The High Cost of an Under-utilized Service Desk

When it comes to quality IT support, organizations that select a service desk outsourcing vendor often find that they get what they pay for. Unfortunately, this saying does not hold true for an underutilized service desk no matter how much the provider may excel at technical proficiency and customer service. Nonetheless, there are a number of companies that utilize the service desk much less than initially conceived. But why?

Even if the need for support was properly qualified at the time the vendor proposed the solution, low activity could be a result of poor internal promotion of the new service desk, stabilization of a previously volatile IT environment, or lack of adoption of an outsourced model by internal IT staff and end users alike. In particular, organizations that are experiencing downsizing can make a reasonable case for retaining all IT functions in-house including activities traditionally left to an outsourced service desk solution. Understandably, when internal IT staff have a dwindling workload and no long-term plans for more strategic desktop or infrastructure related projects, circling the wagons around Level 1 tasks is a natural conclusion. Should this be readily apparent during monthly operational review meetings, a tactful service desk provider will not address the elephant in the room known as job security even though it may be the most obvious cause of anemic utilization.  No matter what the case, there are very real cost implications of forgoing the “waste not, want not” approach to a service desk outsourcing solution.

With proper access, training, and documentation, the service desk can tackle any remote task such as Active Directory administration, onboarding and offboarding processes, printer and drive mapping, and application installations. So any organization that keeps those tasks in-house instead of referring them to their service desk provider is essentially double-dipping on their IT budget. If that is indeed the case, they have to ask themselves how much they are paying their own IT staff to do the same thing a remote Level 1 agent can resolve. Another question to ask is what is their time to recover and resume focus on ongoing tasks or projects after performing incident management tasks that could easily be outsourced?

A cost comparison by salary and benefits can be derived by calculating the cost to resolve a 15 minute Level 1 incident. Simply divide the annual salary and benefits of the internal resource by 2,080 annual hours to arrive at the hourly rate, then again by 4 (15 minutes being one-fourth of an hour). Let’s say for example that instead of a service desk solution, you’re paying a network administrator to handle Level 1 incidents. At an industry standard $78,000/year compensation plus PTO, holidays, insurance, etc., total annual costs for the position amounts to roughly $98,000/year. $98,000/2,080 hours = $47.12/4 = $11.78 per incident. Those raw costs aren’t particularly egregious assuming there is no time lost between the resolution of the incident and the resumption of ongoing tasks or projects for those resources. But if support was handled as a walk up to the user’s desktop, time to resume depends on when that resource returns to where they conducted their work in progress and should be added to the 15 minutes. Even if those raw numbers are relatively accurate, how do they compare to a per incident, per contact, per minute, or per dedicated agent rate? Even sticking with an internal solution, how much more cost-efficient would it be to employ a Level 1 agent at half the annual compensation?

Underutilization can also be costly for a dedicated staffing model. In fact, one of the reasons why outsourcing is such an appealing alternative to clients adding more staff is, in usage-based pricing or shared staffing model, they aren’t overpaying for slow periods. So instead of hiring a full time employee to handle minimal after-hours volume and maintain 24 x 7 coverage, they can merely pay for a handful of tickets to be fielded by a shared service desk team. While such usage based pricing models are indeed preferable during low utilization periods, most come with monthly minimums. So even in this scenario, if requests for support are rarely initiated, the service desk solution amounts to nothing more than an unused insurance policy against interruptions in IT functionality. By contrast, in a per user pricing model, ROI is only maximized for those “frequent flyers” who regularly call for support. For those end users whose job functions require minimal IT interaction or are technically savvy enough that self-service is their favorite resolution process, those costs are going to waste.

Referring back to the network admin example, organizations leveraging such internal positions for Level 1 incidents must consider the opportunity cost. Meaning, what is the cost of putting off higher value, company impacting projects such as performing system maintenance, installing security patches, and addressing poor network performance, that are deferred in the interim? Though organizations rarely track opportunity costs or the financial impacts of delaying strategic projects, they will most likely track the consequences of incidents related to root causes that could have otherwise been proactively averted.  Using an extreme example, if a network engineer is called to assist an end user in locating their Outlook pst files and is deterred from resolving a sudden malware intrusion on the Exchange email server, the companywide costs have manifold implications compounded by each affected user. Obviously, given the choice, every organization would direct internal resources to the latter issue, but if the engineer is busy with their Level 1 call, the luxury of foresight might not be available to them.

To summarize where IT operational costs may be compounded by an underutilized service desk, the pain points are as follows:

  • Increased end user downtime awaiting/researching solution or tolerating limited job functionality
  • Costs shifted to and/or duplicated by internal resources for resolution at higher compensation
  • Opportunity costs of higher value, company impacting activities delayed by end user support tasks
  • Fixed outsourcing costs charged regardless of usage (low ROI)

There are indeed ways to avoid undue costs associated with an underutilized service desk. Before considering a solution, one of the best early conversations to have with a potential MSP is separation of duties, namely defining which tasks will be outsourced to the service desk and which will be retained by internal IT staff. Often the delineation for a remote solution is to keep hands on resolution procedures in the hands of onsite technicians. Or if network security precludes a third party MSP from maintaining servers or handling sensitive data, client infrastructure teams will resolve those issues; however, if any support tasks commonly defined as Level 1 are still being retained by client IT departments, the entire premise for an outsourced solution loses merit. The ultimate goal is to keep client IT costs at a minimum, to define and assign responsibilities that align with each designated IT group’s area of expertise and skill level, and ensure end users are fully supported preferably sooner rather than later.

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