The service desk revolution – the age of the Information Ninja?

I was delighted when a former colleague got in touch about one of my blog posts. Apart from the boost to this writer’s fragile ego, it’s always great to hear from ex-workmates, and the cherry on the cake was that he suggested a post topic which particularly piqued my interest.

We both worked in IT Service Management, and we experienced the evolution from tightly integrated, expertise driven service management models, to the process led and often outsourced model more common today.

He asked “Which is better? An expertise driven service desk staffed by people who know the systems back to front, or a process driven one with ITIL, CMMI etc., where the staff rely on documentation or next level support?”

For a service manager, it’s natural to expect both.

We want our service desk staff to have the expertise to resolve a high percentage of incidents on first call, and we want them to be backed up by strong processes, documentation and communication so they can get the remaining incidents resolved quickly, while delivering effective problem management and continual service improvement. And it all has to be done in the most cost-effective way possible.

For the customer, it’s about getting problems fixed quickly and with minimal hassle.

Meeting these expectations becomes more challenging as our services become more sophisticated and complex, and as more elements are handed off to different providers.

When I started in IT, the aircraft engineering systems I worked on used ‘dumb’ terminals connecting directly to a mainframe in the data centre. There were relatively few moving parts, and our customers interacted directly with the IT team which both developed and maintained the system.

Fast forward to present day aircraft engineering systems, and consider an engineer on the ramp at Singapore Changi airport who has hit a problem using their iPad to clear an aircraft about to fly to London.

The root cause could be with the iPad, the local Changi WiFi, the Internet, the app they are using, the web services which interface with that app, the underlying business applications or databases, or any of the various datacentre and server infrastructures involved.

Each of these service components is most likely delivered and supported by a different team working for a different company. Solving the issue means investigating not only the complex individual service components but also the myriad of interfaces between them, many of which aren’t directly controlled by the front-line service provider.

I believe this diversification is not only a major challenge for IT support, but for the services sector in general.

When I call a service provider or start a live chat on their website, I expect that first point of contact to fulfil my request quickly and to my satisfaction, no matter what my request is. I want them to give me accurate information, and that information has to be consistent with the information I’ve got from other channels.

“That’s not what it says on your website” isn’t generally a sign that things are going well.

Each time I get a ‘press one to….’ menu, get transferred to another department, or told that someone will get back to me, I get more frustrated. And each handoff adds a little to the risk that things will go wrong.

So in IT and in customer service generally, we have ever more demanding and well-informed customers expecting instant solutions from increasingly diverse and complex services.

How do we deliver top class service in this environment?

If you ask me, it’s about challenging the fundamentals of our service delivery model.

In the world of cyber security, an evolving threat landscape has forced us to move away from the traditional model of total protection at our system and network perimiters, to an approach closer to running a military campaign, with strategies to prevent, respond and recover from an ever growing and changing set of threats.

I believe we need a similar shift in approach in our contact centres and service desks. There are signs of it starting to happen, but I feel we are still impeded by legacy thinking and practices.

Service desks and contact centres have traditionally been heavily process-driven and geared to delivering volume. They maximise call throughput by focusing on the simple transactional stuff and handing off the rest to the next level specialist or management team.

This makes sense where the desk is your primary contact point with your customers, and where your first level transactions are likely to be simple and clearly scoped.

You certainly don’t want to waste your technical gurus or top salespeople by having them work the phones every day just to field the trickier calls.

But now, not only do we have all this extra complexity and diversity, but a lot of our transactional customer contact points have shifted online. Our traditional model is showing signs of strain, and applying technology band-aids like web-chat without considering the underlying processes and structures doesn’t really help.

So we need a new service model, and here are some thoughts on what it should contain.

  1. Information Ninjas

Our service desk and front-line contact centre people need to move away from focusing on transactions, hand-offs and escalations.

Instead, they need to become our Information Ninjas, fighting for the customer’s cause by commanding a battalion of diverse data sources, and supported by all the automation, process and empowerment we can throw at them.

They are highly skilled, but they’re not technical gurus and they’re not just expert in the corporate product.

Rather, they excel at quickly assessing the need, identifying the best approach, information and resources needed to meet it, whether these are internal or external, then harnessing all this to deliver, at the same time maintaining an open and mature dialogue with their customers. Ninjas have to be able to multitask.

I know of contact centres where access is blocked to social media, or to anything on the Internet, for fear it will affect productivity or lead to data leaks.

In our new model it is be positively encouraged,  because an information Ninja needs to be at least as well-informed as their customer, and because the last thing you want an information Ninja doing is taking details like card numbers and addresses that can             be much better managed by a machine.

When I was working the phones rebooking airline passengers when the ash cloud hit in 2010, I was stupidly grateful that we had access to the Internet instead of just the airline booking system. When you’re giving a customer the option to fly to Baltimore instead of Dulles, having all the information on distance to DC and transportation options let me reassure them and helped me to close the transaction with more confidence that I hadn’t left my customer with a problem.

