Chapter 9: Help I Need Something – Catalogs, Services and Portfolios


As soon as Manuel opened the door, the chatter of the cube farm hit like heavy surf. It was mind numbing. I didn’t see how the analysts could ignore it. Snippets from a river of conversations on a dozen different subjects, all overlapped in a cacophony of confusion.

We turned the corner to Kourosh’s cube just as he was finishing a call. Somehow, he must have sensed our approach, because as soon as he disconnected the call, he unclipped his headset, spun around in his chair, and stood up with his hand outstretched towards me.

He looked Persian, and I expected heavily Farsi-accented English, but in the most neutral English he said, ‘Hello, my name is Kourosh. How may I help you’?

I laughed at my ignorance. ‘How did you hear us coming over all the noise’?

‘It’s disrupting only to the uninitiated. Once you work in it for a while, it becomes only background noise, like the hum of an air conditioner.’

‘And of course those that can’t make that adjustment either go crazy or quit,’ added Manuel with a laugh.

‘So, Kourosh,’ asked Manuel. ‘Chris wants to sit in on some calls and ask you some questions; get a sense for what it is like to work here.’

Kourosh turned to me and smiled, ‘Ah, so you are thinking about joining our team? We can always use more help.’

I shook my head. ‘No, I’m here at the request of Jacob and Jason to understand why IT is so incompetent when it comes to provisioning new employees. I thought it best to start at the beginning; the service desk, where everything begins.’

‘Thank you very much for the compliment,’ said Kourosh, ‘But most of the user requests can be accommodated via automated user self-service. It gives users more control over their costs, and ensures they have the utility they need.’

‘Does it follow a different route’? I asked. ‘Not really,’ offered Kourosh. ‘It just skips the service desk, and is automatically routed straight into the appropriate IT queue by software implementations of the same rules of assignment we follow.’

Manuel’s cell phone buzzed, and after a few words of conversation, he paused and muted the phone, saying, ‘I’m going to leave the two of you for a while.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Kourosh will take care of you. If you need anything else, just shout.’

I wasn’t sure if that was a joke, or a subtle message to not bother him again. It didn’t matter. Like Lee said, I didn’t care what he wanted. What mattered was my goal.

I pulled Manuel aside, tried to whisper, and ended up nearly shouting over the noise, ‘I hate to admit that I’m surprised Kourosh’s English is better than mine.’

Manuel laughed. ‘As is his French, Spanish, Farsi and Arabic. It’s something I look for during interviews. I can teach anyone technology fairly quickly, but I cannot teach them superior language skills in a short amount of time. And to teach them customer focus can take a lifetime. Successful hiring in the service desk business is all about knowing the difference between what can quickly be taught, and what’s better if the candidates bring it with them.

I started to say, ‘Thanks,’ but Manuel had already turned his back to me and was quick-walking back down the main isle of the cube-farm.

‘We should get you hooked up,’ said Kourosh, as he pulled a wireless headset from a desk drawer. ‘This is a training headset. Your microphone won’t work, but you will be able to hear both sides of the conversation; everything I hear and say as well as everything the caller says. It will be just like you were taking the call.’

I slipped the headset on, and found the quiet from its noise-canceling circuitry very comforting.

Kourosh’s smooth voice echoed through the headset. ‘Can you hear me okay’?

I nodded. ‘So clear it is just like you were sitting next to me,’ I joked, and then pulled the earphone away from my head for a moment, to remind myself of the difference.

Kourosh made a few adjustments to the controls on his communication link and pointed to the large monitor on the far wall. ‘We’ve got to get busy. Wait times are creeping up over the goal levels and the call abandon rate is climbing rapidly. Our active staff is down 10% due to normal absences, and we’re still down 15% on our base staff levels because recruiting can’t even figure out how to hire people. And that makes no sense to me given the economy. They ought to have people lined up and ready to go in queue. They know what our turnover rates are. They should never stop making job offers, but because of an unthinking corporate policy they won’t look for replacements until people have already left and we are shorthanded.’

‘Wait a minute; are you always this short staffed’?

