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Episode 4

transformed: A CIO’s View on the Importance of the Service Desk

Higher Digital has just published the next installment of its new audio interview feature, transformed. Every other week we interview experts on higher education, digital transformation, and the challenges and promise represented by both. 

Higher Digital President Joe Gottlieb sat down with former Higher Digital consultant Kelley Bradder to chat about service desk operations at higher ed institutions.

Joe Gottlieb: 0:00
Hello, and welcome to another Higher Digital podcast. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President of Higher Digital, and today I’m joined by former Higher Digital consultant, Kelley Bradder. Welcome, Kelley.

Kelley Bradder: 0:14
Thanks, Joe. It’s great to be here today. So what do you want to talk about?

Joe Gottlieb: 0:20
Well, I know you’ve been helping a lot of different higher ed institutions with different projects at the CIO level, but one that seems to stand out is the service desk. While it’s neither a glorious nor a hotbed of innovation, it tends to bubble up to the priority list of many CIOs because of its cost, relationship to student success and satisfaction, and opportunities for process improvement based upon known best practices. So to set the stage, perhaps you could summarize the scope of a typical service desk operation at a higher ed institution.

Kelley Bradder: 0:53
Sure. I think that’s a great place to start. There’s a wide variety of services and scope in a higher ed service desk operation, right? Um, it’s core to the organization’s IT operation. Um, a highly functioning service desk can handle anything from a faculty request of, you know, they have an email problem or they can handle they’re, the front-facing communication for a sweeping widespread system outage. Right. Who do you call? Where do you check with the service desk? And so they provide that front-facing, single point of contact or presence for all your customers, right? Faculty, students, staff, um, in, are they easy to interact with, right? Are they friendly? Do they solve your problem? So many people view a service desk is, is like a help desk and take a ticket. And, you know, they already think that it’s not going to be a great experience. Um, but service desks can provide great customer services, great value, um, you know, not being able to get into your LMS and you have a test can, can produce panicky students, right? So big value and at critical points, um , in your customers education and, and their, their interaction with the university. Uh, so that is really important, but they can provide such great insight to IT leaders about what is happening with their technology resources, what’s going on, and it can help align, you know, you’re very scarce, it resources to your customer needs. And so, um, a really important function, a very foundational function, and a robust mature operation can do things like manage tickets, communicate clearly what the available services that they can receive, right. Uh, they can communicate across the campus community about expectations and service level agreements. They help manage, uh, from the security perspective, they can help manage assets, right? Both hardware and software. Um, and one of the, I think most disruptive services, um, is change management, right? When you change, there’s that big opportunity to disrupt and , and have a service interruption , um, and they help manage that release on the, on any changes and that change management function. Um, and they do all that as well as track all sorts of key metrics and KPIs and provide great analytics to allow IT leaders to continually monitor and keep really the pulse of what is going on with your IT operation and how your customers are viewing you. Right. And so that allows them to manage, to monitor, to correct, um , when needed , uh, really have that volume of calls and contacts to help eliminate pain points, right, help solve issues, which we all want to do. So, um, you know, the other, I think, um, interesting thing is it couldn’t open the door to self-service , right. How can you assist your customers and in self-serving? Um, I guess I would leave you with the thought of: How many institutions or even organizations manage their change or, or judge their change management operation by the volume of tickets that get or on that subject? Right. Because that gives you a complete picture. Right .

Joe Gottlieb: 5:06
Great question. You know, it , I can’t help, but, um, think about that as you’ve described it, as, as digital technology becomes more and more important to everything we do and therefore everything a business does in its operation, and in this case, an institution operating to fulfill its mission, the service desk is that connection to the customer. Right. It’s such an important connection. And so as we think more about technology being intrinsic in everything we do, and therefore being more than a utility being the way that we operate, right? The importance of customer effectiveness, you know , where customer satisfaction is a measure of how they’re feeling about the things you’re enabling them to do, um, becomes so important. Well, speaking of then you left that last , uh, that last point on the, on the notion of ticket volume and whether or not the, you know, the, the ability to see tickets as sort of an indication of what’s going on with change, you know, how do you see, how do you see higher ed institutions leveraging self-service models to reduce ticket volume and improve customer service ? It sounds like there’s some great things to be learned from ticket volume, but ticket volume in, you know, in the extreme is bad. If there is a limit to what we can handle. So how does self-service, um , enter the equation here to , to improve the situation?

