Service Desk Innovation

A Virteva White Paper
January 2014

Executive Summary

The accelerating adoption of cloud-based IT services and mobile technologies is driving the first major change in IT organizations since the mainframe manifested the whole idea of an IT department 50 years ago. As IT delivery and spend moves to the ‘cloud’ a rebalancing of the entire IT service model including Service Desk, NOC and ITSM demands attention.

Demands for the new service deskThe devices, servers and applications might be ‘leaving the building’ but security, governance and strategy are not. Add in Shadow IT, social media, and 24×7 mobility demands and it becomes clear that this ‘cloud’ thing isn’t going to be about shrinking IT or saving money, but rather will require significant rebalancing of expectations, budget, staff and service delivery models!

In this new landscape, the Service Desk must elevate its role as the foundation for IT Service Management (ITSM). Because of the hybrid combination of insourced and outsourced services, it must manage an ever-evolving portfolio of tools and applications while also being more responsive than ever before–and all without increasing costs. From simple password changes and self-service capabilities to proactive monitoring and compliance management, the Service Desk of today now looks much more like a centralized hub of service management activity.

To achieve this requires a broader range of skills and a greater level of integration and agility. So the Help/Service Desk is being forced to operate with deeper access, more responsibility, and greater influence over the entire operations of an IT organization. The Service Desk is becoming ground zero, propping up “support” for a varied array of vital business activities and diverse technologies, devices and modalities.

Evolution of the Help Desk

The origins of the Help Desk reach back to the earliest emergence of mass market hardware and software technologies, serving simply as a place for users to log incidents. Because the technologies were highly centralized and their business value relatively modest and stable, the traditional Help Desk was an effective tactical response to a highly monolithic IT era.

Recent years, however, have seen dramatic shifts begin to take root both in how IT services are delivered to the business, as well as how end-users expect to utilize them. The pace of innovation, adoption and reliance in today’s technology market is quickening, in turn forcing organizations to rethink and reshape how they deliver support for those technologies.

From Help Desk to Service Desk

The ‘Help Desk’ and ‘Service Desk’ are terms often used interchangeably, but there are some fundamental distinctions between the two. At a basic level, the Help Desk can be characterized as outwardly focused with the end goal of fixing user problems; It’s largely tactical, built to react to and solve problems as they arise. It may also have a service component that reaches beyond the here and now, helping to standardize processes through productivity tools such as technical knowledge bases, remote controls and asset discovery.

In contrast, the Service Desk is both outward and inward-facing. It’s not only tactical, but also strategic. It encompasses the role of the traditional Help Desk in that it supports the end-user, but its end goal is ultimately to reduce costs, improve end-user productivity and gain efficiencies for the business.

Equal Parts NOC and Help Desk

While the Service Desk encompasses the role of the Help Desk, it may also assume many duties of the traditionally-defined Network Operations Center (NOC).

Traditionally, the Help Desk supports end-users while the NOC typically manages the broader picture of network availability, infrastructure and even application performance in order to implement more effective IT processes. Typically, the NOC will also field any end-user issues escalating out of the Help Desk.

The conjunction of the help desk and the NOC

In contrast, the Service Desk of today increasingly bridges the difference between these two, serving as a centralized hub of service management activity in performing many of the duties that used to belong exclusively to one of the other:

  • Providing a single point of contact for the end-user
  • Facilitating the restoration of operational IT services with minimal impact to the business
  • Utilizing an ever-evolving portfolio of tools and applications to monitor and improve IT processes

As Service Desk offerings continue to deploy more robust and innovative features and technical controls to monitor and protect business IT, the Service Desk truly is becoming the one stop shop for an organization’s entire IT estate.

IT 3.0 and the Service Desk

According to a 2012 market study by International Data Corporation (IDC), public cloud services will have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23.5 percent in the 2013–2017 forecast period, five times the IT industry growth as a whole.

The typical IT budget for cloud computing by world region

Organizations are rapidly maturing in their use and deployment of the cloud. In contrast to only a few years ago when organizations were still questioning the basic value and even then looking to it primarily as a means to cut costs, there is now clear recognition of its transformative impact on core business operations. Having already begun to see substantial benefits in productivity, business agility and business continuity, it’s clear that a significant shift is underway regarding how organizations think about their IT.

