A New Look at Help Desk Outsourcing: A Simple Alternative to IT Overload

"Simplify," Henry David Thoreau advised the nation a century ago, and on the doorstep of a new century at least one community should heed his words closely: information technology organizations.

Between Year 2000 compliance projects and increasing demands to make enterprise systems interoperate with client/server and Internet-based systems, IT organizations are swamped with work. At the same time they’re facing a shortage of skilled employees. Part of the solution to their dilemma harkens back to Thoreau’s advice: do less.

That appears naïve considering the real demands on IT organizations, but dissecting those demands reveals opportunities to shift non-essential work to other areas and focus important internal IT resources on the issues only they can resolve. Enterprise IT organizations typically handle system maintenance, upgrades, custom application development and integration, and internal help desk support. The most obvious opportunity to offload non-essential work is to outsource help desk support, for both mainframe applications and the flood of client/server applications deployed on corporate networks. Not because the help desk isn’t essential, but because IT doesn’t necessarily have to operate it.

Mainframe-oriented organizations traditionally have not seriously considered outsourcing because the realities of mainframe computing precluded it. Mainframe applications were too specialized and complicated for an outside service provider to support, and the system’s operation was too crucial to entrust to anyone outside the company’s walls. The internal IT staff was best equipped to handle day-to-day user issues, and the centralized nature of mainframe computing made keeping up with user demands fairly manageable.

Now, of course, the mainframe is seldom the only system in the enterprise. Most IT organizations support desktop applications, server-based applications and networking software, in addition to mainframe applications. Internal help desk support, once a fairly simple matter, is now a complicated one aggravated by a shortage of technically skilled workers. To meet the ever-increasing burden, IT organizations are often left with the unattractive alternatives of shortchanging either the help desk operation, which keeps the system running today, or the strategic issues, which could bring it to its knees in the future.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Internal IT is indispensable to many tasks, but help desk support isn’t one of them. Everyday user questions don’t require the kind of firepower an internal IT department can bring to bear. Diverting routine questions about mainframe and client/server applications from IT to an outsource service provider can free up IT resources. With an outsource service provider handling the bulk of help desk calls, lower-skilled IT people currently on the help desk can be retrained to either undertake strategic level work, or offload lower-level tasks from higher-skilled IT people who should be working on strategic projects.

If outsourcing the corporate help desk makes the best sense for a company’s balance sheet and end users, the key questions to resolve are:

  • Which portions of the help desk should be outsourced? This could be anything from all low-level user questions on all applications to a specified level of question on selected applications.
  • How to evaluate help desk outsource providers, and select the right one.

The second consideration is actually slightly more important than the first, because the right outsource technical support provider can advise a company about how much of its help desk it should outsource. Just as the computing environment has grown more complicated, outsource technical support providers have grown more sophisticated. The leading outsource technical support providers have experience supporting both

off-the-shelf and custom applications. They can use that experience to design a help desk outsourcing program that lightens the burden on the IT department while retaining control over areas too sensitive or complicated to allow outside the company’s walls.

Following are the key considerations a company should weigh when deciding on an outsource technical support provider.



The first thing a company must determine is whether the outsource technical support company has a proven track record of providing the services you require. Consulting firms and software companies may offer outsource help desk service, but the potential customer has to determine if they have relevant experience. Check with industry research firms and the trade press that follow service and support companies. What do they say about the vendor? Check to see if the outsource company has won any awards or has received recognition by industry organizations, such as the Software Support Professionals Association. Most importantly, get references and talk with customers to find out their real-world experiences working with specific companies.



The help desk is a combination of people and technology. The outsourcing company should be able to document with hard facts and figures that they have the right combination to meet a client’s needs.

Every help desk outsourcing company will claim to hire only the best people. Those that truly do can document a stringent recruiting and screening process that focuses on finding people with both technical skills and communication skills. They can also point to a mandatory classroom training program covering technology and problem solving, as well as hands-on training under qualified supervision.

From the technology side, your support team should be well versed in a broad range of desktop applications, communications and Internet-based solutions in addition to your custom-developed and enterprise-wide systems. Not only is it important to know how a specific product works, but also how one application interoperates with the myriad of software running at your company. The help desk staff should be backed up by knowledge bases on each application supported, and laboratories where they can duplicate and dissect technical issues a customer is experiencing.

Understanding technical ins-and-outs of a product must then be combined with a support person’s ability to effectively communicate and solve problems for your users. Users working under deadline can be irate and demanding. Help desk staff must be able to quickly defuse confrontational situations to help users get up and running quickly.


In Synch with Your Company’s Philosophy

Choosing to outsource the help desk function is a significant decision, and companies will want to partner with an outsource provider that fits the way it does business. An outsource technical support partner should be willing to develop customized support services that meet the company’s needs, rather than forcing the company’s needs into a rigid service model.



Selecting an outsource help desk partner is a long-term decision, and it is important to think about a vendor’s ability to provide support as its client company grows, as well as its ability to meet today’s requirements. Can the help desk vendor scale up to support a growing nationwide presence? Does it have international operations and multilingual capabilities needed to support a worldwide user base? And can the help desk vendor quickly add people and support programs for the countless new technologies and products its client company may adopt?


Value-Add Services

To be successful, an outsource help desk team must become an extension of its client. As such, they must provide value-added services that are proactive to help the client run a better help desk organization and business. For example, a help desk outsourcing company should be able to convert knowledge gained from resolving customer support issues into a best practices program to be communicated back to the client company to help improve the quality of its IT organization.

Outsourcing corporate help desks enables companies to provide more efficient, cost effective and high quality technical support, and focus internal IT resources on strategic issues that only they can handle. Choosing a vendor that has the people, technology and processes to customize a help desk solution to a company’s individual needs is one simple answer to the many complicated issues facing IT organizations today.



John Riley is director of marketing services at Stream International, a leading technical support oursourcer based in Canton, Mass.

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