Kelley Bradder: 6:30
Well, you know, when you’re new , you’re looking at ticket volume, you want to drive down the cost of each contact, right. And you do that via self-service , and your modernized self-service would have a knowledge management function built into it, right. A structure that would increase in continually evaluate, um, the self-service options. Right. So, um, you know, how you manage, I think the , the really good, or the hot topic in self-service right now is chat bots , right, or chat functions, and that’s pretty innovative. In order for the chatbots to be effective, you have to have a great knowledge base. Right. So how do you do that? How do you put it into place? Right. So, um, that constant investment in building referenceable knowledge from your frontline agents that are answering the questions that they have, investing in, in building that structure of how that knowledge gets produced and reviewed, and then served out to customers. Right? You know, whether it’s a website, whether it’s a self-service portal, um, it really can drive customer , uh, self-service success. Right? If that’s easy , um , if it’s available, if it’s, um, in plain language, and not too technical , uh, that, that it’s, um, used constantly and updated, right, because that’s the, that’s the challenge. The challenge is that technology keeps moving, so you have to keep your knowledge and your self-service elements fresh. Right. So it’s important not just to have the function, but to feed that chatbot good knowledge, and so that it’s in a continuous process that you’re continuously updating. Right. Um, it’s a big ROI, um, if you do it and do it well, and if you put it instructionally , but it has to be maintained, it has to be constant , and it lowers that cost per contact and can be very effective.

Joe Gottlieb: 8:49
Nice. Well, meanwhile, um, we didn’t get too far into this, um, before we reach the topic of COVID. How has COVID impacted service desk operations and, and, and what, what do you think about which of those impacts will have a lasting effect and really not go away post COVID?

Kelley Bradder: 9:08
Yeah. Um, you know, I’m really impressed with the number of colleges and universities that , um, I’m hearing want to improve their service desk. Right. It tends to be a hot topic. Um, a lot of optimization projects and transformation projects happening in this area, which, which is a little surprising, cause I’ve not seen that in the past few years. Um, and , uh, but it is an area that leaders are, are very, um, interested in and I think that’s being driven or fueled by the increase of remote work and online learning. Um, so many faculty staff and students are working and learning remotely. Then it becomes , um, just so important for IT operations to be able to solve their problems and to solve them without having a person present. Um , not being able to stand in front of a help desk or having somebody come to your classroom. It’s all online. Um, and so what becomes critical is what you invest in , um, it , what kind of tools to be able to give that visibility of problems, right? You can’t, you can’t be there. It’s all based on online and in digital tools, so that becomes really critical. Those institutions who have not invested in maybe into , um , monitoring or remote control of your desktop, I’m finding are, are making those investments now. Um, and I think to your last point , um, is that it’s this change in environment I think is gonna , is going to continue. A recent Gartner study found that 47% of organizations will continue to work fully remote, right. That’s almost half, which is pretty amazing and that they intend to work, continue working that way, postpone pandemic. Um, and then from the same study, we found that 82% of leaders, right? It’s not just IT leaders, but, but leaders plan to allow at least some type of part-time work. Right? So even if you’re not fully remote, you are going to have the opportunity as a worker to be at least partially or, you know, have flexibility in, in schedule. So it’s likely that our office environments are going to change. We’re not going to return to pre COVID , um , situations. Therefore from an IT support, our service delivery models need to change. Right. We need to adapt that. We need to find new ways to connect clearly with customers. Um , we need to improve diagnostic skills, our communication skills, our listening skills, and really focus on the customer and meeting, meeting them where they are. Right. We have all sorts of different customers that, that have different skill levels. Right. And how do you figure that out? How do you listen? Um, and so I think that’s key. Um, another piece of evidence , um, a survey about remote work, you know, how are we doing, taking our temperature, it revealed that its leaders or managers believed that the remote work experience for their customers were 21% better than the actual workers reported. So that’s a big gap. Um, so we need to be asking, right. Um, we need to be asking faculty and staff and students how their experiences are, right? What, what, where are our gaps and, and make those actionable, right. We need to act on it. We need to make it better. When you have dissatisfied and frustrated customers, faculty, and students, it leads to poor student retention. If you’re in an online learning, suddenly your campus is your online experience. Right. And , and I think that’s, we need to remember that as IT support individuals and professionals. It also leads your faculty and staff to , um, sometimes engage in bad behavior, like shot creating, shadow it, right. They can’t get the tools, they need to do the job, so they get an, a different application that may not be secure, or they may, um , create that spreadsheet, and it just, that leads to shadow IT, bad data, and bad situations. So , uh , what I see, unfortunately across the industry and not just higher ed right, but across the IT operations and support industry is that, that the divide and the chasm between it and their remote customers is growing. And, and how do we deliberately lean into that? Um, acknowledge it and deliberately try to close that gap. What can we do better? And I think that, that, that question is a really important one.