The emergence of the virtual private cloud (VPC) offers a good example of how this evolution is currently playing out, helping to shift momentum from dedicated private clouds toward public (shared/multi-tenant) cloud services. By offering the benefits of the public cloud (innovation, economics and scale) with the privacy and control features associated with the private cloud, VPCs are directly confronting many of the objections that have held back the cloud model in the past.

An equally dramatic shift has also been underway on the endpoint side of the equation. The revolution in mobile technologies, most notably smartphones, has meant not only have the applications left the building, but so too have the access devices. A profound change is taking place and, whether it’s liked or not, consumer technologies are being delivered to the business end-user. This ‘consumerization of IT’, whereby technologies developed for consumers find their way into business and government organizations, represents a major shift. No longer is business the chief driver of IT innovation. Consumer markets are. And with today’s increasingly tech-savvy users, it is getting harder and harder for business IT to suppress the BYOD trend.

The surface area of IT is increasing rapidly and traditional in-house service desks are struggling to keep up with increased demand.

As organizations look to deploy more business applications in the cloud and the endpoints become more diverse and mobile, the need for a fundamentally re-balanced approach to service management and support becomes clear. The balance lies between maintaining tight control and security over an increasingly dispersed IT infrastructure while not simultaneously impinging on the flexibility and agility of the cloud services themselves. It involves bringing people, processes and technology all together under one service management umbrella to more efficiently and effectively manage the ever expanding “surface area” of IT. This should be the role of today’s Service Desk.

What the Modern Service Desk Needs to Be Successful

The basic requirements of an ITIL-based service desk

The reactive role of the traditional Help Desk, though still an important support tactic, is no longer a viable strategy considering how widespread the “fire danger” is becoming. Whereas it was once daily routine to control fires burning on a single front, resources are quickly overwhelmed when ‘hot spots’ flare up across multiple platforms on multiple devices. Prevention through more integrated management must be the strategy moving forward.

  • Streamline operations and maintenance tasks
  • Automate and standardize processes
  • Reduce errors and transition from reactive to proactive

The Service Desk must manage an ever-evolving portfolio of tools and applications while also being more responsive than ever before–and all with minimal cost increases. To achieve this requires a greater level of integration and agility, and so the Help/Service Desk is being forced to operate with deeper access, more responsibility, and greater control of the entire operations of an IT organization. The end result is that the Service Desk has become a kind of Help Desk on steroids, propping up “support” for a varied array of vital business activities. From simple password changes and self-service capabilities to proactive monitoring and compliance management, the Service Desk of today now looks much more like a hub of service management activity.

IT Service Management (ITSM) tools offer a tighter integration of functions that correlates with the activities of the broader IT support organization. ITSM tools leverage a business view of IT services, enabling the IT support organization to quickly resolve or escalate issues and problems, improve root cause isolation, and provide higher levels of business user satisfaction. Using this business view, IT support organizations manage incidents, problems and service requests throughout their life-cycles at a more efficient and effective rate.1

Listed below are some of the key tenets of successful service management. In addition to the traditional Help Desk role, the underlying factor here is a tight integration with management systems that enable a smarter, more proactive (and less reactive) approach to issues:

