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Five Reality Checks: Before You Outsource Your Help Desk

Help Desk outsourcing works best as a way to improve organizations that are already efficient. If your operation runs poorly, outsourcing can actually increase cost and complexity while worsening the customer experience.

Before looking for vendors, do a reality check that involves careful assessment of your volumes, processes, and documentation. Be clear on your goals. Can your support really be improved by someone else at lower costs?  If you choose to begin the process, prepare yourself for a slow and careful due diligence process. With well-established vendors, these contracts tend to involve long term commitments.

If a costly or ineffective support operation is driving you to consider outsourcing, take a deeper look in the corporate mirror before shopping for vendors. Outsourcing may actually force you to address those sticky internal issues anyway.

Strategy Point

Help Desk outsourcing is an attractive idea because of the potential to:

  • Save money.
  • Reduce management headaches related to coverage, staffing, training, and infrastructure.
  • Improve service.

The upside potential of outsourcing is well established.  However, the downside risks go far beyond degraded service quality.

Those that outsource their Help Desk without due diligence and adequate planning run the risk of inadvertently increasing cost and complexity.  Help Desk outsourcing contracts tend to be complex and multi-year, amplifying the impact of bad decisions far beyond the anticipated benefits of the original project.

Key Considerations

Before even looking for vendors, do a reality check.

Reality Check #1: Validate Your Support Volumes

Quality Help Desk outsourcers need a minimum volume of incidents to make the economics work. Minimum billing levels, or ticket volumes, may not be obvious until you review the contract details. As well, there may be penalties for exceeding a maximum threshold, because your supplier needs adequate notice to add trained staff on your behalf.  If your business case for outsourcing depends on avoiding extra billing from the outsourcer, make sure you have a good understanding of the support workload before moving ahead.

Sometimes, organizations under-estimate their support workload because:

  • Many incidents do not get logged in the ticketing system. They might be resolved in person, or at the user’s desk. They may take so little time that your staff don’t think they are worth documenting in the ticketing system.
  • Incidents often get handled by the wrong staff when users bypass the Help Desk and go directly to their favorite IT veterans for support.  These don’t get counted, and they cost a fortune (more on that issue below).
  • When you dissect ticket histories, you may find that multiple support incidents get covered in a single ticket because the user keeps adding more to the original incident.  Your support staff may have no reason to create a new ticket every time, but savvy Help Desk outsourcers will count every question as a separate incident.

Conversely, some organizations find they over-estimate their support workload because:

  • When an outsourced Help Desk takes over, many users try even harder to bypass level 1 support and go directly to more senior, costly internal staff.  IT leaders need to understand these dynamics long before they shop for an outsourcing deal in order to make the right decisions and manage expectations if the deal goes forward.
  • More users will self-solve using web searches and help system content.  An outsourced Help Desk often seems like added friction to the end users because the contact method may change, or the start-of-call user identification method may change, or the triage process may change.  Self-solving can be a good thing, but not if you’ve committed to a minimum level of workload with an outsourcer.

Reality Check #2: Clarify the Problems You’re Trying to Solve

If you are looking at outsourcing as a way to avoid organizing escalation issues, documenting complex resolutions, or solving tough technical problems, stop right now.  If you try to outsource support, these frustrations will only get worse, and fast.  Help Desk outsourcers will be booking meetings with you ASAP to start a conversation about the very issues you wanted to avoid. 

The outsourcer will never know your business as well as you do, and they can’t do their job without your help.

Reality Check #3: Identify the Llimits of Outsourcing

If you have customized your packaged software or a lot of internally-developed applications, support issues will inevitably be escalated back to your own staff, making you wonder why you outsourced.  It takes a long time and a lot of money to train someone else’s employees on your unique applications.

If you are outsourcing to expand your hours of Help Desk operation, consider the overall support solution and what kinds of issues get resolved at Level 1 and beyond.  Many organizations find that they can outsource basic call routing (Level 0) and scripted answers to ‘low hanging fruit’ issues (Level 1) but nothing more complex.  The Level 0 calls are really a live agent offering what an IVR provides.  The Level 1 calls, by their very nature, tend to be things that users could self-solve with a web search (e.g. how to empty their Outlook inbox), by asking a co-worker (e.g. how to complete a CRM transaction), or with a bit of thought (e.g. remembering a lost password).  If anything beyond that has to wait for escalation to someone who works 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, have you really expanded your hours of operation?