Joe Gottlieb: 14:39
Yeah. I think as you, as you comment on even what’s happening outside of higher ed all across IT, you know, COVID was probably no avoiding the likelihood that COVID would heavily tax all IT operations because of the need for remote work. We hear great stories about all the heroic efforts to support remote work and in particular, in higher ed, that’s been a , I think, a very uplifting, um, storyline, uh, for many. Meanwhile, like you said, on average, we, the IT leaders felt like the remote work experience was a bit better than it was actually being reported, and so there was bound to be some challenges there. I’m wondering if this process ultimately yields a more digitally literate, um, you know, workforce , uh, because even as we was , we have to turn to technology to be more of our platform , uh, via remote work , we’re gonna wind up in more situations where we have to learn to do new things. Now you’re right, that can go either the shadow IT route or into a positive service desk and IT operations experience route. But overall there’s probably some evolution that happens there Al be it through some, some , um, some ups and downs. So clearly COVID has made this more challenging. What other challenges do you see, um, hampering progress with service desks or , or the surrounding area that it, that it delivers on?

Kelley Bradder: 16:17
You know, I think one of, um, in higher ed, especially, um, higher ed is such a community and kind of , um, a small town right, within an organization. Um, I see a lot of what I call “the end around”, um, actions, which is, you know, employees, um, faculty and staff have the propensity to circumvent, to Tier I and call their favorite IT support person, even though, um, you know, they may not be the expert or they may be at a different level. Right. And so, um, I also see that more likely to happen , um, in kind of smaller institutions instead of, you know, some of your bigger institutions, um, you know , uh , in it’s hard, right. It’s hard for those IT folks to say, no, especially when there’s a connection, like maybe the spouse provides daycare for your kid, right. How, how do you, um, keep, keep the IT support on track? Right. Um, and, and it’s really, it can be very disruptive by, um, you know, sometimes escalating directly to upper management when, when it should start at your Tier I. Right. Um, and it distracts people and it keeps it, it pulls focus, you know, kind of the top priorities and, and, or the tickets might not get logged, right. If you are emailing and talking to the IT leader and they call down and say, “Hey, can you take care of this?” Maybe it doesn’t get tracked and you miss escalations , or it skews metrics. So it ends up masking problems. Um, or, um, you know, I don’t know necessarily if I’m the CIO at an institution, I don’t know what the help desk front are serving out. You know, I, if I try to answer a question, I’m not gonna maybe give the most direct answer and, and I’m not going to have that knowledge base article or, and so , um, you know, what happens is it skews the organization and , and most likely it may stop a student from getting work from getting help, right, because they’re helping a VIP, or they’re helping their neighbor. Um, and they’re not , um, looking at the queue, processing the tickets in priority order, you know, a student may need help getting into, like I said, a class or, or , um, a priority like that. Uh, students don’t know necessarily who to call. Right. Um, they follow the rules , um, instead of circumventing them. Um, so when their problems don’t get solved, what I see is , um, they try to reach out to other contacts within the college, right. They’ll, they’ll reach out to maybe their admissions counselors, if they’re a freshmen or they may reach out to a favorite faculty. Um, and so again, a lot of times they, they call multiple times, righ, which just adds to that volume and exponentially increases the problem. So, you know, and as you mentioned most right now, especially at most institutions the IT support team is stretched. Right. Um, because of the remote situation in COVID and, and it’s created really a challenging environment. So, you know, I , I would encourage IT leaders and CIOs to recognize those behaviors, um, and build strategies for them. Right. Okay. You know, do, even if you have to role-play okay. So what happens when your neighbor calls? What happens when that faculty calls? And maybe it’s shepherding them to the right path, but giving them structures like that, um, in order to, um, creatively not, um, disappoint your clients, but also reinforce the expectations that this is, this is the process, this is the procedure. And, um, it gives, it helps your IT staff to be able to manage them comfortably. Right. And , and have, have a script to what to say. Um, and it really makes a difference to them, to your, your staff and your customers.