  • Proactive problem and incident management and the tighter integration with infrastructure management toolsets required for this deeper level of monitoring. This helps bring the Help Desk out of the reactive, fire-fighting mode and even enable the prevention of failures in advance.
  • Automatic workflow escalation ensuring proper and timely resolution, with procedures tailor-made to the organization. With proper monitoring, this workflow can sometimes begin even before the user reports it to the Service Desk. Common actions include automatic access to knowledge management articles, a time-sensitive warning of unresolved tickets, and notification of IT management when unresolved problems are assigned to the next level.
  • Self-service capabilities that grant end-users clear access to the appropriate materials for timely and, importantly, well-conceived problem resolution. Generally, this also means users can initiate and access the status of open tickets. Password reset capabilities also deserve special mention here. Password resets can often reach 50% of the total calls placed to a Service Desk, so automation here has the potential to deliver enormous cost savings.
  • One of the Service Desk’s greatest tools, knowledge management has the potential to reduce staffing levels substantially by offering well-defined knowledge directly to the end-user in the form of FAQs, user manuals, incident and response histories, and other documents. These days, more and more users are going to try to find the fix on their own anyway, so it only makes sense that they be provided with the best information possible.
  • Asset Management tracks the financial, contractual and inventory details of hardware, software, virtual and non-IT assets to support lifecycle management and strategic decision making for the IT environment. A configuration management database (CMDB) will typically act as the repository for the collection and utilization of information pertaining to these assets and offer the descriptive relationships between them. Proper execution of Asset Management (CMDB) can be hard to accomplish in practice, but when done right allows the organization to easily automate IT asset lifecycles, manage incidents and changes, plan asset offerings, fulfill acquisition requests, automate deployments and replenishments, discover assets, perform compliance checks, and more.
  • Innovative monitoring and alerting tools (whether on-site or remote) can provide proactive problem resolution, performance management and proactive maintenance, offering real time observation of the IT environment on a 24×7 basis year-round. Alarms and sending alerts can be setup to trigger in accordance with specific guidelines defined by or developed for the organization. All alarms and alerts should be logged, The metrics of service desk performancealong with the resolution of each event, and IT personnel are notified as specified by the requirements.
  • Dashboards and reporting to monitor what is actually going on. Reports which detail the
    kind and number of issues addressed/resolved, resolution times, technology-based failures, even financials with regard to Service Desk support are more and more common. Solid monitoring and reporting is essential to getting the most from your support team and ensuring that issues are addressed at the system level.

Fostering a tight integration between the Service Desk and the network, systems, applications and security infrastructure, thus providing clear and credible insight into the IT infrastructure at large, is paramount to getting the most out of the IT investment. In bringing these IT silos together under one service management umbrella, the Service Desk is like the central nervous system of the organization’s IT, enabling increased business productivity and heightened end-user satisfaction.

Managing Technical Debt

The reality of accumulating technical debt in today’s increasingly complex, hybrid, multi-platform, software-reliant systems demands particular attention here. ‘Technical Debt’ is the two-fold notion that 1) Legacy systems and underlying technologies are difficult for organizations to sunset but still require support, and 2) the level of technical expertise required for the initial deployment of solutions is difficult to maintain over the life of the system as staff moves on to newer projects or jobs.

The Service Desk must be able to support the development and implementation of new technologies while also managing lingering legacy systems and must also weather staffing turnovers and the resultant loss of knowledge. Failure to do so can incur significant long-term problems and maintenance costs, yet few of today’s Help/Service Desks are ready to take on this challenge. Again, integration and agility will be key factors to success.

Help Desk Staffing Ratios

Help Desk/Service Desk staffing ratios require ongoing assessment. And this is especially true today. As organizations take on new and more diverse technologies and applications and the functions of the Service Desk continue to evolve, organizations need to ensure that their Service Desk is properly staffed. Understaffing can be a drain on business productivity and create dissatisfaction among users, while overstaffing can be a significant drain on the IT budget. Finding the right balance can be tricky with all the factors influencing the size and role of the Service Desk today:

  • IT outsourcing
  • Smartphone and BYOD adoption
  • Evolving service management strategies
  • Help Desk automation and ITSM platform tools
  • Increasingly tech-savvy users
  • Application reliability
  • Continual push to improve first-contact resolution (FCR) rates with better skilled level 1 support

Users per help desk staff member, by organization size

Some of these trends are helping to reduce staffing levels while others are putting upward pressure on staff. While better service management systems and processes are driving improved efficiency, new technologies and devices being demanded by both the business and end-users are increasing the surface area of IT and driving the need for more support specialists and high-level technicians.

Despite the economy being in a tumultuous period, and particularly in the IT sector, during the last 5 years, staffing ratios as a whole have remained largely fixed, with a very slight downward trend overall in Help/Service Desk staff compared to IT staff at large.

Users per help desk staff member, by sector

The charts on the right show Help Desk staffing levels by organization size and by industry sector. This 2013 Computer Economics study shows that for organizations with an IT budget of greater than $20M, there are 386 end users for every (1) Help Desk technician at the Median. This can range up to 711:1 at the 75th percentile. When looking at the business sector analysis, Financial Services firm consume the most Help Desk support (214:1) and public/nonprofits consume the least (560:1).

In this study, the Help Desk staff member is defined as personnel who provide first-contact support to end-users, whether by phone, chat or email, and not does include managers or trainers, or desktop support or subject-area experts residing in other functional groups.

