IT help desks tend to be under the most stress when the company is scaling rapidly.
Whether in the company is in a scale-up period or there are changes in corporate strategy that require onboarding of new employees, there are many opportunities to optimise the IT support function to deal with the additional burden that help desks bear during these times.
While an enterprise wiki, Q&A platform, Slack productivity bot or a full-service help desk isn’t a cost that needs to be incurred from day one, the decisions made by the founders in the early days of the business can have dramatic effects on how their IT infrastructure develops. As the company evolves, there is strong incentive to implement strategies that optimize the operation rather than overhaul it dramatically.
Here are the four main stages that companies encounter, from an internal support perspective, along their scaling journey:
Solve communication and collaboration (eg. Slack)
Address documentation and knowledge gaps (eg. Confluence)
Tackle issue tracking (eg. Jira)
Introduce robust issue management (eg. Jira Service Desk)
Helpdesk optimization: scaling IT support from startup to IPO
To understand this a bit better and give some perspective on why optimization strategies must be implemented to streamline IT help desks, imagine the story of a rapidly scaling company, viewed through the lens of ITSM, and the resulting impact on the internal support function.
Let’s imagine a fictional company called OneBase. It’s your generic SaaS startup trying to disrupt a really boring industry with a productivity tool. OneBase begins its journey like many - it’s started by some tech bros with dreams of going to Silicon Valley. They convinced a local incubator in the midwest to give them some office space and free coffee for a few months while they lay the foundation for the company.
After years of hard work, OneBase manages to gain customers, earn some credibility, grow the team and eventually become an enterprise, employing thousands of people and, one day, debuting on the stock market by way of an IPO. Let’s examine each of OneBase’s corporate eras to glean some insight as to how the support function might play out for companies that are going through periods of scaling.
OneBase begins their life as a startup with three founders wearing matching t-shirt swag, some stickered laptops and a stack of business cards that gather dust on the corner of the founder’s desks.
After a few months, OneBase lands a Seed investment from some questionable VCs and hires nine employees to scale the business. The founders and early employees, mostly technical people, resolve all IT issues independently with the CTO handling most of the heavy lifting. They adopt Slack to communicate and collaborate internally. Unbeknownst to the founders, this is the first significant IT related decision that they make and it will shape their infrastructure decisions for years to come.
A #help channel is dedicated to getting assistance, sharing internal resources and is a starting point for triaging technical issues. Even with just 12 employees, OneBase feels like a completely unmanageable organizational burden. The founder’s Google Drive folder becomes the de facto repository for knowledge, standard operating procedures (SOPs), sales collateral and company data. As usual for startups, everything feels like it’s on fire, but sheer willpower keeps the wheels on the bus…for now.
OneBase has grown to 175 employees - 40 of which were hired in the past four months. The team loves Slack - its used for everything from planning happy hours to seeking support for IT help issues, this time with a more appropriately named dedicated #it-help channel. The founder’s Google Drive account was made private after an employee realized they could use the information therein to negotiate favorable stock option awards and someone spilled the beans about the vulnerability during happy hour.
Scaling through onboarding and managing internal knowledge proves difficult with FAQs becoming unbearably annoying for IT and HR, so the company adopts Confluence to centralize documentation and add rigor to the knowledge management process. Everyone is confident that this will fix all the company’s issues around onboarding.
It turns out that Confluence isn't the right choice for capturing and solving FAQs, so Slack continues to be the preferred choice to do virtual shoulder-taps. Recently, the management team introduced Jira (to replace Trello, which they felt they outgrew a while ago) into the company workflow to attempt to better execute for missed deliverables.
The product team loves it, but the engineers? Not so much. The sales team starts using Dropbox for document sharing and storage against the recommendation of IT, but they continue to request support when files get lost and accounts get locked out. The IT support team lets out a collective groan every morning after the first password reset request is received. They take bets on which employee it will be and 80% of the time they’re right.