‘Service desk is a high turnover operation. Not many stay as long as I have. It’s a very flat organization, so there isn’t a lot of room for advancement. But in this company, it’s always easier to transfer internally to get a job, than applying for one from the outside. The service desk is a great way to get into the company, and, after a year or so, move on to your desired job.’

‘Doesn’t that mean you have to repeat a lot of training to keep the new people up to date’?

‘Training takes time, and classroom training never substitutes for real experience. We do a lot of learning from people who are experienced, and can give you real-world knowledge. They also help close the gap between classroom training and reality.’

‘So you’re used to taking rookies out on calls like this,’ I said.

Kourosh nodded, and then punched us up, and a timer began tracking on his monitor screen. A voice rang through my headset.

A woman began yelling. ‘I’ve been on hold for almost 10 minutes listening to your flipping, distorted mood music, while you were all hanging around drinking coffee and telling jokes. I’ve got a real problem here and I need it dealt with now.’

‘Hello, my name is Kourosh,’ said Kourosh. ‘Thank you for calling the service desk. I apologize for your wait time. How many I help you’?

‘Well, listen up head-loose, or whatever your name is. How stupid are you that you couldn’t come up with a better artificial name to hide behind; like Bob, or Jack, or Bill? My name is Jackie. I’m in the central region. One of my users created a service request nearly four weeks ago, for the creation of six, new user accounts in support of their sales staff. So far the accounts have not been created. They think I goofed up, and am responsible for it not happening. And I am not going to take the fall for your incompetence. To make matters worse, I log on to check the status, and find the ticket has been closed as completed successfully. Here’s the ticket number.’

‘I’m very sorry you’re having a problem. Let me check that for you. Will you please hold for a moment’?

‘Why not? I’ve gotten quite used to sitting here doing nothing while waiting for you. Just don’t put that awful music back on.’

‘No problem.’

Kourosh scrolled through the list of tickets. It was huge, and a lot of them seemed to go back quite a long period of time. He had four different databases open on his screen, and was trying to manually scan through them looking for the ticket. There didn’t seem to be any easy way to sort them, or order by date, in any of the applications, much less correlate the different databases.

While he worked we could hear Jackie in the background. She didn’t realize that being on hold for the service desk simply meant that she was on mute.

‘Here it is,’ said Kourosh to me, while Jackie remained on mute. ‘It was entered into the automated system by Jackson four weeks ago, and sent to Peter’s queue over in IT’s desktop support team. Problem is, I know that Peter quit about three weeks ago. Worse, it looks like Peter closed all of his open tickets as completed the day before he left. I’d guess a lot of them weren’t really done. No wonder the work wasn’t finished.’

‘So what do you tell Jackie’?

‘I tell her where to go,’ laughed Kourosh. ‘Seriously, I give her the name of the manager for the desktop support team, and tell her to reach out to them, to find out how to get it handled.’

I wondered how Lee would think of that. Getting bounced around seemed to be exactly the kind of thing that the field was protesting about. ‘Doesn’t sound very customer focused,’ I said.

‘No, it is totally customer focused. It removes the barriers, and empowers her to drive her own solution at a pace that aligns with her needs. It puts her in control of her destiny, and gives her full transparency as to what’s happening. Plus it allows us to serve more users with a given amount of resources, thus helping drive the company’s success.’

‘And it gives us all good reviews, by keeping the time on call and queues at the service desk down, because that’s what we get measured on. It’s important to remember that leadership has identified the measures they feel best identify the value-add of the service desk. They identify those KPIs and we drive to them. It’s not my place to tell senior leadership what’s important to the success of the company. I am merely the instrument of their direction.’

‘Hi, this is Kourosh. I apologize for keeping you on hold for so long, but I did locate that ticket. That ticket had already been closed as completed successfully.’

‘That’s what I just told you,’ she screamed loud enough to hurt my ears. ‘That ticket was never closed. The work was never completed. I’m the one that opened the ticket. I should know.’

‘I appreciate that,’ said Kourosh. ‘But according to our records, our automated system contacted you after completion, and you responded to our performance survey by giving the service desk high ratings for their actions.’