The Traditional Insourced Delivery Model

The insourced Service Desk delivery model refers to the traditional method of software and personnel operating out of an organization’s building or physical site. The business buys the ITSM application, purchases the RMM licenses and installs them on their own workstations and servers. Everything is then run out of the internal IT department.

The benefits of this model are that the Service Desk staff will have an intimate familiarity with the business and, especially in the case of legacy IT environments, will be able to exercise more control over the functions in place and help craft consistent systems and procedures. For single location organizations, their physical proximity to the endpoint can be a boon to timely incident resolutions and can also aid in the psychological comfort of end-users, as well as the perception of stronger security and confidentiality for the business.

As many organizations already have legacy insourced systems, procedures and staff in place, the avoidance of disruption may also be a compelling factor, at least in the short term, for an organization’s choosing to simply stick with what they already have.

Some of the disadvantages of the insourced model include higher upfront costs, the need for more extensive HR and management oversight, the need to implement and maintain internal systems, the loss of knowledge with staffing turnovers and the accumulation of technical debt, and the possibility of staff getting overwhelmed by support issues and the ensuing loss of focus on more strategic tasks. In addition, one of the greatest challenges of the in-house Help/Service Desk has always been how to attract and retain top talent in a high burnout position. Given that the Service Desk agent is so crucial to end-user satisfaction and how the entire IT department at large is perceived by the user-base, this challenge is particularly noteworthy.

There are also mounting challenges for today’s in-house Service Desk beyond these traditional disadvantages. Shadow IT, 24×7 mobility, social media, big data and the emerging ‘Internet of Things’ are all contributing to an ever expanding number of endpoints. Service Desk calls can no longer be effectively lumped together during business hours and narrowly constrained to desktop applications and connectivity issues. More and more, users are expecting a consumer-grade experience in the workplace. And as businesses continue to increase their adoption of mobile technologies, virtualization environments and cloud-based applications, so too will the expectation that support be available for multiple platforms and a widening array of issues at any time of the day.

The focus [of service management] is shifting from traditional physical delivery and management to more virtual, remote delivery in which support functions are highly automated and the focus is on user self-service. This shifts the focus of workplace services delivery, allowing it to be more independent from end device hardware (whatever device), supports all variations of mobility (wherever, whenever), and increases the productivity of end-users (whatever device) by moving on-site responsibilities and efforts to the end user community.2

Many of the traditional benefits of the insourced model are based around the assumption of a highly localized IT infrastructure and have to do with physical proximity to the endpoint. But as the mobile workforce grows and cloud services continue to mature, much of what has made the insourced model appealing is coming into question. Trying to maintain support for cloud services and an increasingly mobile workforce with the same internally-deployed tools and applications that worked in the past is becoming an increasingly expensive and inefficient support model.

The Outsourced Service Desk

In a 2012 VMware/IDG study, 20 percent of respondents reported that they are beyond the planning and piloting stages with cloud technology, and are now operating department- or enterprise-wide ‘clouds’ in support of the business.3 And that number of companies is growing. As a result, the focus at many companies has shifted from how to implement a cloud environment to how to operate and maintain it effectively.

As industry trends indicate, businesses are increasing their adoption of mobile technologies, virtualization environments, and a variety of Web and cloud-based applications to perform job functions anytime from anywhere. With that comes the expectation that IT support is available for multiple platforms and a widening variety of issues at any time of the day or night.4

The outsourced Service Desk is the solution that can responsibly embrace this evolution yet provide the security, manageability and agility the organization requires, at a competitive (often lower) price. Outsourcing gives organizations the ability to leverage economies of scale and employ a truly enterprise-grade Service Desk experience while at the same time freeing up time for the IT staff to focus on the kind of strategic IT operations and investments that are becoming so critical in today’s business world. Instead of fighting support fires while struggling to keep up with the ever-expanding surface area of IT, endpoint issues can be handled using the latest technology and expertise in the most proactive, efficient and effective manner possible.

It is also important to keep in mind that it’s not necessarily an all or nothing proposition when it comes to outsourcing the Service Desk. Using ITSM platforms like ServiceNow, work queues can be shared between the outsourced Service Desk technicians and the internal LOB application experts easily and efficiently.