IPO ready (or not)
Everyone at OneBase is still happily chatting and collaborating through Slack - often in the wrong channels, but they land in the right place occasionally. There’s a robust base of knowledge built and stored in Confluence, but employees struggle to utilize it to its potential, possibly because of a cultural disconnect around the importance of documentation. Or maybe the Confluence workspace has been poorly organized (no one can ever find anything in it) so the information therein becomes dated or inaccurate.
Either way, it’s so disorganized and unreliable that service issues begin to outpace the capacity of the helpdesk and the #it-help Slack channel is completely inundated with messages seeking help. To counter this, management adopts Jira Service Desk, a support ticket management platform, after a protracted procurement process. JSD works great, but 1,800 Slack-loving employees prefer to just ask for support in the #it-help channel.
The IT Director threatens to leave for a job at Facebook, but the COO freaks out and doubles her salary and triples her stock options, which turns out to be a terrible decision because it just keeps unhappy people in-house and not on someone else’s payroll.
OneBase feels like a house of cards. But now that the company is well capitalized at over 3-billion dollars in value, it should be able to afford to fix problems by overpaying for small armies of management consultants in puffy vests being airdropped from their Manhattan offices to solve issues as they arise every three or four months.
The IPO is celebrated by Wall Street and pops 30% on the first day of trading. The IT Director wasn’t invited to the bell ringing ceremony at the NASDAQ and instead stayed at the office to attend a presentation from an Azure sales rep. OneBase has realized its dream and has become a behemoth tech company, making the founders richer than their wildest dreams, but they still have countless challenges within the ITSM function that few internally want to fix.
Does any of this sound familiar? While this story is entirely fictional, it’s a story that we at Obie have heard time and time again.
What might be the most interesting thing from this story from an ITSM perspective, is how early decisions the company made laid the framework for so many critical internal support functions. For example, the choice of using Slack just to communicate and collaborate turned out to have a lasting impact on the way employees access and resolve internal support issues. If the management team would ever consider a switch from Slack to MS Teams it would have a dramatic impact on not only costs, but the culture of the company.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at how the very common IT stack described in this tale and how it can be optimized as the company grows.
Optimizing communication and collaboration
As discussed, most startups' first IT infrastructure choice is to solve communication and collaboration problems. Slack is ripe for optimization to handle IT support issues with only minor modifications and some strategic planning.
Using emoji and reacji in Slack
Internal messaging platforms like Slack have changed the way employees communicate. Most notably, for mid-market and enterprise companies, it becomes the default medium to seek and receive IT support. Without extending Slack’s functionality, you can supercharge it’s utility for IT support desks with a simple feature: emoji, or as they are sometimes called, reacji.
Emoji were designed by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999 to ease communication on nascent mobile devices. Today, they are used ubiquitously across devices and mediums. It turns out that emoji can be utilized in a work setting too. Slack was quick to ensure that emoji were part of the basic product and were widely used to communicate all emotions in conversations and threads.
Here is a helpful guide for getting started communicating IT support issue status in Slack.
Thank you/You’re awesome!/Good job!/Yay!
👍 or 🆗
OK/Got it!/I understand
Looking at this/Seen this/Will circle back to it
This task is done!
I agree!/+1 vote
I volunteer! / Pick me!
This is priority
IT support teams can take this a step further if they see success using emoji. They can upload a custom set of emoji to communicate an even wider range of statuses, signals or understanding. It’s a very powerful tool that can be used to accelerate issue resolution without a significant investment.
Want to see reacji in action? If your admin has yet to disable it, try @channel or @here in a channel with a few hundred subscribers. Get ready for the screen to light up!
Beyond using emoji to communicate, there is more native Slack functionality that IT support teams can use to get the most out of a single platform.
Leverage Slack channels to create central hubs. Here are a few that we've seen effectively used time and time again:
#help-it: a dedicated space for requesting IT help
#triage-it: sort out urgent issues and resolution with IT and technical teams
#announcements-it: broadcast announcements about updates/maintenance and anything tech-related (large orgs can use location specific channels)
Threading serves multiple purposes, and employees should be encouraged to use it whenever possible.