‘Either you have the wrong ticket, or there is a forgery going on. The work is still not completed. So how do we get this fixed immediately? Can’t you do it from there? It shouldn’t take more than five minutes. And then I will give you my real rating of the service desk.’

‘We are not staffed to make changes to access or user accounts. The security group within desktop support handles all of those items … to protect the company of course. I’m sure you understand.’

Kourosh took a moment to check out his on-call time. It was creeping towards yellow, and from there it was only a short distance into a service level breach.

‘I’m sure you can appreciate the need to restrict access to the tools that control access to our key systems,’ he said. ‘We will get it taken care of for you, Jackie. I just need to ensure that it gets assigned to the person best able to solve the problem for you, as quickly as possible.’

‘So, you’re telling me you’re not authorized to do it. You’re too junior or unskilled to be permitted to do it, right? I want a supervisor and I want them now.’

The conversation got worse from there. Kourosh never lost his calm demeanor, regardless of the taunts Jackson threw at him. He never once rose to the bait and struck back at Jackson. The only thing that seemed to give him pause was when the call timer on his screen changed to yellow and then started toward red.

Just before the clock numerals shifted from yellow to red, Kourosh passed the call off to the desktop support team.

With the caller gone, he said, ‘That was close. I almost got a red call.’

‘Red call’? I asked.

‘Any call that exceeds the SLA time for handling is a red call, and gets reviewed with your manager at the end of the week. Manuel has a matrix with names down the vertical axis, and months across the horizontal. Each month we have to explain our over SLA minutes and what is being done to get them down. If anyone has too many minutes for too many months in a row, they are let go. We have to make our SLAs, or bonuses will not happen for workers and management, and our funding for the next year may be cut.’

‘What about the users and customers? Doesn’t that hurt them’?

‘You’ve got it backwards, Chris. You heard Jackie. She wanted action, not waiting. By having this SLA in place and managing to it, we are biased towards action in support of our users and customers. Users don’t want to be on the phone, they want things done. That’s our job, to get things done for the users, by getting them off the phone so they can drive the type of solution they desire. It’s called empowerment.’

It made sense in a strange way, but seemed different from what I had always thought was the right way to treat customers. But I knew how much I hated being kept on the phone by support, so Kourosh was probably right. And it actually made some sense when you thought about it in the context of what Lee had been trying to teach me.

‘Well, what about your systems, you seemed to spend a lot of time shifting between them. Don’t you have any integrated tools? Wouldn’t that cut down on the time you take to serve your users’?

‘We’ve added more functionality over time, but unfortunately these types of systems don’t talk to each other very well; at least when you get beyond the sales hype.’

‘There are a lot of smart people in this company. Couldn’t you have created some customization that links them into an integrated tool.’

‘That’s a trap, Chris. If you customize beyond the vanilla, out of the box application, you quickly have a tool that can’t be supported by the manufacturer, and in some cases, can’t even be upgraded or patched without breaking something else. That’s why it takes us a while to launch new initiatives or change processes. But we are committed and we always make it work. That’s what the service desk does. We are the face of the company to customers and users.’ He leaned over to me. ‘And frankly, we do a right fine job of it, too. Just look at our SLAs. We publish them every day, week and month. There is no hiding for us. Everyone can see what a great job we are doing serving the customer.’

‘Well you clearly know how to make this all work. I never realized what a burden your teams had here. I’m impressed. But what happens after you take the call? Suppose I call in and ask for a new employee computer set-up’?

Kourosh pointed to the large monitor at the other end of the room. ‘That 93% is the percentage of calls we resolve here.’

‘Why is it yellow’? I asked.

‘We are on the verge of falling below our SLA. We’ll just have to get more tickets closed at level one.’

‘But what about the ones you can’t close, like complex alerts that need to go to senior technicians, or things you can’t do here, like configuring PCs’?

‘Between you and me, a closed ticket is a closed ticket, and that stops the clock. Sometimes we get too far down the road with a given ticket, and it’s best if we discard it and start fresh. As Manuel says, it is less confusing for the user that way.’

‘So, you’re saying to me that you game the system by closing out tickets that aren’t being resolved, and making customers call back and start over with a new ticket’?

