Why Outsourcing Your Help Desk Is a Risky Strategy

By Joe The IT Guy


Is your organization thinking about outsourcing its IT help desk? Not just the technology-side of providing IT support, but the whole kit and kaboodle – the people, processes, and technology, where your organization is putting its IT-support “life” into someone else’s hands.

This might sound scary but help desk outsourcing has been a viable IT-support sourcing option for close to two decades, and it’s a proven alternative – with certain caveats – to companies operating their own, in-house, IT help desk.

Here, I look at the pros and cons of help desk outsourcing from the benefits of the outsourced help desk costs to the potential adverse impact on business operations.

The Main Pros of Help Desk Outsourcing

People might think that help desk outsourcing is all about saving money to positively impacting the bottom line. And it’s true that help desk outsourcing can cost less than “doing it yourself,” in the main due to various economies of scale.

For example, because outsourcers are operating at scale they can thus pay suppliers less. For instance, better deals are negotiated with IT help desk tool providers. Or, if they are providing the customer’s IT equipment and third-party services as well as IT support, then there will likely be savings across these costs too.

There will also be people cost savings. Firstly, your organization might not have sole access to the support personnel employed by the outsourced help desk provider, with help desk agents handling the issues and requests of multiple customers. And secondly, wherever possible, work will be off-shored to lower-cost economies to minimize the outsourcer’s labor bills – ideally without an impact on service quality.

And an additional cost-related benefit for the customer is knowing what IT support will cost each and every month thanks to a fixed-price contract. Well almost, as there will, of course, be cost variations to cover changes in volumes and modifications to services and service levels.

Beyond cost, there are many other pros of help desk outsourcing. These include:

  • Increased availability – the costs of running a 24x7 help desk might be prohibitive for your in-house help desk. Whereas the use of an outsourced help desk provider offers up the opportunity to use shared resources during off-peak hours such that the IT help desk still functions outside of core working hours.
  • The use of best practice processes – in order to sell their services, help desk outsourcers need to differentiate themselves based on quality as well as cost. Plus, best practice processes should be optimized such that they save costs too.
  • Access to additional capabilities – in addition to replacing the customer’s existing help desk capabilities, outsourcers also provide the opportunity to bring in additional capabilities that will further help the customer’s retained IT organization to fulfill its responsibilities. This could be a variety of IT support, or ITSM, activities that aren’t currently conducted. For instance, IT asset management or problem management.
  • Access to additional technical knowledge and skills – quite simply, some roles and technical skills might be hard to justify cost-wise or are simply just too hard to recruit and retain in a competitive marketplace. Thanks to the ability to “charge” their staff to various customer accounts, an outsourced help desk provider has the scale to entice people with scarce skills through both higher pay rates and the variety of work opportunities and learning.
  • Service level agreements (SLAs) – help desk outsourcing brings with it agreed service levels at a corporate level which can then be measured at a transactional level. For example, the current in-house help desk might work hard to achieve quick resolutions and provisioning, but there might not be any agreed service level targets for different ticket types. Outsourcing brings with it such targets and the monthly reporting that demonstrates the outsourcer’s level of achievement.
  • Enhanced geographical support – if your company is global, it has main two options for dealing with language differences: 1. require all staff to converse with IT support personnel in the corporate language (perhaps English) or 2. provide local-language speaking personnel to cover different geographical regions. Plus, there’s also a third option that pushes people to self-service such that the technology can translate the interactions. As with the availability benefit above, an outsourced help desk provider will be able to provide multi-language support at a lower cost – possibly using a shared-staff model.
  • Benchmarking capabilities – an outsourced help desk provider is better positioned than an in-house help desk to measure its performance against industry standards and benchmarks. In fact, the aforementioned outsourced help desk SLAs will likely have targets created in line with industry benchmarks for metrics such as first-contact resolution levels, Priority 1 resolution times, and average call-waiting times.
  • Help desk technologies – an outsourced help desk provider needs to deliver the optimal mix of quality and costs and will invest in technology to bring down their total cost of operations. This will include a wide range of IT support technologies including: a proven help desk tool, advanced telephony systems, monitoring and systems management tools, remote control, chat, and knowledge management and self-service capabilities. And with as much labor-saving automation as possible. The outsourced provider also might already be investing in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies in the form of automated ticket classification and chatbots.
  • “Pay as you go”-type contracts – outsourced help desk contracts can be created in different flavors, from a costly “all you can eat” model to a tiered-usage model which is, in effect, “pay as you go.” Here, the less your company uses the outsourced help desk the less it costs.