Reality Check #4: Estimate the Potential Cost Savings, but Don’t Over-estimate

Don’t over-estimate your ability to reduce costs by outsourcing.  For example, costs for second/third level support may actually go up because you have to identify people to deal with anything the outsourcer sends your way.  As well, you may not actually reduce licensing and operational costs for Help Desk software if you haven’t completely eliminated small bits of reactive work along with second and third level support.

Reality Check #5: Prepare for a Heavy Management Burden

Perhaps the most common misconception about Help Desk outsourcing is that you can eliminate the burden of managing it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although you won’t have staff to supervise, you will no doubt find that the burden of management actually increases. It may be easier to understand this if you ask yourself what happens to those who fail to manage the outsourcer.

Long-term, service quality is a product of management. If you measure and compensate your support outsourcer based on the number of incidents, they will be incented to ‘optimize’ their cost per incident. If your deal involves limiting escalations to your own Level 2/3 staff, the partner will be will be driven to stretch their staff’s skills and push for early resolution.  If your deal involves speed of response and time on call, the partner will be driven to escalate back to your staff even faster. In virtually every outsourcing situation, the customer finds that they still have to manage quality, throughput, process, costs, and customer satisfaction.


If the reality checks above have not ruined your appetite to outsource the Help Desk, consider these recommendations as you go through the process.

  • Review your diagnosis/resolution documentation for your most common support issues, and don’t be surprised if the documentation does not yet exist. In fact, don’t be surprised if the statistics do not yet exist to determine the most common support issues. Have a very skeptical look at the business model of any outsourcer that bids on the business without this information.
  • Clearly document the process and triggers for tickets getting escalated back to your own staff.  This needs to be clearly established up-front because it is usually one of the first things to degrade over time, particularly as the outsourcer experiences staff turnover. Once the deal is in place, this is one of the most critical things to manage closely. Prepare for the day when your own staff says, “I thought we outsourced this.”
  • Process clarity comes from having a good script of the diagnosis and solution to your most common issues. This makes it easier to clarify your needs and get the best price from the vendor.
  • Be careful with the contract, especially Term and Termination clauses. These two areas of the contract must work together to ensure:
    • You don’t get stuck in a bad deal. It may be reasonable to have a one or two-year initial Term for the outsourcer’s setup cost recovery,  but that doesn’t justify long renewal Terms.
    • Early Termination options are tied to provable, measurable metrics. Many CIO’s who have outsourced Help Desk operations have proven a serious deficiency in the vendor’s performance only to find out that they still can’t get out of the contract.
    • Termination triggers a reasonable transition period. If you give notice to terminate, do you really want the outsourcer handling your calls for another 3 months? On the other hand, are you prepared to have the outsourcer terminate the deal on 30 days notice? If you outsource the Help Desk, you have to be prepared to rapidly implement an alternative solution at all times.
  • Check references with the right questions that go beyond “Are you happy?” What could be improved? Has service quality remained stable over the long term as the outsourcer has experienced turnover? How many times have they renewed their contract? Are they prepared to take it back in-house?
  • Look for unhappy or former customers. Every company has them, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, it’s valuable to know what makes people unhappy in case there are fundamental problems you can’t live with.
  • Does it seem too good to be true? If you get a proposal with low minimum volumes, per-incident billing, easy termination, or no contract, it may mean that the vendor has low capability, an immature offering, or poor financial viability.

Bottom Line

The most successful Help Desk outsourcing projects are simply more efficient ways to do what you’ve already mastered. If you haven’t made your organization work well, outsourcing won’t really help.

To outsource, you have to document your typical incidents, solve escalation issues, get better organized, and manage it closely. If you go ahead and do these things before talking to vendors, you may just find that you lose your appetite to outsource.

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