So why then, in the midst of all this scrutiny, does second line support continue to act as a drain on resources and budgets by operating in an inefficient manner; and by its very nature, in full view of the business? Derek Elphick, Head of Service Management at Plan-Net, examines service desk inefficiency and highlights the changes that need to be made.

After surveying more than 100 organisations from the private and public sectors, my company found that the average service desk and desktop team is staffed with 34 percent first-line analysts and 66 percent second-line analysts.

Before examining the reasons behind why organisations might operate a support model with such a bias towards second liners, it is interesting to analyse some of the statistics around what the cost implications of such a set-up might be. According to Gartner, the average cost for a fault resolved by a first-line analyst is between £7 and £25, whereas the same fault resolved by a second-line analyst would cost between £24 and £170. The numbers are staggering, but perhaps not surprising.

The cost difference, when it comes to single fault resolutions, is far from the only area where second-line analysts are guilty of causing an unnecessary drain on resources. A first-line analyst can be expected to yield a far greater level of productivity, simply because of the nature of the role. It is easy to quantify the effectiveness of a first liner, who sits at a desk for pretty much the whole working day with productivity being monitored by the software they are using and by the manager who is usually sat at the same bank of desks. With that in mind, 80 or 90 percent productivity and sometimes more is not an unreasonable expectation.

With second-line, things aren’t so easy. The role makes monitoring more difficult and the roving nature of the work means that focus on productivity isn’t so easily maintained. Given license to roam a building, it is very difficult for an analyst to avoid the inevitable chat with users or the temptation to take an additional break. When added to the real need to physically move from user to user it is not unreasonable to estimate a second-line analyst’s productivity at nearer 40-50 percent.

Every fault that could be fixed at the first-line but makes its way through to the second-line, results in a massive jump in cost and a drop of around 30 percent in productivity. So, there must be some compelling evidence for the average service desk to be operating with almost twice as many second-line analysts as they have first liners.

However, evidence from out in the field makes for surprising reading. Our own experience tells us that of the desktop related incidents and requests received by the average service desk, 60 percent can be resolved remotely by a technical service desk without any change in the working practice of that particular organisation. So that leaves 40 percent of the total desktop related contacts requiring desk-side support or a more complex resolution that may require a second-line analyst.

Immediately, without getting into the improvements that could be made to this ratio with the introduction of Best Practice or innovations such as virtualised desktops, the discrepancies are obvious. Sixty percent of faults are resolved at the first-line but only 34 percent of resource is placed there. Clearly, there is no statistical evidence for the current average model, so are there any compelling arguments for its existence?

When the cost implications of getting ratios wrong are raised with IT management, the response is invariably that ‘the users like to have face to face contact’ or ‘we don’t have remote tools’. Given the current economic climate, responses of this type are an indication that businesses don’t fully understand the value of timely fault resolution or the cost of having technical staff wandering around chatting with users.

Quite apart from the unnecessary drain on finances, another consequence is that IT directors who believe that they do not have budget for projects, may well be able to find additional funds within their current spend if they only took a step back and adjusted their support model.

So what should an organisation do to remedy the problem? The solution is rarely as simple as cutting down on second-line resource and replacing it with more bodies in the first-line. Instead, focus should be applied to increasing the first line fix rate by pushing up the technical ability at first-line.

At Plan-Net, we recommend to the overwhelming majority of our clients that the minimum first-line fix rate should be aimed at 70 percent and we employ various strategies to help them achieve this, depending on the environment and requirements of their user-base. In fact, Gartner backs this figure up with its own research and even goes on to say that a first line fix rate in excess of 85 percent would result in diminishing returns and should be avoided.

Improving first-line fix rates will increase the productivity of users and stem the tide of unnecessary second-line fixes that currently seems to be flowing unchecked through the majority of IT departments. While there may be some cases where a business feels that the user experience within their organisation would be negatively affected by the change; the fact remains that increasing the amount of faults resolved by the first-line will not only increase efficiency within IT support, it will do the same to the user-base at large.

We have even seen organisations from some of the sectors that historically have the most justification for resisting change, reap the benefits of embracing the first-line shift. For example, law firms that have a user-base notorious for demanding personal service, or financial institutions that would never have expected such an approach to be able to support business critical applications with the speed necessary.

There is no statistical evidence to support the second-line bias and no argument based on user experience that stands in the face of such overwhelming pressure to improve the efficiency of IT support. So it must be time to move towards a more intelligent, measured, technical service desk. No one is claiming the change will be easy, and there will undoubtedly be tough decisions to make but, as those that have already taken the plunge will no doubt agree, the rewards will be worth it.