Better Support

By providing end-users with a single point of contact for IT incidents ranging from simple password resets to expert hardware and network support, outsourced Service Desks are capable of handling high volumes of incidents that might spring up from any number of devices, and are increasingly endowed with social IT management capabilities as well. They rely on standardized, continuously improving processes that follow strict industry guidelines such as ITIL and Six Sigma, ensuring high quality support is delivered in a consistent way across all locations. The incident management response is also factored into process improvements that benefit the organization and help move things from reactive to proactive. Further, all this is delivered 24/7 across multiple platforms, including telephone, chat, email, SMS and mobile, and self-service. All this can then in turn allow the in-house IT team to better support innovative business initiatives and strategies.

Help desk costs - comparing insourced vs outsourced

Reduction in Cost

According the Keno Kozie Associates study shown on the right, even a modest in-house Help Desk supporting 500 users can run more than $300,000 a year, not including supplemental costs. And these costs are only increasing. As user expectations continue to grow and more devices and applications become part of the IT fabric, better tools, processes and greater human expertise will be needed to provide support. The cost of providing this kind of quality in-house support is simply becoming more and more prohibitive for many organizations.

Soft Cost Benefits

In addition to the hard-cost benefits of outsourcing the Service Desk, many of the so called soft-cost benefits traditionally identified with in-house support, such as greater familiarity with the end-user environment, are actually becoming benefits of the outsourced model. Because end-users are utilizing an increasingly diverse range of remote and mobile devices and technologies, it is becoming increasingly difficult for in-house support teams to staff the broadening range of expertise needed to properly support this BYOD trend.

Increased Agility

Outsourced Service Desk providers enable full-time, scalable support services without any of the accumulating technological debt associated with legacy environments and staffing turnover. The organization can take full advantage of seasonal changes in the business and incident-driven call volumes, and scale in accordance with organizational growth.

Improved Security and Compliance

Many organizations remain skeptical that the outsourced ITSM and Service Desk model can provide the same level of security and compliance that insourced solutions can. However, the reality is that by outsourcing to an established and respected service provider, organizations are leveraging SLAs and the stake of entire businesses to ensure security and compliance concerns are met, as opposed to relying on a small often isolated Service Desk team. Outsourced providers can deliver audit-ready services designed and tested to meet PCI-DSS and HIPAA requirements, offering the highest levels of security and reliability.

Managing Technical Debt

The Service Desk must be able to support the development and implementation of new technologies while also managing the legacy systems in addition to weathering staff turnover and the resultant loss of knowledge. Failure to pay down this ‘debt’ can incur significant long-term problems and maintenance costs, yet few of today’s in-house Service Desks have the service management practices and processes in place to take on this increasingly important challenge.

The outsourced Service Desk, in operating with significant economies of scale, can provide organizations greater flexibility and access to an increasing number of tools and technology skill sets that would otherwise be beyond their reach. Service Desk Outsourcers are leveraging innovative tools such as service automation, remote management, cloud technologies, SaaS and ITIL-based processes to provide superior service management on behalf of their customers. Service Desk Outsourcing enables organizations to obtain world-class services while allowing them to re-focus on core business initiatives.


The surface area of IT is increasing rapidly and traditional in-house Service Desks are struggling to keep up with the increased demand. Support models must evolve to match these new service delivery expectations.

Today’s Service Desk must prop up support not only for an increasingly diverse and tech-savvy user base, but also for a varied array of vital business activities. To this end, the Service Desk must foster a tight integration between the network, systems, applications and security infrastructure, giving clear and credible insight into IT infrastructure at large and enabling more efficient and constructive use of the technologies involved.

It should be the role of the Service Desk to make it easier for the business to leverage IT resources, be
more responsive to the needs of the end-user, and ultimately make IT less of a barrier to business initiatives. Simply put, today’s Service Desk must focus on fostering agility and productivity for the business.

As corporate and consumer IT continues to intermingle, and the development of cloud and mobile technologies continues to accelerate, outsourcing the Help/Service Desk is a prudent business alternative to explore and is a viable alternative to internally staffing this critical business function.


1. Gartner August 2012, Magic Quadrant for IT Service Support Management Tools

2. Forrester Research March 25 2013, The Forrester Wave: Global Workplace Services

3. VMware-commissioned study conducted by IDG and CIO Customer Solutions Group, 2012

4. Continuum 2012, The Case for Outsourced Help Desks