn over.

There are several keys to successfully implementing a knowledge base for boosting first call resolution:
  • Make sure it's very easy for your analysts to use. If it takes more time accessing the database than trying to figure out the problem on their own, your analysts won't use it. Having a search engine and browseable categories can help with this tremendously.
  • Define a process for expanding the knowledge base. Defining roles for who authors, who approves, who edits, who audits, and who uses the database is crucial. Making these roles part of annual objectives can go a long way to ensure success.
  • Create an annual review process. Have an auditor regularly look at solution articles that are used infrequently as well as commonly used articles. Create data fields that track the audit date of the articles so you can ensure that your analysts are using good information.
  • Gain support from support teams to which tickets are escalated. Support teams don't like repeatedly solving the same problem. You can help them to win by having them look at repeated requests and asking them to contribute solution articles for the knowledge base. The more you can get involved, the quicker you'll see results.
  • Assign someone the role of editor to ensure consistency and to create and maintain the classification structure.
There are both commercial and open source knowledge bases available to help you get started. Here are a few open source (free) projects:

Get started now, and watch your end users' perspectives change for the better.

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Six Sigma for Help Desks

You've heard the hype about Six Sigma. How companies like GE, Allied Signal, Motorola, and Amazon.com have dramatically improved the quality of their products and services by using it. Did you know that Six Sigma is a perfect fit for Help Desks? If your Help Desk is not meeting your or your customers' expectations, Six Sigma will help you quickly make measurable improvements.

Let's take a look at how to use Six Sigma for improvement projects. The process moves through five stages: 1) Define; 2) Measure; 3) Analyze; 4) Improve; 5) Control. All of the stages have Critical to Quality (CTQ) goals in common. Let's look at how this works in each of the stages:

Define
Here you will define the scope of the project, the problem/opportunity, and the team members. You'll also identify suppliers and customers. Most importantly you will define your CTQs and how you will measure them. These are the most important measurements that you must do well to be successful.
Accessibility
  • Abandon rate
  • Time to answer
Turn Around
  • % First call resolution
  • % Resolved within help desk
  • Turn around days per request
Courtesy
  • Customer satisfaction
Communication
  • Customer satisfaction
Now that you have defined your CTQs, your ready to move to the next stage.

Measure
The measure stage builds on the define stage by measuring your current performance against the CTQs. Sometimes this is easy, especially when you have systems like a help desk ticketing system and phone system that routes and logs calls. Sometimes, you will need to create new sources of data, such as data collection worksheets or customer surveys.

Analyze
With the results of your measurements against the CTQs at hand, you are ready to analyze the data to find problem areas. One of the most popular tools in this stage is the problem pareto graph, which shows you the bigest problem areas you need to focus on. You may find that for some of your CTQs, your current performance is fine and no further work is needed.

Improve
For those CTQs that do not meet your standards, you will use brainstorming and prioritization matrices to find improvements specifically related to the CTQ. You will look at parameters like cost, impact on the CTQ, and ease of implementation. By assigning each improvement idea a score, you can focus on the top improvements, which are most likely to succeed quickly.

Control
Your improvement projects are wrapped up, you've seen measurable improvements, but you're not done yet. You need to keep things on track by monitoring your performance against the CTQs as a normal part of operating your Help Desk. If the measurements fall below your goals, you may need to walk it through the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control phases again.

Now you're an expert in Six Sigma. Well maybe not an expert. Here are two resources to help you along.

  

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8/19/05

Measuring the Whole Picture

The biggest key to running an effective Help Desk is measurement. The volume of requests from end users is too high to use subjective measurements. Each request has important data that must be translated into meaningful performance metrics.

In the world of projects, you see the execution unfold over several months. You know what the handful of sponsors and participants of the project think about how the project is going. Sure, measurement is important in project work, but you measure much of it at the post mortem.

In the transactional world of the Help Desk, requests may be opened and closed within minutes, hours, or days. The customers making these requests may number in the thousands every year. As a result, capturing the right measurements is crucial at the transaction level.

