The next time you come across a helpdesk that is less than helpful, to be made by convincing companies they should free up their own IT staff and opt for outsourcing. or if the telephonist you've spent the past 15 minutes trying to get through to replies: 'I'm afraid I can't help you, our computers are down,' - bite your tongue. Rather than bombard the helpless operator with a barrage of profanities, write to the company's IT manager, point out the problem and then offer to solve it.
The desktop services market - in certain sectors - is booming. According to Romtec's fifth annual report, Opportunities in the UK Desktop Services Market, user helpdesk services and network operations management are the key markets for year-on-year expansion. 'Not only are they two of the fastest growing desktop services, they are also among the largest in terms of value,' says the report's author, Stephen Timms, research manager at Romtec.
Timms maintains that because the number of organisations that outsource either helpdesk services or network operations is still quite low, there are many sites for providers to target - particularly as employers increasingly appreciate how important it is to provide fast, effective support for their users to minimise loss of productivity.
Romtec's interviews with 300 IT managers indicate that organisations employing fewer than 1,000 people are the most likely to outsource helpdesk services, and 24 per cent of SMEs were found to have no proper monitoring system for their internally operated helpdesk services, which leaves them vulnerable to inadequacy. The report suggests: 'If an organisation in such a position wishes to improve efficiency, it may well be more cost-effective and less disruptive to outsource this function.'
Romtec found that 47 per cent of organisations were open to the possibility of changing their maintenance provider - out of which seven per cent said they would definitely do so. The highest percentage was in local government - with 60 per cent considering, and a further eight per cent definitely making the break.
When asked what they considered to be of primary concern when re-tendering, 46 per cent of IT managers said obtaining a lower price was the most important factor. A total of 39 per cent sought a higher level of service, 13 per cent wanted a more complete system and 12 per cent wanted faster response time. Two per cent would seek a provider with multi-vendor capability, and two per cent wanted their provider to have a local presence. Three per cent thought reliability was important and only two per cent cited quality of service.
When asked of the perceived benefits of outsourcing helpdesks, 75 per cent of organisations that did not already outsource considered it would enable IT staff to concentrate on other tasks, 49 per cent thought it would improve the service level to users and 29 per cent felt it would achieve a reduction in helpdesk support costs.
Timms says desktop services providers are not, on the whole, effective in promoting themselves. 'Companies should get some case studies together to prove reduced costs alongside improved services.' He claims that as companies monitor their performance carefully to prove their efficiency to existing clients, they can use this evidence to attract more business.
'A big problem is that if providers make their services more sophisticated, they will add costs, and buyers are only interested in the bottom line. But that could change as organisations start realising the hours lost through production downtime.'
Timms adds: 'This particularly applies to networking support. A faulty PC can be replaced at little inconvenience, but a network crash can be disastrous. If this happens too often when it is outsourced, then the client will be prepared to pay a bit more to gain a more reliable service from another provider.
'Business can be gained from all sizes of organisations that network.
SMEs often do not have the capability to cope inhouse, and larger enterprises are interested in releasing their inhouse personnel from having to field help calls from employees,' says Timms. 'Many calls can be dealt with quite simply - it's as much about good administration as technical expertise.
Users stand less risk of their needs being ignored by outsourcing than when they rely on inhouse personnel, for whom dealing with such calls is not a core task.'
He also thinks that if providers trained staff to deal with enquiries on key software packages, they could gain helpdesk contracts from software manufacturers. 'Their main business is development, not in dealing with hundreds of calls a day.'
Timms suggests that providers are also overlooking the growth potential of providing ad hoc support through credit cards or a premium telephone line for sole traders and home users.
Mark Sawicki, technical and marketing director of desktop services provider Computeraid, says although he agrees that one component of desktop services - hardware maintenance - had little growth, he considers it, along with helpdesk services, still an essential component. 'The level of profit gained from this service is not as important as the fact that helpdesk personnel should not have to pass problems onto a sub-contractor, particularly because it is not always easy to assess on the phone if they are hardware or software related.'
He adds that larger desktop services providers are offering numerous other services. 'When Computeraid negotiates a contract, it is able to claim comprehensive provision including procurement, system integration and training - whatever elements the client wants. To admit the most basic service is sub-contracted would detract from that.'
Nick Robinson, chief executive of the Phoenix IT Group, claims desktop services providers do not need to be comprehensive if they are able to expand within their niche markets. Phoenix, he explains, survives by confining its services to key IT groups. The company has increased its turnover from £2 million to £40 million in a year. 'Because we provide network support services to organisations such as IBM and ICL, we could damage our position if we tried to sell to their clients direct,' he says.
Phoenix is expanding across Europe, starting with a contract to look after a company's entire support operation in Germany. Here, the expansion is to be through extending its operational software support services into advising on business software packages.
The much smaller Phoenix Computer Maintenance is also content with its niche market. Director Michael Lockley claims the company provides both contractual and ad hoc PC hardware maintenance services but also sets up systems for SMEs. Questioned as to whether he had considered providing credit card or premium line services he asks: 'You mean like Dixons' Mastercare?
