A help desk is a centralized hub that connects end users with IT technicians in order to troubleshoot and resolve hardware and software-related issues. Help desks today are typically equipped to support Microsoft and Apple operating systems and applications, email and web browsers, mobile devices, antivirus software, machine performance problems, and more.

A help desk may also be referred to as a service desk, IT response center, solutions center, call center, computer support center, customer care center, or a handful of other names – but its primary function is always to provide professional, courteous and expert customer service to users in need of IT assistance.

Help desk technicians can field requests and communicate with users across a number of channels: email, telephone, web-based chat, even social media – and technicians leverage ticket-based workflow software to help keep track of incoming requests.

For smaller companies who may have fewer support needs, a help desk might consist of only one person and a single phone line. In larger enterprises, however, the help desk might be a complete team of experts who can field even the most complex IT issues.

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) outlines best practices in implementing a help desk. According to ITIL, a help desk should include:

  • A single point of contact for users experiencing IT interruptions
  • Computer or software consultations
  • Tracking for all incoming problems
  • Problem escalation procedures
  • Problem resolution capabilities

Levels of Help Desk Support

In order to keep track of requests and identify critical vs. non-critical issues, both tickets and help desk technicians are grouped into different “levels” or tiers. The higher the tier, the more challenging the issue – and the more skilled a technician must be to resolve it.

Level 1 Support

The basic level of customer support offered by a generalist IT technician. Responsibilities include identifying the customer who’s calling in, understanding the problem they’re experiencing, and offering basic issue resolution – either by fixing the problem or providing remediation documentation and best practices to help the customer resolve the issue. Common level 1 support issues include password resets, basic printer troubleshooting, and more.

Level 1 support typically runs 24 hours a day (when possible), and if an L1 technician cannot resolve a given problem, it can be re-classified as a level 2 support issue and handed off to the appropriate technician.

Level 2 Support

This level of support is offered by technicians who are more experienced and can handle more complex issues, like network support or software troubleshooting. If a given issue is one the help desk has seen before, the technician may be able to find a solution or workaround in database. If not, a level 2 technician can sometimes attempt to research and implement a solution on their own, or choose to escalate the issue to level 3.

Level 3 Support

Level 3 support issues include some of the most complex problems a help desk will encounter, such as database administration, infrastructure or data center management, or advanced network challenges. In some cases, level 3 support is handled by a Network Operations Center (NOC) consisting of technical specialists whose capabilities go beyond that of the help desk.

Level 4 Support

This level of support is reserved for highly-complex issues, where multiple vendors, products, or tools outside of the organization are involved. This is the highest level of specialized support available, and not all help desks will offer level 4 support.

Help Desk Software

Since companies started using technical equipment, such as terminals for mainframe computer access, or even dictation machines and telephones, there has been a need for processes (and eventually software) to help technicians fix and track technical issues.

In the early days of mainframe help desk software, issues were submitted physically by paper forms, or by telephone. Technicians typed issues into a terminal for tracking, and communicating with the end users was performed by telephone or paper.

With the introduction of desktop computers and email, help desk software systems evolved significantly. Users began submitting issues via email rather than with interoffice paper memos, and the help desk gained more visibility. This also helped technicians save time, as they had to field far fewer calls from users asking for status updates. 

Today, help desk software also makes use of the cloud and social networking. The technology may include community support elements, real-time status updates, and remote access to desktops by help desk staff, so they rarely have to travel on-site to fix a problem. Users can also view their own support tickets, add information, and search for help with issues on their own.

These SaaS-based solutions provide many improvements over previous generations of help desk software – including faster deployment through automatic pre-configured processes, easier configuration with point-and-click interfaces, and more flexible adaptation of workflows and approval and escalation processes.

The MSP Help Desk

For many businesses, particularly SMBs, maintaining an in-house help desk is simply too expensive. Even with an affordable, self-service software solution in place, users still need to connect with technology experts when larger issues arise – and this is where managed services providers (MSPs) can step in and help. 

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By offering a managed help desk offering to businesses that are ill-equipped to staff and maintain their own support teams, MSPs can provide small businesses with true peace of mind when it comes to customer service and tech support. A managed offering implies that the MSP takes care of just about everything – from answering phones, to creating tickets, to resolving issues and measuring customer satisfaction. The MSP can then relay this information back to their customers, allowing business owners to keep tabs on customer service operations even when they’re managed by an outside partner.

The Need for 24x7x365 Service Delivery

Arguably the biggest challenge in building an effective help desk, both for business owners and technology providers, is the need to maintain 24x7x365 uptime. In today’s always-on business landscape, employees are working across multiple devices, and many are working well-outside of traditional 9-5 hours – but that doesn’t stop their computers from crashing.

The problem is that labor costs are fixed, but IT demands fluctuate. A given business may require five help desk technicians one afternoon, but the next morning only require one or two – and for businesses hoping to provide 24x7 coverage, the problem becomes even worse (and more expensive).

This argument makes the SMB owner’s decision to partner with an outside help desk a relatively easy one. Less obvious, however, is the notion that smaller MSPs and IT shops can actually enjoy many of these same benefits by working with a third-party help desk provider themselves. In both cases, these benefits include:

ROI – partnering with a third-party help desk can save you quite a bit of cash, especially when considering overtime, benefits, and all of the other expenses required to maintain an in-house staff.

Flexible Capacity – when working with an outsourced help desk, staffing and capacity challenges are no longer a problem. The provider is responsible for ensuring the help desk has enough technicians to meet any spikes in service requests, and MSPs can rest easy knowing they can bring on new customers without having to worry about hiring additional help desk technicians.

Expertise & Continuous Training – Help desk providers take measures to ensure that technicians are always up-to-date on the latest fixes, trends and information needed to meet customer needs.

Freedom to Focus on Strategic Growth – Help desk outsourcing frees up both management and technician time, allowing businesses to focus on strategic account development and overall growth.

When shopping around for the right help desk partner, keep these considerations in mind:

  • Identify the fundamental mission of the third-party provider, whether that’s providing internal support, business-to-business user support, or consumer support.
  • Set measurable goals, starting with financial goals such as return-on-investment, and including service goals, such as first-call resolution rate, response time, average length of call, and customer retention and satisfaction.
  • Compare outsourcers against each other and against your broader mission and specific goals. Different outsourcers may offer a varying emphasis on internal, business-to-business, or consumer support, and should be able to provide performance metrics.