It keeps channels cleaner
It consolidates conversations and keeps them on track
Channels with random replies serve to help no one
The IT support team can document FAQs after issues are resolved and pin to channel in a readme for the future. A readme is a great way to store and keep all of your most important and repeated issues at the forefront of a Slack channel.
Optimizing knowledge management with smart tech
It’s time for the buzzword portion of today’s program.
How AI, ML and NLP can contribute to optimization
Joking aside, “smart” technologies such as ML, AI, and NLP have an important role in optimizing an IT service desk. These acronyms are some of the most grossly overused and misunderstood terms in the entire ITSM landscape.
This misunderstanding often causes disappointment among their buyers because expectations are wildly out of line. More fittingly, smart technologies improve interactions in high-volume use cases where patterns are evident. Unfortunately, much to the surprise of smart tech buyers, their use cases are often too low volume with poorly formed patterns in the data. This isn’t always the case though, which means that there are opportunities for smart tech to shine.
For those that qualify, introducing tools with embedded smart technology can be key to solving a bevy or problems including:
Natural language processing (NLP) for better understanding of internal support questions
Machine learning (ML) to learn from feedback over time and refine results to deflect issues before they happen
So what is the best use of AI, ML and NLP after it has been implemented in IT infrastructure? Consider implementations that extract the data from these technologies and use it to improve a knowledge base by filling in gaps caused by oversights, expiration of knowledge, changing business practices and more, thereby improving the self-serve support experience for employees.
Optimizing the full-service JSD powered helpdesk
Once an organization has implemented a robust ticketing solution, it is very likely that support issues have reached unmanageable volumes and informal support request flows are inadequate. Even with a technology like JSD deployed, there are opportunities to optimize and streamline ticket management so that the technology is used for high-quality issues that need human support and low-quality issues are routed elsewhere.
Deflecting tickets with self-service
Ticket deflection is the crowning achievement of any help desk’s operations. If an IT department can route low-value, repetitive issues to self-serve channels, and reserve support for more complex issues, the helpdesk will be running optimally.
The central nervous system of any self-serve support strategy is a knowledge base or enterprise wiki with comprehensive, verified, up-to-date knowledge contained therein. More than that, this knowledge must be thoroughly searchable from a central single source of truth. Ideally, search occurs directly within the flow of work, which is most often in Slack, the browser (possibly via an extension), or within the knowledge base itself - whichever is most convenient for the knowledge seeker.
Unfortunately, investing in a knowledge base solution is hardly enough if there isn’t a culture that prioritizes documentation as having critical importance throughout the organization. Creating a documentation-first culture could (and should be) its own post. But for now, to emphasize the importance of relying on documentation to lead individual work and productivity, when knowledge-seekers ask their neighbor for help, part of the answer should always genuinely ask (without any hint of sarcasm): “What does the knowledge base say?”
The Black Swan: compressing three years of scaling into three weeks – a micro case study
Cvent, a global leader in building software for conference event management, mobilized 4,000 employees by implementing some very simple strategies. After being forced into this predicament by various market-changing events, they swiftly scaled from a centralized workforce to a distributed structure in less than a month.
Cvent’s IT stack resembles many in the enterprise space with Slack, Confluence and JSD powering most of the issue management. But to minimize the operational impacts of this transition, they utilized optimization tactics rather than overhaul the entire IT strategy.
Here are some of the key strategies that they utilized to perfection:
Reinforced the importance of documentation-first to their staff
Introduced new Emoji packs for Slack to communicate status of support issues better
Added tools to manage FAQs to enhance existing documentation
By deploying these optimizations, they were able to aggressively deflect service tickets when an unprecedented volume came through IT support and reinvigorate the culture surrounding documentation.
To wrap up, implementing optimization strategies for your IT support desk can have a dramatic impact on the profitability of the IT support function for scaling companies. These optimizations don’t always require significant investments in technology that require extensive training.
Some can be as small as communicating and signalling with some carefully chosen emoji. Others can involve deploying smart technologies that automate support and capture insights on support activity. Whichever stage your company is at, look for opportunities to optimize your support operations with choices that maximize productivity and accelerate teams to success.