Self-Service IT User Support – How to Decide If It’s For You

Self-service IT support; where instead of calling the Service Desk for IT support, the user consults a resource, wherein he finds the answer for himself. Seems like a good thing, doesn’t it?

It’s not the way we have traditionally delivered support. We normally have people on hand in a Servicedesk or Helpdesk, ready to take the user’s request and act upon it. But now, it seems that a Servicedesk without Self Service is is just so ‘last year’, and Self Service is being pushed harder than ever before.

Pushed, yes – pulled, maybe not so much. A lot of the noise about Self-Service is coming from the vendors of our industry. Caveat emptor

Pity them, the ITSM vendors have to keep finding ways of selling us new product so their revenue doesn’t dry up. They need us, but we need them. So we shouldn’t be surprised when Twitter is suddenly full of the Next Big Thing that absolutely everybody’s getting into and you really shouldn’t miss out on. I’ve noticed a recent peak in emails from ITSM vendors, advising of their new Self-Service functionality. The vendor will rightly point out the features of the systems on offer, the slickness of the design, the ease of implementation. That’s fine, it’s their job, it’s all part of the B2B game. But there is an awful lot more to deciding whether to offer Self Service IT support to your users, and these considerations go way beyond the efficacy or otherwise of the tool. There are multi-faceted business issues to be accounted for. There are genuine and potentially massively costly risks.

Here’s the top line – for most Servicedesks and IT support vehicles supporting internal users in most circumstances, Self-Service IT User Support is a Bad Thing.

OK, that sentence is full of qualifiers, so here come the explanations.

External Support

There is a place where Self-Service IT User Support can be a Good Thing; and even then that is only the case if you as provider and the users as customers are happy to accept a ‘lower’ quality service, with reduced or no human interaction. That place is in External Support. What makes it fit there is that the support provider and the support consumer work for different companies, with entirely different profit centres and business goals.

The more human effort the provider gives to user support, the higher his costs there and the lower his profits. It is tempting, perhaps even strategically attractive, to divert some of those costs back onto the consumer. One way to do that is to have the consumer do the expensive stuff in the support process, such as problem research and diagnosis, and perhaps even implementation of the solution.

The same goes for the outsourced, internal support desk. In effect, this is external support by another name. Two profit centres compete to divest themselves of the bulk of the support costs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Support problems, or at least the technical aspects of them, are often repetitious. The same question crops up time and time again, with just a different user asking it; “My printer won’t print”, “I’ve forgotten my password”, “How do you make a Pivot Table”, “What’s happening with the problem I reported yesterday”. Many of these can be fixed with a crib sheet, help file, automated password reset, and Web-based updates from the ITSM system. It seems like they’re crying out for self-service and automation. If Web shopping can do it, so can we – users can get what they need from our website and they don’t need to be trained. We answer the question once, put it in the self-service system and we can free up half the Service Desk as those questions no longer come here.

That’s not to say that there will not still be a need for a sizeable manpower investment in Self Service despite the new tools. All these scripted answers – who is going to write them? Whoever it is will have to cater for a very different way of expressing those solutions to the way they would be discussed between technicians. The user will have to be involved, because the old way of “log a call and a technician fixes it” will no longer apply. So the scripts will have to be written from a user’s point of view, not that of a technician. Got any good writers among all those technicians?

Who is going to maintain the scripts? How do you decide which fixes can be supplied by this channel and which cannot? How do we manage the quality and correctness of those scripts, especially if the people who write the scripts are not the ones who used to solve the problems?

A Question of Budgets

Of course, providing self service to reduce the support workload may be a budgetary matter. We do it to reduce the cost of the support department. Removing a service where the user expends minimum effort and replacing it with one where the user makes most of the running is, in effect, pushing the support cost on to the user, just as it is in external support. The justification for this is the reduction in the IT department’s costs of providing the service. Where I’ve seen this happen, the financial cost to the userbase is often not a key consideration. The question that is being answered has usually been distilled down to a simple, and frankly naïve, “Shall I spend more money on IT support, or less?” There is no real challenge or qualification to a question as banal as that, so the answer would of course be “less.”