Joe Gottlieb: 20:56
Yeah. I would imagine some of this also, um , gets back to effective marketing, right? Like you mentioned, students sometimes don’t know where to go. And, you know, we’ve all learned over the years, for example, that when we call a customer support telephone line, to the extent that we’re still doing that, we know that when we’re in a queue, if we get out of the queue, we’re just losing our place, and there’s probably not another real option for us. So we naturally stick with the most, the optimized path that has been set up because we kind of know that, but in this world, it’s a much more complex, lots of channels, lots of situations. And to me, it ultimately translates to the need to really effectively market the methods that all your customers can use to get what they need. Right. So have you seen a variance in how proficiency at that translates to outcomes that vary?

Kelley Bradder: 21:56
You know, I do. Right. Um, again , um, really setting, I think publishing as much as you can, setting the service level agreements, right. The more information and education that you can do around specifically service level agreements, and making sure that , uh, your, your customers understand that their problems are going to be dressed by impact and severity, and that sets the priority. Um, and allowing, you know, knowing that and automating that as much as you can , um, allows that efficiency. Um, and so again, giving attention to where the attention needs to be. Again, I go back to metrics because then once I see that , um, you know, you take a look at, are you meeting them? Are you meeting your SLAs on your medium and low calls? And, and how, you know, how big your backlog, right. You’re all creating that in and you’re viewing it in a whole picture to tell the story.

Joe Gottlieb: 23:19
Nice. So what’s the most important thing to do with your service desk that you don’t see often enough?

Kelley Bradder: 23:25
Yeah, probably metrics, right. We just, we just talked about it a little bit, but, but , um, you know, I think it’s one of those things that, that everybody kind of knows that it’s the best practice, but maybe don’t know how to go about addressing them. Um, and , um, collecting metrics over time really tells the story , um, and gives you context and allows really to get for a predictive forecasting. Right. I think we all know that we’re going to be busier , um, around the academic calendar. We’re going to be busier in August. We’re going to be busier in July when, when you know your traditional semesters. Um, but you can then forecast, okay, how many people do we need to have on those dates? You know, how many contacts do we need to have? You can staff appropriately, right? And then if you track top contact drivers, it’s going to give you a way to focus on pain points, and some of those calls are or contacts, right, they might be by email or chat or web form . Um, you can also then start understanding, you know, What is that masking? What’s the root cause? And perhaps remove those root causes. Um, and so that really makes a difference. Um, you know, I talked a little bit about priorities right, and automate those when, whenever you can, so that those are being set and your customers are not set setting them. You couple those with automatic workflow flows. Um, and so that when you have , um, uh, a high priority , um, maybe your triage team is being notified right out of the box, and in subject matter experts to solve issues. So , um, you know, those, those practices, they sound simple, but it’s an investment of time and it pays off. Right. Um, uh , again, I mentioned investing in self-service resources are really important. Um, and, and investing in the feedback loop from your customers, right? Send the surveys out after every contact, and if you have a bad survey, call them, ask them what what’s going on, right, because you can, you can , um, create a learning environment and maybe coaching if it’s, if it’s , uh , uh, you know, a person problem, or, you know, you can, maybe it’s a cell incorrect information on , uh, on some knowledge that you sent them. Um, but if you don’t know about it, you can’t correct it. Um, and if you create that type of an environment, it certainly , um, helps the whole operation take pride in what they’re doing , and look at everything from a continuing process improvement process. So it’s good.

