Finding the Right Service Desk Agent for 2017 and Beyond

There's now lots of talk, and writing, about how the demands on corporate IT service desks have changed, and will continue to change. A number of different opportunities and pressures are changing how service desks need to operate in 2017 and beyond. These include, but are not limited to, the effects of:

  1. The continued rise of consumerization - where employees are bringing their personal-life, i.e. consumer, experiences and expectations into the workplace. It means that the bar is consistently raised for internal IT organizations, with customer experience - the business-to-consumer (B2C) approach to winning and retaining customers - the latest incarnation of consumerization affecting IT. As with the original "consumerization of IT," IT organizations, and not just their IT support capabilities, need to "up their games."
  2. Self-service success - while self-service is great for under pressure service desks - as, if done right, it effective IT self-service will reduce ticket volumes and workloads - there are a number of downsides, including that the incidents received by the service desk will now be on average harder and more time-consuming given that self-service will take away the simpler ones. This means that scripts, and the people reliant of scripts, are caught short in incidents where they must "think for themselves."
  3. Greater use of automation, including machine learning - as with self-service, this is a good thing that has a negative impact too. It's great that technology can be employed to reduce the reliance on manual operations and to gain greater insight into performance and opportunities to improve. But if less time is spent on simple manual tasks or reviewing data, then more time is available to help end users - end users who on average have more complicated issues than they did before self-service.

With the combined effect necessities, what will be for some, a step change in how IT support is planned, delivered, and resourced. Thankfully though, many IT support operations have already evolved somewhat in the last five years; with more-insightful organizations starting to backtrack on the service desk changes of the previous decade.

The Service Desk Recruitment Challenge for 2017 and Beyond

The three, aforementioned, opportunities and pressures mean that a valued and successful corporate IT service desk can no longer be reliant on scripts. Why? Because there's often going to be issues outside the realm of existing scripts, and employees now expect so much more from the person reading from the script (or not).

We now have a requirement for a far more skilled service desk agent. Not that many existing service desk agents aren't already skilled, it's that they will now need to employ the breadth of their skills at work. These skills include, but are not limited to:

  1. Empathy and customer-centricity - end users still might not be considered "customers" - as they don't directly pay for their IT - but consumerization will drive expectations of better "treatment." This includes the ability to look beyond the IT issue that the employee can't do what they need to do, plus the appreciation of the employee's circumstances as they face their IT issue.
  2. Problem solving capabilities - in the new, more complex world where it would be impossible to have a script for every issue, service desk agents will need to use their initiative more. It still might be using an existing script, but the script is used in the knowledge that it's not an exact fit to the issue at hand. And the agent will need to logically understand how to apply a variant of the fix for "situation A" to "situation B" rather than failing five times with the vanilla application of the former to the latter.
  3. Knowledge management needs to come naturally - it's an extension of the previous bullet. We will not always be able to fit what we already know into a single script for a single scenario. Instead, for knowledge management to be successful, it will need to be more fluid and applicable to a multitude of different scenarios. Plus, of course, before this can happen, agents will need to play a larger part in the knowledge capture process too.
  4. An ability to "trust and work with the machines" - whether it's orchestration to speed up issue resolution and service provision, or machine learning to do another type of "heavy lifting" - the thinking work - service desk agents need to be trusting, and comfortable with their use, of the technology. As humans, we can be resistant to change, especially when that change can be perceived as threat to the status quo (and especially our livelihoods). A modern service desk agent needs to get past this to embrace the technology.

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Where Are We Now?

As already mentioned, things have already changed within some corporate IT service desks - especially on the back of improving the end-user or customer experience. The table below, from HDI, shows the most sought-after skills for service desk agents at the end of 2016.

Top Ten Sought-After Skills for Hiring and Promotion

Source: HDI, "2017 Technical Support Practices and Salary Report"

It shows how IT support is becoming about having more skilled people again, with the first nine points highlighting the need for so much beyond script reading. It's great to see but I do have one important "caution" to make.

"Support experience" has become less and less important in the 2000s - thanks to the reliance on scripts and the IT service management (ITSM) technology. Going forward though, such experience - or more specifically, IT experience - will be more valuable again, as service desk agents now need to understand more about IT as they apply their problem-solving skills and use knowledge management. Without knowing more about IT, as well as the business context it's used in, it will be difficult for agents to "think outside the script" to deliver the required solution to a potentially unique situation.

Of course, everything could instead be passed up to Level 2 support but we would end up with the same need - more highly-skilled support staff as Level 2 becomes the new Level 1. Dealing with the issues that can't be solved via self-service.

So, expect to see a jump in the "required skills" for corporate IT service desk agents, along with the agents being valued and rewarded better to reflect this. The days of service desk agent roles being filled by simply finding someone smart enough to read scripts are going away.

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