So what do you measure? There are four critical to quality (CTQ) goals that should be satisfied by every Help Desk:

  • Accessibility
  • Turn Around Time
  • Courtesy
  • Communication

Accessibility measures how long customers wait on the phone before an analyst answers. It may also be the amount of time between an email or web request and a ticket being created and communicated back to the customer. The abandon rate helps to add the customer’s level of satisfaction.

Turn Around Time measures how long it took to resolve the customer’s request. This can be broken down into various categories: percent of first-call resolution; percent of cases resolved on the Help Desk; and average days to resolve a request.

Courtesy is a very subjective measure, but an important one, nevertheless. When users call your Help Desk, they have probably already tried solving their own problem. They may have asked their coworkers and be at the breaking point of frustration. So they call the Help Desk. It is important that you measure how courteous the analyst expresses herself through listening, empathy, and professionalism. How do you measure this? Through customer surveys. You may also use call monitoring to create sample data for coaching, but ultimately, the customer knows best.

Communication is another metric that is difficult to quantify. Again, rely on your customers to let you know if you communicated frequently enough, clearly enough, and with the right level of detail.

Now that you have your main metrics, keep in mind that sometimes improving in one CTQ may make another worse. For example, if you emphasize courtesy and create a high touch environment, your accessibility may go down as analysts spend more time on the phone. Keeping all four areas in view simultaneously will yield the best measurement of customer satisfaction and overall effectiveness.

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7/1/05

Service Level Agreement (SLA) Boot Camp

Service Level Agreements, or "SLA's" are tricky but useful mechanisms for managing the risk of an on-going relationship with IT service providers. Unfortunately, most SLA's that show up in service contracts as worthless, cosmetic paper additions. SLA's can be extremely powerful tools to help you and your service provider get the most out of a relationship.

What is an SLA?
A service level agreement (SLA), in its most basic form, is a contractual commitment to meet specific goals. If, for example, you sign up for a hosting contract with a provider, you may desire an SLA that measures the up-time of your website. If you outsource your help desk, you may want an SLA that measures the time it takes to answer the phone. Usually, an SLA includes a penalty and/or reward framework. For example, many web hosting companies offer a refund based on the number of hours your website is unavailable. On the flip-side, an SLA may include an extra bonus to your help desk provider if all calls are answered within 30 seconds. The following are typical examples of SLA's:
"All help desk call will be answered within 90 seconds"
"95% of all bills will be printed and delivered on time"
"The website will be available 99.99%"
"Project X will be delivered within 2 weeks of the planned schedule"
What isn't an SLA?
An SLA is not a way to cut your costs. Rather, SLA's are mechanisms for managing risks, sharing pain, and benefiting from success. Many SLA's are setup as "outs" to contracts that allow customers to penalize technology providers for non-performance. Although penalties do reduce costs and they do send a strong signal to service providers to improve their service, neither you nor the service provider "win" if an SLA is missed. Think of an SLA as a shared goal.

SLA Philosophy
The best SLAs are setup to allow both you and your service provider to share in the success and failure of an agreement. If you intend to turn over the operation of your billing system to a service provider, getting the bills out on time is critical. Whether you do it yourself or partner with someone, if you fail to produce invoices, you delay incoming revenue. In this example, your SLA should inspire your vendor to deliver on performance levels that have an actual impact to your business. Let's say your current billing accuracy is 90%. If you increase this accuracy to 95%, you have directly improved your company's bottom line. If you intend to outsource this function, your SLA should include a shared billing accuracy reward to the service provider if they help you improve revenues.