Which takes us on to

  1. Automation, Automation, Automation

Wherever a machine can do the job at least as well without human intervention, it should.

This is particularly useful for jobs which are (a) very simple or (b) terrifyingly complicated.

I don’t need to speak with anyone to reset my system password, buy a toothbrush or a simple round trip plane ticket, or find out how to send an encrypted email.

Service portals, eCommerce sites and social media can look after all that and free our Ninjas to get on with the really interesting stuff.

At the other end of the spectrum, if I need to change or fix something in a vastly complex and critical environment – a service-oriented airline departure control system, a major investment portfolio or a human body – a computer has a much greater capability than a human mind to see and manage the thousands or millions of variables and interfaces involved, and make decisions without the risk of missing something vital.

Our new service world depends on having good tools at both ends – online systems to do all the transactional stuff, and capabilities like machine learning and digital twins to solve the really complex needs and problems.

This raises an obvious question about the longevity of our Information Ninja role. What value can they add when we have the likes of Alexa and Siri handling the transactional stuff, and digital twins linked to robot coders to create self-healing systems?

I believe we are still some distance from the robots taking over. Roles will change as automation grows but I think it will take some time before we are prepared to trust the machines completely, hence the Information Ninja.

Back to our poor engineer trying to clear their aircraft in Singapore. It would be technically feasible to have a single ‘pane of glass’ system monitoring all the diverse elements of the service stack, triggering self-healing components to fix the problem, across all the service providers involved.

However, until everything is connected and the different providers trust each other to share the necessary data, I think we’ll still need some humble humans to pull it all together and keep reassuring our engineer that they aren’t going to get fired.

  1. Accepting that less is more

The argument against upskilling our service agents as Information Ninjas is that they will cost more, and it therefore becomes uneconomic to run our service desk/contact centre.

But in our new automated world, with most simple transactions done online and artificial intelligence to help with the nasty stuff, we should need a lot fewer people working the phones.

This doesn’t ignore the fact that we will still have customers who prefer to pick up the phone, no matter what they need.

Automation just enables us to influence them gently to use online channels where it works better for them and us.  “I’m sending you a link so you can do what you need to do online. We’ll avoid the embarrassment of me misspelling your name three times, and I’ll open up a live chat so we can still talk if you have any problems.”

  1. Recognising that the customer is still always right, and that we no longer need to punish them for their arrogance.     

You might recognise the reference to the great Scott Adams and one of his seminal Dilbert cartoon strips: it came to mind when I thought about the relationship between provider and customer in this new world.

Our biggest frustrations as customers? Slow response, lack of communication, inconsistency, errors and not giving us what we want.

As providers, we get frustrated by customers with unreasonable  expectations, shouters, time wasters, those who stubbornly resist the upsell, and so on.

These frustrations can drive negative behaviours, typically the one where the interaction becomes more about beating the other guy than about solving the problem.

Very often they stem from a lack of information or common understanding – back to “that’s not what it says on your website!”

In the new world we will match our super-informed customers with our Information Ninjas who also have the people skills to engage in an open, mature conversation, backed up by the assurance of automation and process to guarantee slick and consistent delivery.

This may not remove frustration and conflict completely, but the more you know, and the more you know the other person knows, the harder it is to pick a fight.

  1. Letting our customers help themselves

In this complex and diverse service world, even our information Ninjas won’t have the answers to every situation at their fingertips. There will be times when the most effective solution is for the customer to sort it out themselves.

This is particularly relevant for in-house IT service desks when the lines between business and consumer IT are increasingly blurred.

Having people access their business IT from anywhere, over any network, on any device is a great liberator and a boon to productivity, but it makes it infeasibly expensive to apply the traditional IT support model, where the IT department is expected to have its arms  around the entire IT estate.

If you’ve got a problem with your newly purchased personal iPhone 12 which you’ve bought because none of the other C level guys have one, it may not be good business  sense to set up an iPhone 12 support team in the IT department.

A good Information Ninja can facilitate you sorting out the problem, but the quickest and most effective solution may be to point you or your PA at the Apple website or an iPhone 12 user social  media group.

In the broader service world, it mainly comes back to automation and encouraging our customers to serve themselves online where that’s the best way for them.

In our new world of open, mature conversations and empowered Information Ninjas, you could even take it further. If I know there’s a better deal or option out there for my customer, I can tell them, give them an honest view of our best offer to compare, and make their own decision on what to do. It may not sound like great sales technique, but in this world of super-informed customers it can be better to be honest and lose one sale than to win it and lose credibility.

I’m sure the great and good of the contact centre business would say that a lot of this is established thinking which is already being adopted. My observation, based on some of my recent customer service experiences, is that there’s still a long way to go to get rid of the old behaviours and models.

The world is becoming more fluid, complex, informed and demanding daily.  I believe we need this service revolution, with our Information Ninjas, if we’re going to keep up.

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