Joe Gottlieb: 26:34
So just thinking about these metrics, right. So important, as it is in many areas, but as we, as we highlighted earlier, if this, your , your the connection to the customer that is often triggered in a negative situation, right. Um, you know, being able to measure, like you were just saying, it’s really get to sort of root cause on, on negative reviews, let’s say, or, you know , um, surveys that come back, what are some, what are some best practices around metrics that you’ve seen? Really, really take this to the next level, so that , um, that rudder control can be used more effectively.

Kelley Bradder: 27:14
I think probably the biggest one would be , um, measuring service level agreements, actually calculating the time, you know, setting, setting time limits around what you’re , what you’re trying to do, both in a response time and a resolution time. Right. Um, and letting your customer know. It sets customer expectations of when they might here . Right. Um, Set service level agreements based on priority: high, medium, low critical , so the customer knows when they’re going to get a response and when they might expect a resolution just based on priority. Keep them as simple as possible, too . Right. You don’t need to over make them overly complex. Um, and so then when that is done and you have agreement , um, then you can start monitoring, right. And so say if it’s, you have eight hours for a high priority item for resolution, well, when that starts , when that clock starts ticking on that high priority item and gets to be about halfway through, you know, there, there needs to be automatic notifications or reporting, so that alerts your management, right. You don’t wait till it’s over and then react, but in monitoring that in a , in a proactive way can turn your service , um, operation into a proactive service operation instead of a reactive. Right. And so it, you end up providing a high quality , um, experience for your customers, right. So, and then we talked about another high metric was , um, contact drivers, right. The root cause. Um, but you know, I think tracking them and then also distributing them, right. It doesn’t matter if you have a dashboard or if you have , um, a simple PowerPoint or document , um, collecting them over time , um, in is going to help you make decisions based on data , um, and is going to give you , um, a better view over, over time and more credible, right. If you’re basing your and alignment IT resources on, on data versus what you, what you think it is.

Joe Gottlieb: 29:49
Yeah. So true. I know. And I , in my experience when I’ve managed this category , uh , in the company that I’ve been in , um, it, it’s all about the trend line and correlation of what’s going on, right? So if you, if you, if you expect to be in a certain situation and you’ve already equipped yourself to get through it the best you can, and you’re now reporting pretty predicted outcomes, right? That’s one thing. If you suddenly are signaling, there’s something new causing here, we’re on the case, here’s how, what we’re doing about it. Here’s a new trend that we’ve got, you know, we’ve got a , you know , really, really double-click on and understand, or , um, here’s a recurring pattern, right, that we’ve seen before, and we’ve either asked for more resources, or we’ve asked for this other change in, you know, interdepartmental behavior that we’re relying upon for this to work well, you know, all those things are possible scenarios, but it’s the trend line and the data that allows you to make those , um, observations and then either requests or, you know, summary updates so much more effective when you correlate with what’s going on. I’ve got a bonus question that has just come to mind. We don’t need to name any names per se, but we’ve talked a lot about practice here. We’ve talked a lot about why this is important and what are some things that leaders can do to be more effective. How would you characterize the state of the technologies available to do this, the platforms that are available to handle service desk operations, and to help you put the measurements in place? Is there a big gap there, or is there plenty of technology to take advantage of, and, and it’s mostly about evolving our process and engaging it and making a priority, or somewhere in between?
Kelley Bradder: 31:44
Somewhere in between. Right. I think that some of the higher end tools that have some of these great options can be really pricey. Um , they’re proud of their product, so to speak. Um, and , um, you know, and the other thing that I see is that the kind of lower end tools tend to be easier to use, right, the usability of them. They’re friendlier. Um, there may be more modern, whereas the more sophisticated tools have been around a long time and they’re more clunky. Um, they also are more sophisticated and require , um, an administrator to really continue to invest , um, to keep them up to date. Right. So you have, even if they are a , um, a SaaS solution, right. So I see that, I see in the market for the tools. Um, the, the other piece that I see that, that , um, the institutions , uh , tend to, to embrace is chatbots, right, and that chat technology. Um, I would encourage folks to think about the longterm chat function, right? Because you’re not only going to think about it for an IT support. You want a chat bot for the entire entity, your university, or your college. And so thinking about that in, from the front , um, so that you may want to componentize some of your tools, right? Maybe you don’t want to use the chat function in your ITSM tool, but maybe you want to look at it. Does it integrate right? And again, where is that overall college knowledge gonna surface? Is it on the website, you know? Is on a self-service portal?. So I think some real deliberate thought needs to happen to future proof your, your organization, because you don’t want three different chatbots on your website for instance.