Make It Count
Some web hosting plans offer an up-time measure that, if not met, will result in a refund to you. Unfortunately, this "refund" may be calculated as a credit based on the time that your site was down and your monthly hosting fee. For example, if you pay $100 per month for hosting services, and your site is down for 1 hour, your credit may only be 14 cents! $100/720 (number of hours in a month) = $0.14. If, on average, you sell $50 worth of goods through your website each hour, 14 cents isn't much of a blow to your hosting company. I recognize that my example is slightly exaggerated. Many hosting companies offer a more material penalty and most web sites do not generate $50 in sales per hour. But you can see how this penalty and SLA is mis-aligned with the business model. If you know you make $50 per hour in sales through your website, your hosting company should incur a much greater penalty for not keeping your website up and running! Whether you negotiate an SLA with a hosting company or a large IT company, create an SLA that is specific to your business and truly establishes risk sharing (i.e. we "win" or "loose" together).

Devil In The Details
A good SLA has four critical components: description, target, measurement, and penalty/reward. If you have an SLA that is missing one of these components, you run the risk of losing the benefit of having the SLA to begin with. In the web hosting example above, the SLA sounds good, but the actual measurement and penalty weigh heavily in the favor of the hosting company (they have little to loose!) Make sure your SLA's are well defined and agreed upon before you ink the deal. Here's an example of a good SLA:

Description: Billing - All bills will be rendered, printed, and mailed on a timely basis to ensure unbilled revenue is minimized.
Target: 90%
Measurement: Ratio of number of planned bills / number of bills actually produced. The calculation is based on the number of records in the billing input file compared against the billing output log file which lists the bills actually rendered.
Reward/Penalty: If billing accuracy is below 90%, penalty is calculated as 1% of the unbilled revenue for that billing run. If billing accuracy is above 90%, a bonus is calculated as 1% of the additional revenue billed.
In this SLA example, your service provider stands to loose or gain substantially based on their performance. Similarly, your company stands to loose or gain substantially based on the performance of the service provider. Depending upon your daily billings, 1% could be significant. Note the specificity of the SLA measurement and calculation in my example. If you are not very specific with the calculation methods, actual performance against service levels are open for debate.

Negotiate Up Front
Many businesses strike deals with IT companies and leave SLA's as an open item. Many IT service providers will want to establish a "base line" period where SLA's are measured and then negotiated. In many cases, this request is reasonable, especially if an IT company has little to no understanding of your environment and your current performance record. However, if you wait to negotiate service levels until after you ink a deal, you loose tremendous leverage with your provider unless you really think you can walk away from the deal. Ideally, choose a provider that is willing to negotiate a service level up front. In my experience, these SLA negotiations are much more difficult on the back-end.

Raise the Bar
A service level agreement should be changed periodically. Let's look back at my billing SLA example. Let's assume that after 1 year of service, your provider is billing at an accuracy, on average, of 95%, and in turn, you are rewarding them consistently for beating the original service level. It's time to raise the bar! If your provider can increase your accuracy from 90% to 95%, maybe they can increase your accuracy from 95% to 99%. Raise the SLA bar (target) to 95%, and only reward them if they beat this new level of quality. By providing the right incentives to improve upon service levels, both you and your service provider can benefit.

The Shorter, The Better
I have seen service contracts with dozens and dozens of SLA's. If you establish multiple SLA's, you and your service provider will have broad visibility into performance levels. However, establishing many SLA's can water down the over-arching performance of a service provider. Put simply, a service provider can "make-up" poor performance on one SLA by beating the performance target of another SLA. To keep things simple, pick the few critical success factors of your business and establish applicable service levels that your provider can truly focus on.
Service Level Agreements should be established as a "dashboard" for you and your service provider to share in the success and failure of your arrangement. SLA's are less effective if they are established as contract "outs" or as penalty frameworks, because they fail to drive a partnering relationship. Negotiate SLA's which, if met or beaten, truly benefit your company and your service provider. Always define SLA's to the lowest level of detail possible before you finalize the arrangement since negotiations become even more difficult after the deal is executed. And never commit to an SLA that could hurt you but not your provider.

About The Author
Andy Quick is co-founder of Findmyhosting.com (http://www.findmyhosting.com), a free web hosting directory offering businesses and consumers a hassle free way to find the right hosting plan for their needs. Feel free to contact Andy at andy@findmyhosting.com in case you have any questions or comments regarding this article. http://www.ArticleCity.com

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6/1/05

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