We do quite well out of Mastercare. When people are told they can have hardware advice at 60p a minute or software advice at £1 a minute, most put the phone down quickly and come to us.
We make a £15 handling charge, then provide a firm quotation so they know where they stand. The Mastercare experience often leads to people returning to us when they want updated computers, as we build to their requirements.'
Clive Arthur, services director at Sterling Support Services, agrees that good service is rewarded by customer loyalty. 'We do a lot of warranty work on behalf of computer manufacturers as a way of retaining customer loyalty. Most will buy the same make again if they are satisfied with the after-sales service. Handling warranty work is equally good for our business as we are increasingly successful in attracting these customers into signing contracts with Sterling at the end of guarantee periods.'
Arthur adds: 'Because they are being asked to pay about £85 a year per PC in the first year, with additional annual increases, some think it more cost-effective to buy a spare PC, but many prefer to remain on contract as our service extends far beyond just repairing hardware. How otherwise can they cope with viruses for instance? When a virus hits, we are inundated.
'Most desktop services providers have to cope with loss leaders as they are essential to the overall service. I agree that hardware maintenance is expensive to operate compared with software support, but I don't consider it practical to sub-contract as it is not always easy for helpline staff to ascertain precisely where the fault lies during a telephone conversation,' he says.
Sterling seeks contracts across the range - from large companies to home users. 'Our main market is SMEs as corporate bodies still tend to want to keep the work inhouse, although there are increasing indications of a change in this respect,' says Arthur. 'Some large enterprises do appreciate that if IT personnel spend too much time answering queries, they cannot develop the jobs they were hired to do - and good IT people are scarce.'
Arthur claims quality is the key when it comes to tendering and securing contracts in the private sector. 'Local authorities can be quite price sensitive but most commercial companies are more interested in quality, so, if you're having to re-tender and have previously performed well, your service record will generally get you through. Public body contracts usually have get-out clauses so we don't despair if we lose out to a cheaper quote as we are often invited back again when the provider fails to deliver.'
The need to broaden the services Sterling currently offers is one that Arthur recognises. 'Our helpline software support has been confined to operating software but we are now setting up a service to cover the most popular programmes.' When asked if he would consider providing an ad hoc help-line service using credit cards or a premium telephone line, he said it was not something Sterling had considered but added that it was worth thinking about.
One of Sterling's clients, Omega Electronic Equipment, considers good documentation to be a vital element. 'But we don't just rely on it,' says Neil Gordon, marketing manager for personal computers, at Omega. 'Omega makes spot checks by contacting customers who report problems, to assess the standard and speed of service they receive. If Sterling did not meet our targets, we would find another provider.'
Much of Compaq's warranty work is carried out by its main resellers but customers who buy through smaller firms are served by independent desktop services providers. Dan Socci, director of sales and marketing at Compaq, says several of the latter are used. 'Our customer services department receives all calls and diverts them to whichever company is able to react the fastest. We find some go through patches of running into quality problems so we prefer to be the first point of contact. This also enables us to follow up the calls to make sure they are being attended to efficiently.'
Although Socci does not agree that price is the priority when choosing a desktop services provider, he does feel that too few manufacturers and their customers want to pay for additional services, but adds that the situation will change soon. 'As technological developments slow down or reach the point when customers do not perceive them to be of any benefit, then the most important selling tool for computer manufacturers could be the range and quality of their after-sales support services.'
Compaq is one of the product ranges sold by Computacenter. Phil Williams, head of corporate marketing at the reseller, agrees hardware maintenance does not make money but maintains it is vital as clients expect their providers to cover a range of desktop services.
He says clients are interested in associated services. 'Emphasis is shifting from inhouse to outsourcing. Our clients are among the largest so they require support on a large scale - and they don't want to have to tender separately for services that are closely related. You need to provide a comprehensive service including putting people on site to provide networking support, and being able to advise on software packages.'
Computacenter also sells IBM and provides after-sales services for these products - although IBM is itself a desktop services provider, looking after important installations such as the Cable & Wireless computer infrastructure.
Ben Wiltshire, saleman at PC Computers, which specialises in supporting multi-site companies such as Littlewood's. He says although its clients have IT departments, they generally find it more cost-effective to outsource.
'We are able to reach problem sites faster than they can as we have locally based engineers. We don't do much on the software side but would certainly consider expansion here if that's what our clients want.'
But Colin Holmes, IT manager at Anglo Communications, believes problems could arise from the increase in demand for software packages helplines.
'The more sophisticated the software becomes, the greater the problems. My only fear is that we would be so deluged with calls if we provided such a service, it might become disruptive to our other business.'
Not every computer manufacturer outsources its warranty work. And not all large organisations would consider outsourcing their desktop services requirements. A representative for Boots said the group had taken the work back inhouse to improve quality of service. Another large company's IT manager said the employers had never considered outsourcing: 'It's largely a matter of quality of service, of cost, and of staying close to our users.'
For desktop services providers the challenge is in persuading customers that they are able to meet this criteria.
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