IT Support | Feature
Tech Support that Never Sleeps
With the growth in online learning and mobile computing, schools need 24/7 tech support, but both outsourced and homegrown solutions pose serious challenges.
It used to be that university help desks could keep regular 9-to-5 hours. But with the growth of online learning and with more working students logging on for class at night, 24/7 tech support is the new gold standard. Meeting that standard is another question altogether. Few on-campus help desk staffs can shoulder the additional load, yet outsourcing the service poses its own set of challenges. Whatever a school does--and many actually opt for a hybrid approach--the keys to success are remarkably similar: Lay the groundwork, establish service goals, and constantly measure your performance.
The biggest mistake a school can make is to treat a vendor's service as plug-and-play. If a vendor is going to provide quality service, it must have an in-depth understanding of a school's systems and culture. Without it, the risk of a disconnect between the vendor and campus constituents is extremely high--and is probably the single biggest complaint about outsourced IT support.
Not surprisingly, it can be difficult for an outside company to connect with a school's particular culture. Babson College (MA) encountered this problem in 2010 when it contracted with an outside vendor to handle tier-one support on evenings and weekends, following rapid growth in the college's online learning program. Because of cost concerns, Babson opted for an arrangement where "we shared an agent with other companies or campuses," explains Daniel Tonelli, director of IT support services. "Almost immediately, we ran into trouble with the faculty and staff who were upset that these people weren't on campus and didn't know them. The agents weren't familiar enough with campus applications."
A trial using dedicated agents "did see an improvement in our surveys," notes Tonelli, "but we couldn't really afford it. We tried that for a year and a half and it did not work well. There were service-level agreements and penalties, and the penalties kicked in most of the time."
Such stories are not uncommon. In 2006, the University of Northern Colorado attempted to co-manage 24/7 support with a company called Presidium (now part of Blackboard Student Services). UNC provided coverage weekdays 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with Presidium responsible for the rest. "They had access to our ticketing system and would attempt to resolve problems themselves, but they often failed because they didn't have the knowledge of our systems," says Sam Penn, manager of UNC's technical support center. "Our employees liked the mom-and-pop feel of our tech support team, and didn't get that same feeling from the Presidium responders." After three years, the school chose not to renew the contract.
The University of Virginia has contracted with Perceptis as its central help desk for several years, employing dedicated agents during the day and shared agents at night when demand drops. It can also scale up the number of agents available during back-to-school weeks, something that the school would have been unable to manage internally.
According to Dave Strite, senior director of user experience and engagement in the IT Services department, the secret of success lies in educating tech-support vendors and ensuring that they have up-to-date service information. "A lot of the knowledge in an internal help desk is in people's heads," explains Strite. "You have to document all that and transfer it in a way that the outsourced company can use in its work, and you have to maintain that knowledgebase."
Although Babson had done an RFP and the winning vendor's proposal was impressive, Tonelli later realized that his team didn't do enough research. "We didn't visit their offices and we didn't test out the service enough," he says. "Also, we didn't give the outsourced help desk staff enough training on our systems."
Tonelli was much more aware of these issues when he looked at outsourcing firms the second time. This year, Babson contracted with Camp usEAI to handle overnight support. "So far, we have been really pleased with the service levels," he notes. "Now we can start marketing to faculty, staff, and students that we really are available 24/7."
To gauge whether the school is getting value for its money from a vendor, it's vital that IT monitors help desk performance closely. Customer satisfaction is obviously the most critical metric, says Strite, but average speed to answer is also important. "First-contact resolution is key--that speaks to the value you are getting out of your help desk," he explains. "We can see that they are solving 85 percent of the problems right away."
To determine if the service is proving its worth, Strite asks himself one question: "If I were given the same budget figure we spend on outsourcing, could I do it in-house at the same service levels?" At the moment, his answer is, "No way."
Northern Virginia Community College came to a similar conclusion about its outsourcing arrangement. Contracting with Blackboard to operate its help desk on evenings and weekends costs the community college--the largest in the state--about the same amount as trying to handle it internally, but the company now handles the daily headaches. "It is very expensive and a huge endeavor to run it ourselves," says Steven Sachs, vice president for instructional and information technology. Plus, he adds, "there are quite a few issues with staffing, recruiting, and training staff to work those hours."
At the same time, there appears to be a recognition among some IT shops that it's simply not feasible for them to provide the same level of support 24/7 as they do during regular school hours. NVCC, for example, has decided not to let perfect be the enemy of good. "It is true that there are some types of questions the vendor can't answer," Sachs says of Blackboard's after-hours service, "but we can help 70 percent of the people seeking help right away, and the others can be sent to someone on call in case of an emergency, or handled the next working day if not."
It's an approach that also has traction among schools that handle tech support in-house. After UNC ended its relationship with Presidium, for example, it pursued a bifurcated strategy of in-house support. Because 96 percent of calls were received on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., UNC decided to cover these periods with staff and students. For the remainder of the week, though, the school turned to an answering service equipped with a script.
The answering service staff are trained to listen for certain terms that would classify the call as an emergency and then page UNC staff to respond. Otherwise, the staff document the problem and forward it to the appropriate IT personnel. "This has been a significant cost savings over the Presidium arrangement, and actually an improvement," Penn says. "Sometimes the outsourced staff would actually muddy or confuse the picture for the users and the regular support people once it was handed back to them to resolve."
For schools unwilling--or not yet ready--to outsource their after-hours support, an answering service is not the only option. At Lord Fairfax Community College (VA), for example, CIO Richie Crim gave support staff iPhones and iPads as a way to fix IT problems across the school's three campuses at any time, from anywhere. They use an app called LogMeIn to access any PC or Mac to handle tasks ranging from resetting passwords to changing digital signage.
"They can see a ticket when they are out doing wiring, solve the problem, and then carry on with what they are doing without having to travel back to their desks," Crim says.
He recalls a campus vice president calling him while he was having dinner in a restaurant. "He started to explain that he was locked out of the system and needed a password reset," he says. "I pulled out my iPhone and did it while we were still talking." Since staff members started using the mobile tools, says Crim, campus surveys have shown improvement in terms of customer satisfaction and how long it takes to get tickets resolved. However, such an approach requires a staff willing to approach their jobs with a great deal of flexibility and a 24/7 mindset, and it may not be feasible at larger schools.
Given how integral technology has become to students, some schools now consider comprehensive 24/7 tech support a necessary cost of business, and may even market the service as part of the school's appeal. George Washington University (DC) expanded to a 24/7 call center two years ago, all staffed internally. "We looked at outsourcing it, but we felt that we had so many unique or specialized applications that it just wouldn't work to externalize support," says CIO David Steinour. "We think we would still have to have a call center available for unique applications even if we turned over some basic call center functions to someone else."
GWU's call center is part of a broader strategy to put the school's tech services front-and-center. Aside from its 24/7 call center, GWU has created a "Tech Commons" that offers walk-up service to students, faculty, and staff. Centrally located in Gelman Library, it provides services such as Dell and Apple warranty repairs, computer tuneups and maintenance, mobile device configuration and support, and virus and malware computer cleaning. According to Steinour, the centralized location made more sense than dispersing support centers to the residence halls, plus it's a public relations coup. "Often the help desk is the main impression that users have of IT," Steinour notes.