Obviously, the relative effect of each of these pros will be dependent on the current state of the customer’s existing in-house help desk.

The Main Cons of Help Desk Outsourcing

There are lots of benefits to be reaped from an outsourced help desk. But, as with many things in life, there are also cons to consider against those pros.

Starting with the cost-related benefits: Firstly, the contracted costs (and savings) might not hold true in reality. This is often when certain business needs have been missed from the original contract negotiations and have to be subsequently added in at an additional cost (and perhaps with different margins).

Secondly, and continuing with margin levels, the outsourced help desk provider is a business that needs to make a certain margin from every deal that contributes to its overall profitability. If the required margins aren’t there (in a “live” contract), and price renegotiation isn’t an option (with the customer), then the chances are that quality levels will suffer. This might still be in line with agreed service level targets but unnecessary costs (usually roles/services) will be shaved and the level of service will become “just good enough.”

Then thirdly, this “just good enough” level of service might start to cost the customer more than it saved through the outsourcing contract. Why? Because the adverse impact to employee and business operations caused by prolonged IT-issue disruption will have a significant cost too.

And finally, in terms of cost, a required action that will incur the outsourced help desk provider additional costs might delay their remedial actions. For instance, where they need to wait for the customer to agree to carry the additional costs before progressing.

Beyond cost, there are a number of cons related to the fact that the outsourced help desk is external to the customer organization – with there being an organizational “disconnect” on various levels. For instance, that:

  • Help desk staff are not aligned with the customer organization’s goals and culture – this might cause friction, and upset, in how end users are treated by the outsourced help desk personnel.
  • Help desk staff might only have a superficial understanding of the customer organization’s business operations – meaning that the context, and impact, of IT issues, might not be correctly understood and then dealt with.
  • The quality of service and level of customer knowledge might be affected by outsourced help desk personnel moves. For instance, staff might be trained up on one customer account before being moved onto another. This will also affect personal-level customer-supplier relationships.
  • Major-incident-type scenarios might feel “cold” or “removed” given the potential disconnect between outsourced help desk and customer personnel, with it also being a different dynamic to the traditional “all hands to the pumps” approach when IT support is an in-house capability.
  • The outsourced help desk’s location might also cause issues for customer employees – from cultural differences to the ease with which help desk contact conversations flow. That, while the same language might be being spoken, the level of true understanding might not be sufficient.
  • The customer-supplier relation might become fraught due to a variety of reasons, from spiraling costs to a decline in quality and the business impact this has. There’s no longer a workable partnership, with both parties pulling in the same direction, but rather an adversarial situation where both parties want to maximize what they get from the contact. The result is then likely to be a lose-lose rather than a win-win situation.

With all of the above potentially collectively contributing to two additional outsourced help desk cons:

  1. The feeling of a loss of control over IT support capabilities and the resultant outcomes.
  2. A decline in end-user customer satisfaction with IT support.

So, What’s Right for Your Organization?

It really does depend on your organization’s wants and needs. The question to ask yourself, and your colleagues, is: “How important is IT to our business?” Followed by: “Can we afford to risk receiving a below-par level of IT support and the impact it would have on business operations?”

If the answers to these questions make you feel that an outsourced help desk might end up costing your organization more operationally than it saves in pure IT costs, then the outsourced help desk option probably isn’t for you.

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