IT Trends

Expanding the Help Desk

Pepperdine University saves money and time by outsourcing its help desk functions.

When students write sizable checks for private college tuition, a certain level of customer service is expected. Telling those students that the IT help desk is only available certain times during the week, and more limited hours on the weekend, for example, doesn't cut it in today's technology-centric educational environment.

But that's exactly what Timothy Chester, Pepperdine University's vice provost and CIO, was doing in back in 2008. At the time, the 8,000-student institution's help desk was available 14 hours a day during the week, eight hours on Saturday, and not at all on Sunday. "That level of service just wasn't adequate, given the demands of the students that we serve," said Chester.

Pepperdine's School of Education, for example, comprises a number of students who are enrolled in the graduate program and also working full-time jobs. Accustomed to 24/7 access to the school's learning management system, library systems, and other processes, an increasing number of students were asking for an around-the-clock help desk.

Servicing password requests after hours was a big challenge for Pepperdine's help desk function, said Chester. The full-time employee who was working on her MBA in the evenings, for example, could hardly be expected to schedule her technology issues within the help desk's 14-hour "open" window. "If she were doing homework at 11 p.m., after tucking the kids into bed, and couldn't remember her password," said Chester, "she wasn't able to get into the system and get that work done."

Determined to fulfill those requests, Chester and his IT team began researching their options. Done right, the system would replace the school's on-site call center, which was "incredibly expensive to run," according to Chester. "We were paying a lot more than we should have been on a per-call basis." The first logical option was to extend the current call center hours to handle students' around-the-clock needs.

"We started looking at what we could do in-house," recalled Chester. That meant stretching the help desk hours to 16 hours a day, six days a week, using the university's existing staff. Instead of using four telephone operators during "busy" timeframes, for example, the number was reduced to three in order to do more with fewer staff members.

"That strategy helped us somewhat in terms of expanding the amount of hours we were available to the university community," said Chester. "But at the same time it created other problems because we were working with fewer resources here during the prime-time hours. Our wait times, the time it took to answer the phones and the number of incoming calls disconnected before someone could get to them all increased."

The situation created even more problems, namely in the form of unhappy students in need of help desk support and angry that they couldn't reach customer support when they needed to. "At the end of the day, our choices were narrowed down to either investing significantly in our in-house system," said Chester, "or look[ing] for an outside option that could provide the economies of scale that we couldn't achieve ourselves."

Outsourcing won out when Pepperdine turned to a technology vendor with whom it already had an established relationship. About 15 months ago the school offloaded its help desk function to SunGard Higher Education, a provider of software and processing solutions. Chester and the school's deputy CIO visited the firm's Florida call center, and sat in on an hour's worth of calls from different universities.

Chester said his team also developed a detailed analysis of the school's help desk goals and current bottom line costs and then compared those numbers side-by-side with the outsourced option. "We looked at it just like we would when making a purchasing decision between two different vendors," said Chester, "and treated ourselves as if we were just another company that was bidding on a project."

Pepperdine lost that bid and in doing so gained about 40 percent in cost savings, said Chester, who then had to send the recommended solution through a university process that kicks in when the changes impact employment. A university management committee reviewed the IT team's analysis and then sent it along to the president's cabinet, which approved the outsourcing option.

Today, help desk calls are fielded by a third party, but the function itself is managed internally and headed up by a director with 20 years of IT experience. "His day-to-day job is to manage the help desk no differently than if the phone operators/staff were sitting there in the same location with him," explained Chester. The director also determines call patterns to see if any issues can be handled on a more global basis and helps reduce the total number of calls received by the center.

Chester said outsourcing the help desk has saved Pepperdine about $300,000 annually--money that is now reinvested in "more strategic areas, including e-learning and faculty support." The school is currently in the middle of a Cisco telephone voiceover implementation, and is also investing in more classroom technology for faculty and student use.

"We're always looking to use more technology to automate and reduce costs, and to facilitate data collection for better decision making," said Chester. "Ultimately, all of these IT initiatives center around maintaining the high level of services that we've always brought to our faculty and students."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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