Joe Gottlieb: 33:50
That makes a ton of sense. Yep . All right . Um, so we’ve been talking, I want to bring it home to one of our favorite topics, and that is culture. We’ve been talking a lot about culture as the, really the single most important success factor in strategic change management, digital transformation, big, big projects, et cetera. And so I like to get your thoughts on how culture affects service desk operations. I would imagine , uh , uh , transparency is required for honest reporting and effective SLA management, but there’s probably other things that culture impacts in this area. What are your thoughts there?

Kelley Bradder: 34:28
Well, I think culture is especially important for your frontline agents, right? Those , um, folks and employees that are on that front line, they’re your face, right? They’re your , um, contact with your customer. And so creating that open and honest and learning atmosphere , um, is really important, right. It’s really important to engage them, to continue to provide them coaching and , um, learning opportunities. Um, and so you want to make sure that they’re engaged, they have high morale , um, because they are representing you and you want them to do so in a very positive light. So investing those agents, giving them good tools to work with supporting their work , um, and really giving them very clear procedures and clear, maybe even scripts, right, to demonstrate how maybe , um, a conflict, right. How do you manage a conflict? Right. I had , um, a young agent once say to me, I asked him , are you okay? You know, because they, he had just gotten off a particularly , um, hard call and, and he said to me, well, you know, when they’re calling, they’re probably they’ve got a problem. They’re probably not in a good mood. But how do you, how do you give , um, them the constructs to manage that conflict and, and well , um, and I think that’s, that’s the art of it. Right. Um, and so really, really giving them ways to manage that conflict scripts , um, will drive your high customer service ratings and consistent high quality service.

Joe Gottlieb: 36:29
Well, I want to , um, you didn’t touch on transparency, so how does transparency in an institution factor into the way you’ve seen service desks? You know, do honest measurement, is that a big factor?

Kelley Bradder: 36:41
Yeah. You know, I think being transparent and being, having it be okay to make a mistake. Right. But as long as you’re learning from that mistake in what you do, right. We can’t all we’re humans. We can’t all be perfect, so all the time. And so it’s how you manage that imperfection and what you do about it , it defines from good service to great service because it’s going to happen. Uh, so that, that I think is a huge component of it as well. An important component.

Joe Gottlieb: 37:17
Nice. All right . Okay. Kelley, let’s bring this to a close, any final thoughts that you have for our audience on service desk?

Kelley Bradder: 37:24
I think , um, if I had to sum it all up, I would say that I hope this Coffee Talk right. Other than just consuming caffeine, um, would get IT leaders to think about their help desk function, um, more strategically and less tactically and see it as a way to collect really important decision supporting data so that they can, their biggest challenge is how to expend their it resources, which are really scarce, right. And, and continue to be stretched. So how do they align that, um, their resources, the best way to meet their institution’s needs? And I think that that helped us can really help that the service desk can. And it’s, so it’s really important, especially in this environment to shine a light on this function and, and highlight the important role that this part of an IT operation is currently providing the online learners and your online employees and how they’re all right .

Joe Gottlieb: 38:37
Right. Well, let’s let these folks go so they can get on with improving their service desks. Thanks so much for joining me today, Kelley, and thanks to our guests for joining us as well, have a great day. And we’ll look forward to hosting you again at the next Higher Digital Coffee talk.

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About The Host


As president of Higher Digital, Joe supports customers with strategy development, change management, and strategic operations. He is energized by the complex challenges and profound opportunities facing higher education and is motivated to have and share discussions around these topics.

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