Getty Images/iStockphoto

MSPs find soft-skill, tech challenges in help desk ticketing

Service provider personnel must work through automation, staffing and software challenges when they deploy help desk ticketing central business management systems.

Resolving customers' IT issues through help desk ticketing is a core MSP function and service providers use various help desk software products in the cloud or on premises. But even though today's software offers an array of functions, MSPs sometimes still fall short in hitting their targeted levels of efficiency and productivity.

Common features of help desk systems include ticket management, routing and tracking, as well as automated alerts and escalation, multichannel communication, real-time chat, performance monitoring, a self-service portal, storage for documentation, IT asset management, SLA management and customization.

Help desk systems usually integrate with an MSP's remote monitoring and management system. But their internal usage varies as does a service provider's experience

Growing pains

For any MSP or managed security services provider, meeting customers' IT needs is easier when there are fewer of them. Things become more challenging when your business grows, noted Joshua Skeens, COO of Logically, an MSP based in Portland, Maine.

"The next thing you know, you have 1,000 customers and you don't know how to do things because every customer is different, and [their] processes and products are different," Skeens said. "So, having the ability to store information from a knowledgebase perspective is very important."

Most MSPs struggle with maintaining SLAs and knowing how to assign them to customers, he said. For example, if a contract stipulates a four-hour response time and the MSP doesn't respond in four hours, the service provider has broken its SLA.

A help desk system should have some automation built in, Skeens said. That way, an MSP can set it up to receive an alert one hour before an SLA will be broken and another alert at the 15-minute mark. If an SLA is still broken, "there needs to be reporting and [we need to] alert several people that we broke it," he said.

Previously, this had to be done manually, so there weren't a lot of checks and balances, Skeens said. "Most high-level platforms have [automation] built in now … I would like to see MSPs leverage that a lot more because it would make them more efficient and drive a better experience for their customers. That's what a lot of MSPs are trying to get to."

Often, people are reactive rather than proactive, Skeens added. As MSPs add customers, the ability to provide help desk support may create a gap that will be too large for many to close, he said.

"One of the reasons MSPs historically get to about that … $1 million mark and can't go further is because they didn't build automation and features" into their help desk systems," Skeens explained. Building in such capabilities after the fact becomes too time consuming and expensive, he noted.

Yet building in automation to create efficiencies will increase both customer -- and employee -- satisfaction, he said. Referencing the Great Resignation, Skeens said people often leave jobs because "they're not emotionally satisfied.

In addition, COVID-19 and the growth of remote workers have placed higher demands on help desk staff.

"I take the lens of 'What can we do to make employees' jobs easier and make them more satisfied?'" Skeens said.

A lot of times, the answer lies in taking away mundane tasks that employees must do over and over, he said. When tasks are automated, "you don't have to remember to do these things and it creates a better environment for them to work in; on the flip side, it makes the customer happier," he said.

support tier chart
Help desk support is a core MSP offering.

Soft-skills shortages

Lunavi, an MSP based in Cheyenne, Wyo., provides 24/7 tier 1 (customer outage) and tier 2 (degradation of service) support, and the main challenge is finding people with soft skills, said Tracy Kubasti, the company's senior vice president, global service center.

An MSP aims to hire people with critical thinking skills who can look beyond the technical issues and delve deeper into the cause of a problem a customer is having, she said. That requires gathering all the information from that customer to properly escalate an issue to the right place.

Automated responses can be frustrating for the customer and we try to dig out what's really going on.
Tracy KubastiSenior vice president, global service center at Lunavi

"Automated responses can be frustrating for the customer and we try to dig out what's really going on," Kubasti said. It could be something simple, enabling those tickets to be handled seamlessly. "But when a customer is in a complex situation and we have to put that into our engineering group for troubleshooting, just making sure we're asking all the right questions and getting the right information" can be a challenge, she noted.

In addition, the IT staffing shortage has made it very difficult to recruit and retain staff, and Kubasti said this has prompted Lunavi to become more creative.

"We work multiple angles," she said. Because their 24/7 team is in Cheyenne, one tactic company officials have used is to work with the local community college to find candidates who have good soft skills. Lunavi will then train them in the technical areas, she said.

The goal is to find people who are articulate, smart and can learn the technology, she said. "We've taken that angle of 'How do we develop our people from the inside?'"

Lunavi also wants people who are good at problem solving, which means "knowing where to go to get answers and really thinking about 'How do I solve this problem? What do I have available to work this problem?' Not just click a button and move on," she said.

Software challenges

MNJ Technologies, an MSP based in Buffalo Grove, Ill., thought it was being more efficient using the same help desk software both for internal and external ticketing. But the company has two queues and sometimes customer emails go to the wrong queue and the system doesn't pick that up, said Dasha Stepp, director of service delivery.

She tried changing the email address customers use to send a ticket, but the software does not have automation functionality. That "doesn't allow me to do clear separation of the queues," Stepp explained, "so I have to have someone physically look at tickets" and determine which ones belong where.

This has resulted in some customers not receiving a prompt response to a ticket if the designated person is not available to manually go in and check the queues, Stepp said.

Tickets "should be checked constantly. But sometimes someone goes to lunch or steps away or is addressing something else and it's hard to have someone on 24/7," she explained. Even with a third-party network operations center handling some of the tickets, Stepp said it's still not a seamless process.

The system also doesn't provide good visibility into her team's workload. "That means that I may assign a ticket to someone without realizing they already have too much on their plate," Stepp said.

The short-term fix for Stepp is having someone review people's workloads and tickets and spread the work out, since the help desk system also doesn't automatically assign tickets.

"It's working better than not having anyone," she said. "It's definitely taken the burden off my shoulders. But again, if that person goes to lunch or steps away or is pulled into a conversation" tickets may not be addressed quickly.

The ultimate solution for MNJ is to switch to a different CRM system that "covers all areas and provides better automation for all my functions" without human intervention, she said. This is in the works for 2023.

Stepp's advice to other MSPs is to understand what processes you want your help desk software system to resolve. "We chose the system we thought could do the job and then we fitted the processes into that system, and we should have done it the other way around."

Dig Deeper on MSP business strategy

Cloud Computing
Data Management
Business Analytics