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City of Des Moines help desk app grows to serve many needs

published on October 9, 2003
on /

When the City of Des Moines, IA, decided to create a help desk from the foundation up, CIO Michael Armstrong learned quickly the importance of having an IT service management tool.

"We were simply fighting fires all of the time and we had no structure about how we responded or provided service," Armstrong said. Within a few short years, Armstrong's decision to bring on a help desk management suite has extended outward and transformed the way the city meets the demands of its citizenry.

This story illustrates how one help desk initiative helped better support internal desktop users and spawned a new way of servicing external customers. The City of Des Moines' experiences also emphasizes the importance of taking a long view when making software selection.

Creating the help desk

The City of Des Moines formed its help desk in 1998 with two full-time level-one techs and two full-time field workers to service the city government's 1,200 desktop users. Without a service management tool, however, the impossibility of the task became rapidly apparent.

According to Armstrong, the help desk couldn't meet service requests in a timely manner, nor did it have organized information about the hardware and software in use on individuals' desktops.

Armstrong created an RFP to identify a cost-effective help desk system. Among the early contenders was a Des Moines-area company that, at the time, was developing a product for IT service management. But that initiative never got off the ground, Armstrong said, so he also evaluated Magic Service Desk, a product of Santa Clara, CA-based Network Associates, as well as Colorado Springs, CO-based FrontRange Solutions Inc.'s HEAT solution. The city ultimately chose HEAT Service & Support for the help desk.

Evaluating a solution keeping the big picture in mind According to FrontRange marketing manager Michael Parrinella, HEAT streamlines help desk processes, keeping track of relevant data about employee desktops, and enables help desks to create a system and processes for an effective help desk call center. A small application runs on users' desktops, providing both discovery and remote support facility.

FrontRange also offers Web-based service management applications, HEAT Self Service, which allows users to open and close a ticket and search a knowledge base, and HEAT Web Center, Parrinella said.

In addition to its use on the help desk, HEAT can be put to work in other enterprise scenarios, such as managing and routing customer requests. As a part of a CRM solution, HEAT can integrate with a FrontRange CRM application called GoldMine.

These broader potential uses of some IT service management applications should not be overlooked in the evaluation process, according to Karen Smith, research director with the Boston, MA-based IT market analysts the Aberdeen Group. In the case of the City of Des Moines, despite the city's desire to be forward looking in its IT plans, Armstrong said he had not predicted the possibility that a separate instance of HEAT would be put to work in departments across the city to log and route work requests generated by citizen complaints for things such as fixing pot holes. So Armstrong stuck to a traditional evaluation scheme, choosing to look at key decision drivers, such as:

  • The flexibility to modify the product as needed.
  • The availability of sufficient supplementary tools to drive a successful help desk.
  • Compatibility with previously made IT infrastructure standards, such as the ability of the database aspect of the product to run on Microsoft SQL server and a Windows application server (the city is now using Windows 2000).
  • Viability and reputation of the vendor.
  • Minimal ongoing support requirements.
  • The availability of local support if something were to go wrong.
  • Low cost.

Because some help desk applications can be put into use in other areas of the enterprise, Smith encourages help desk managers to work with their broader IT organization when selecting a product, as well. This will naturally broaden the selection criteria.

"[Help desk managers] need to make sure they have company executive buy-in from the C-level," Smith said. "If they do not endorse it, it will be hard to push a new way of doing things on people."

Part of getting C-level input involves taking stock of the potential need for logging and tracking applications across the enterprise. These may include adaptations of the tools for human resources or facility operations uses.

So, evaluation teams must consider what other applications can be integrated with the IT service management solution to "select a technology that will deliver the highest value opportunity, not only for the short term, but also for the long term," Smith said.

As such, Smith said other points on which to evaluate potential vendors should include:

  • The comfort level your company has with the vendor's culture and future plans.
  • The vendor's approach to optimizing the service management application to produce significant business value in the future.

Launching with little fuss

Without predicting its future potential within city government, Armstrong went ahead with the purchase of HEAT for his new help desk. The City of Des Moines paid $19,000 for HEAT's help desk application. This installation took less than four months to complete and rolled out in April 1999. Two people from Armstrong's IT operations and one person from FrontRange performed the installation.

Help desk staff trained on the job while they tweaked the taxonomy of how calls get logged and gradually put the tool into use. Armstrong emphasized that taxonomy is essential for providing a proper structure for logging and analyzing tickets. For example, if calls are logged simply as "printer problem," it creates more work to interpret than if calls are logged as "printer configuration problems," Armstrong said.

Since HEAT was put into operation four years ago, it's been smooth sailing, according to Armstrong. The help desk has improved customer satisfaction and the tool has made it easier to schedule field workers "so now we don't have two people driving to the same building to visit separate offices," Armstrong said. The city has 60 different buildings distributed across 77 square miles, so efficient use of travel time for field workers is crucial to servicing desktop users well.

As for computing formal ROI, the city's IT department doesn't have metrics that track back to the return on its investment, Armstrong said.

"How do you quantify [in terms of dollars] better service?" he asked. Benchmarks for improvement aren't available either because the help desk itself was a new initiative.

But the fortuitousness of selecting HEAT for the city's help desk should not be underestimated. In 2001, following the rollout of HEAT to the help desk, a separate installation of HEAT Service & Support was implemented to log, route, and track calls (or feedback input into the city's Web site) coming into various city offices from Des Moines citizens, demonstrating that a long range view is advisable when choosing an application for the help desk. The second instance of HEAT cost the city upwards of $150,000 "with deep discounts," said Armstrong, who has licensed 450 seats for city offices.

The move has transformed the way the city responds to its citizenry, Armstrong said. The distributed call center handles 1,380 different kinds of calls, providing details about the call to anyone with access to the system.

For Armstrong, handling service calls to a help desk and service calls to city government is a similar task—though, he admits, the scale of the projects and the challenges of getting city workers to change their work habits are much larger.

"It's a clear connection—you're providing customer service response," Armstrong said. "The functions themselves are the same, but the subject matter may differ a little bit."

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david southgate
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