Service Desk Gets its Priorities Straight

IT service desk agent working at her desk

In order to manage enterprise sized contact volumes for large corporate clients, service desk outsourcing vendors have to be scalable and stay on top of the queue so that every end user is supported the minute they need help. For this reason, it’s essential to segregate tasks: the service desk should be troubleshooting all Level 1 support issues that can be resolved remotely and typically within 10 minutes so agents are free to handle the next inbound contact. For much more involved, time-consuming issues, ones that require secure access, or an on-site presence, the service desk must follow the appropriate escalation procedures. To that end, before the service is implemented, it’s important to establish a priority matrix incorporating impact and urgency for incidents that aren’t resolvable at Level 1.

So who sets the priority level? There are two schools of thought regarding an end user driven priority level versus one determined by the service desk agents. Depending on the client’s culture, organizational structure, and size of the on-call escalation group, some IT management teams prefer that agents select priority levels and communicate next steps and resolution time frames to the end user. Understandably, if there is only one individual handling network related issues after hours, escalating a ticket from a frequent caller who may have cried wolf once too often may no longer be an affordable luxury. On the other hand, many clients loan greater credence to end users as the eyes and ears of support issues that potentially have company-wide consequences, granting them an equal say in terms of priority. Since escalation can be functional (prioritized based on resolution deadlines) as well as hierarchical (prioritized based on organizational structure), it could be the CIO and or the mail room assistant who reports a P1 issue.

If following ITIL guidelines, urgency, and impact dictate how an incident is prioritized. As a result, most ITSM platforms or ticketing systems are designed to incorporate that correlation so, once both are selected by the agent, priority levels are automatically set. And, in instances where a priority is improperly categorized, feedback to management field is a useful incident management tool that the client’s IT management can flag for review and remediation by the appropriate service desk team lead.

Ideally, prioritization has no significance beyond metrics and reporting when First Call Resolution is achieved. To this end, service desk outsourcing vendors are always on the lookout for way to increase FCR which strategically often involves increased access, documentation, training, or some combination of the three. If it’s just a simple case of getting the service desk agents a login to the client’s proprietary application and developing a list of troubleshooting steps and/or creating a Web Ex training video, the need to escalate those incidents is eliminated.

Either way, it’s up to the service desk agent to ask the right questions. For callers who can’t access a particular application that’s just been rolled out, have they ever had access or is a remote installation still pending? For callers who can’t access the network, are they working remotely or from the office? Did they reboot their PC? Determining if the issue is resolvable or requires escalation often hinges largely on these answers so agents who can deftly reach the root cause early in the call deliver a huge time saver for both parties.

Sometimes the line of demarcation between FCR and proper escalation management can be a bit elusive. If, for example, an end user working from home on Sunday night can’t get into Outlook because of a failed VPN connection that cannot be reestablished, rather than escalate the issue to a bleary-eyed on-call network engineer, the user should be instructed to login via the Outlook Web Access URL. On the other hand, if VPN connectivity has a companywide impact due to a down server, the agent should indeed wake all infrastructure support personnel listed in the escalation process until the issue is resolved.

While a client server outage is clearly not a “wait until Monday morning” event, service desk agents are often called upon to interpret escalation procedures for more ambiguous issues. Let’s say, for example, an end user reports poor performance on one particular application. The service desk agent troubleshoots and rules out desktop root causes such as drive space and viruses. Plus all other applications are working fine. If the resolution is not within the service desk’s access at Level 1, where does it get escalated? If there is a known issue or bug within the application itself, it gets escalated to the development team. Or, if the agent learns the caller is located in a geographic region for which the application is hosted at an entirely different data center, the incident should be routed to the corresponding network support team. Again, asking the right questions and delving a bit deeper as well as being current on the escalation procedures leads to the appropriate team and a faster resolution.

ABS Service Desk Team Lead Eric Piscione sums up the operational tightrope that his agents must maneuver on a 24 x 7 basis. “Essentially, when it comes to after-hours escalation procedures, we need to remain vigilant at both ends of the prioritization spectrum,” says Piscione. “That means guarding against those higher priorities that don’t fly up the chain of command fast enough as well as those resolvable incidents that should never have been escalated in the first place.”

Since team leads regularly monitor service desk contacts for accuracy as part of an ongoing quality assurance strategy, continual service improvement will always be a high priority.