‘No, absolutely not. It’s not a new ticket. We know what happened before. It’s merely refreshed, and because we are no longer under as much time pressure, we have a better chance of determining a resolution at our level. And that is good for the customer and the corporation.’

‘And for your goals.’

‘No one of us is as strong as all of us. We all succeed together much easier than separately.’

‘Okay, I get it,’ I said. ‘So if you can’t resolve a ticket here, where does it go’?

‘Those get escalated, and before you ask me to where, I’ll tell you I don’t know. We just tag the event and enter it into the system. From there it gets automatically routed to the right place. In the case of provisioning new employees, it’s somewhere in Sue’s team. She leads the desktop support team. But I can’t tell you who it goes to, only that it goes into their queue. The automated system does the routing and assignment. Once it does that I can look it up and see the status, but we only have time to do that if someone complains. Besides, I know it goes to the right place; to the person best suited to resolve it. Of that I’m confident.’

I gave Kourosh an incredulous look.

‘Well, I’m pretty sure it goes to the right place, and if it doesn’t, we hear about it, right’?

We both laughed.

‘What about provisioning for new users? Where does that go’?

‘Actually, most of the calls we get on that are from people who aren’t smart enough to fill out the forms on the automated ordering site. IT did a really cool thing by setting up a configurator that admins can log into and pick exactly the set-up they need for their new employees. It’s very complete and thorough, with hundreds of items in it. I saw one once and it barely fit in the binder, there were so many choices in it. How’s that for service? And as long as they do it far enough in advance, and do it right, everything works out fine.’

‘Do the admins like it? Do you know if it makes their work easier’?

‘They’re supposed to get training on it as part of their job. Most of the calls we get from them are because they’ve goofed up the form, or don’t know what they want, and ask us to decide,’ said Kourosh.

‘Don’t know what they want’?

‘Yeah, like do they want solid state or mechanical drives, 6GB or 4GB of RAM, or even something as simple as how much processor power they need. We always try to direct them back to their boss for the answer, but sometimes even those managers don’t know. Can you believe that? Here they are spending thousands of dollars of the company’s money, and they have no idea what they want. Sometimes I wonder if they even know what they want their new employees to do. I mean, it is so simple even a child could do it.’

‘So what do you do if they are stuck’?

‘It’s up to the representative and the situation. I always max them out with the most powerful hardware and software available. That way they won’t come back and complain their tools are too weak, and that’s why they are missing their quotas.’

I could see the logic in how Kourosh made his decisions. I was stunned that leaders in the company couldn’t even plan for what kind of tools they wanted for their new employees. They’d better not let Lee find out.

I stood up and just before pulling my headset off, said, ‘Kourosh, I need to go. But thank you so much for sharing this with me, and helping me understand how hard the service desk works representing the company to the world.’

‘Glad to have helped,’ smiled Kourosh. ‘Please do me a favor, Chris. I have quite a few red tickets this month and the whole team is close to missing the SLA. If you could volunteer to Manuel what a great job we’re doing, it might help during the monthly review.’

I nodded and said, ‘No problem.’ Before I could finish shaking his hand, his screen lit up and he said, ‘Hello, you’ve reached the service desk. How may we help you today’?

Tips that would have helped Chris

Many ITSM systems you encounter will be legacy systems, or based on legacy systems, often hidden under a wrapper. That’s where rather than re-write some functionality, a decision was made to simply write an interface which encloses the old application, in a face that makes it look new and modern to the user. Nothing changes under the hood.

Many times, the people responsible for the existing systems, or using the existing systems, will know little, if anything, about the system in question. Often the people who created the original core will be long gone, and there will be no supporting documentation.

People respond to the performance measures you set for them. So you must be very careful and thoughtful of what those measures are, and what behavior they will drive. Most SLAs, and other measures of process performance, tend to drive efficiency of the process (how fast it moves work through), rather than effectiveness (how well it provides benefits to the organization as a whole.). A process can be very efficient at pushing items through it, but the net result may have no value to anyone outside the process. This is because efficiency is much easier to measure than effectiveness, and most SLAs are either drawn up by process owners (who want to ensure the process is working well), or drawn up because they are easy to measure.