IT help desks have struggled to improve their productivity.

IT help desks have struggled to improve their productivity. Photo: Virginia Star

Email not working or your machine just went dead – who are you gonna call …

For many firms, the help desk is the only interface between staff in the business and the IT folk who keep things ticking over out the back.

Things were simpler when users only had to log their issue, take a ticket number and find something else to do while they waited for a techie to sort things out. Fast forward to 2012 and patience has been removed from the equation.

Now IT service desks are struggling to meet the increased support demands of the cloud computing and mobile era and placate users who are no longer content to report a problem and wait patiently for the fix.

IT service management specialist at help desk software vendor BMC Andrew Talbot says the average user now has zero tolerance for faults and problems.

"These days people expect no down time from IT," Talbot says.

"Systems need to be available, efficient and easy to use, all the time… The user community is now very demanding so the IT department has to be better at supporting customers. An effective help desk is mandatory."

IT help desks have struggled to improve their productivity over the past five years, with first contact resolution rates dropping from 66 per cent in 2007 to 63 per cent in 2011, according to Gartner research.

And demand is not waning, despite improvements in technology and greater user familiarity with it. Help desk staff handled an average of 472 contacts a month in 2007, compared with 449, four years later.

Issues typically fall into five categories: 'how to' queries; password re-set; break/fix problems; outages affecting multiple users; and service requests for new equipment, access to systems or the addition of new staff to systems.

Gartner analyst and help desk expert Jarod Greene believes help desks risk being seen as costly, ineffective and irrelevant if are unable to meet today's exacting user standards. Historically, most had focused on demonstrating their own productivity, rather than attempting to improve the productivity of the users they were there to service, he found.

"The failure of the IT service desk to consistently meet users' demands reinforces the perception that IT is failing to meet business needs," writes Greene, in his 2012 report, IT Service Desks Must Modernise User Experiences or Get Out of the Way.

"The personal cloud era of IT provides business users with increased levels of personal flexibility and functionality, and complexity the traditional IT service desk is unable to support."

Greene recommends help desks lift their game by using social media to communicate with users and foster a self-service culture.

Perth-based internet service provider iiNet is hoping a $1 million overhaul of its help desk infrastructure will allow it to do just this. The firm has begun a four-month project to replace the aging, in-house developed help desk systems in use at its headquarters, and the offices of recent acquisitions Internode and Transact, with BMC's Remedy package.

iiNet's operations centre manager Craig Nicol said the new infrastructure was expected to have a three to five year lifespan and would be used by large business and government customers, as well as internal users.

Talbot said pressure from within business units was resulting in increased focus on improving the helpdesk experience from a user perspective.

"People in the business have pushed for change… IT is a service provider, albeit internal, and needs to engage with its customers," he said.

"People used to talk about IT service management tools and how the IT department would get value out of them – now it's about how customers can use it better," he said.

"The emphasis is no longer on IT for IT's sake."