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Gartner Warns about Problems in Outsourcing Help Desk

As any IT analyst will tell you, help desk outsourcing has been one of the biggest areas of growth in a red-hot offshore outsourcing segment. But not so fast, Gartner warns: Several help desk outsourcers may be rushing things.

Before outsourcing their help desks -- much less sending them offshore -- organizations need to consider a number of intangibles (or only partial tangibles) that could adversely affect the outcome of outsourcing.

"Although offshoring an IT help desk may produce significant cost savings, IT management needs to determine whether that decision is right for the enterprise," said Richard Matlus, research vice president for Gartner, in a statement. For example, Matlus said, organizations should consider that the help desk, for better or worse, has an indisputable customer service function.

"For most IT organizations, the help desk is the primary end user-facing organization, so if end users are not satisfied with it, then it will have a negative effect on the IT organization," he said.

For this and other reasons, Gartner noted, offshore help desk efforts frequently encounter problems. One significant problem they found boils down to the issue of client knowledge. Company employees charged with supporting a help desk typically have a better understanding of their idiosyncratic business environments. They also have access to internal communications that help guide or shape their understandings of end user requirements, according to Gartner.

"When the help desk is outsourced, the service provider tries to capture the information into a knowledge database, but the information is not always kept up-to-date or easily understood," Gartner said.

A bigger problem is turnover. According to a recent Gartner outsourcing survey, the worldwide attrition rate for all IT services is about 14.7 percent. The offshore attrition rate, on the other hand, was nearly half-again as big, at 22.1 percent. The reason, Gartner said, is that help desk support jobs are prevalent in India and other offshore locales, resulting in a high turnover rate as technologists leave a help desk position at one outsourcing services provider to take another position, at another company, for an incremental increase in salary.

Not surprisingly, cultural differences can pose significant difficulties in any outsourcing arrangement. According to Gartner's survey, for example, help desks do not always properly interpret customer (i.e., end user) complaints.

"[A] client employee may have a problem on a PC and want to know how to fix it. Instead of explaining how to fix the problem, the offshore agent may take control of the employee's PC and change the image without explaining how this was accomplished because the agent doesn't want to insult the client," Gartner explained. "[T]he client employee may be dissatisfied because he or she doesn't learn what was wrong or how to fix the problem, resulting in a need to call the help desk again in the future."

There can be language and dialect difficulties, too. India-based support agents are typically conversant in U.K.-flavored English, which can result in confusion when they're interacting with end users in the U.S. Support agents might use British expressions (or simply speak more formally), which can confuse, intimidate or put off users.

"[W]hen a help desk problem is sent via e-mail or on a Web chat site, this language problem is not a factor, and customer satisfaction is positive," the report said.

Gartner said organizations should view help desk outsourcing as a kind of work-in-progress.

"Although quality in the first year of offshoring is likely to be poorer than domestic help desk solutions, if an enterprise can be patient, quality and customer satisfaction can reach acceptable levels that are on par with domestic service," said Maltus. "This occurs more rapidly with global clients that have a multinational presence. If a client has perseverance and end users are tolerant, then an offshore help desk can be successful."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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