However, if we are talking about internal support here, the question is incomplete. A fuller one would be “shall I invest in IT support or, by not doing so, incur another cost elsewhere in the business – and if so, which is the greater cost?” If IT reduces the scale of its own support delivery, there is likely to be a cost elsewhere. If, in the culture or fiscal realities of your organisation, that’s “somebody else’s problem”, then so be it.

But to make a full decision, there has to exist that rarest of beasts, a Cost Benefit Analysis for IT Support. We have to get past what it costs, and be able to observe what it is worth, in order to be able to choose properly between the two.

Financial Risks of Self Service Support

The worth of IT User Support is in the minimisation of user productivity lost to IT impediments. We can put a monetary value on that, based on the product of the effort of the company’s employees, which is, in aggregate terms, the fiscal turnover of the organisation. The simple result then is this – if forcing the users to help themselves would exacerbate the loss of productivity already inherent in the invocation of IT Support, then at some point – on a business, not just IT scale – Self Service will become more expensive than an appropriately staffed and ready IT Support department. When you go down the Self Service route in IT Support, the support cost does not evaporate, it just gets shifted out to the business – where it can do a lot more damage. Remember the work of an employee, even in the public sector, is worth more than we pay for it in salaries and on-costs – so any lost user-productivity is in business terms many times more expensive by the hour than the cost of a support technician.

Self Service in internal IT Support carries with it enormous financial risks. IT may be able to absolve itself of those risks unilaterally, but they won’t just go away – they’ll turn up somewhere else. So those risks have to be managed. The best way to do that is to be very careful, and ultimately very selective, deliberate, and limited about what type of support delivery is offered through Self-Service.

Is Self-Service IT Support For You?

Self-Service often makes sense if you’re supporting external users. Putting your costs onto your customers sounds mean, but it’s just business. It can also make sense if you’re a University or College having to support students. It is also good for support at a distance – users working for your company in small, remote offices where it’s actually cheaper to have the users help themselves than to station an under-utilised technician on site, or than having a peripatetic technician who can’t get there for days, thus making a bad situation worse.

If you’re supporting internal users – so for most servicedesks and helpdesks – then self service is risky. If your focus is on unilaterally reducing your support budget and the business doesn’t mind you pushing costs onto them, then maybe it’s feasible.

Password reset automation is usually a straightforward deployment of self-service, especially if it would be quicker to fix the password that way, than for the user to queue on the phone and then wait for an authorised technician to make the reset. But that’s only if it is also a secure way of resetting access to corporate systems. A client of mine is a bank. If you forget your password there, you must inform your superior, who then makes the reset request; then the user must present himself physically at the Servicedesk, to have his identity checked, and to retrieve the new password in a sealed envelope. Some industries, especially the regulated ones, rightly take password resets very seriously.

Making the Leap – or Not

Don’t just put Self-Service in as an alternative to a slow and unresponsive Second-Line, or because your Servicedesk couldn’t tell an Erlang from an elephant’s armpit. Those are management issues you’ll still have to fix anyway, whether you put Self-Service in or not. And if you do fix them, you may not need Self-Service. In my experience, many IT support departments can deliver a way faster and better service than they are at present, with the staff they’ve got now. To them, the whole ‘Self-Service’ thing may be a distraction from a deeper problem.

In particular, don’t simply be swayed by an eager vendor telling you it’s cheaper than not having it, or that it is a universal alternative to the Servicedesk – because for regular internal support, it probably isn’t in real terms, and by a long way.

Plan your move to Self-Service IT User Support with an eye to business and financial risks. Examine your workload to see what could genuinely be automated, such that automation would produce a genuine service level improvement from the users’ point of view. Know where it will fit, where it will be faster than human solutions and how it will actually contribute to, rather than further impede user productivity.

If you do go for it, don’t just ‘buy a product’. Instead, partner with your well-chosen vendor to bring to fruition your predetermined vision of an appropriate and risk-managed Self-Service IT User Support. Make sure everybody wins, not just IT’s support budget, but business risk, user productivity, and IT support itself.