If you’ve been in the technology support industry for a while, you’ve seen a lot of change. Technologies come and go, new ideas spark trends in how we do things and some work, and others fade away. I’ve always had a love for technology; even when I was young, I knew that my dream job was in computers long before computers became commonplace.
I had an opportunity come along about 25 years ago to work for a regional healthcare benefits and services company that was trying to expand into new markets. At the time, I was working for a small healthcare company that was acquired. I was the third person hired in the local market, so I really was on the launchpad of an amazing journey. That growing company was UnitedHealthcare, which today is one of the largest healthcare benefits and services providers in the United States and around the globe.
During that journey, I was able to watch how our support model evolved, and I noted how it was a fascinating microcosm of what was happening in the industry everywheresometimes we were ahead of the curve, sometimes behind itbut there are some things we all have in common regardless of what the company does. Some ideas for how we accomplish technology support is scalable across nearly every discipline. Let me share some of the paradigms, how they were adopted, and some leadership lessons gained from the experience.
Desktop support used to mean that someone in IT made a physical visit to someone’s desk, did on-the-spot troubleshooting, and facilitated the repair or resolution of the incident while the customer watched. As technology progressed, it started to become possible for a desktop support technician to remote into a customer’s computer across the local area network. Later, that expanded to include customers who were in a different building or even different city. Today, the remote control technology is so advanced that desktop support can be accomplished from anywhere in the world, as long as there’s a strong enough connection to the network.
Remote support can be beneficial to all sizes of business, from a single office to a global corporation. It enables a support analyst to take immediate control and resolve an incident without having to make a physical trip to the customer’s device.
This was not an easy transition for us. At first, support analysts embraced the idea of remoting into a client device; at the same time, they still were doing other support duties that closely engaged them with the business, and they were well-known in the office as the IT guys. When that concept started to expand beyond the local office, there were some cultural issues that needed to be resolved. Suddenly the analyst helping the customer might be someone unknown, from another building or even another city. The support teams started to feel disconnected from their customers, because they were seeing less and less of them as the idea of remote support became ingrained.
Leadership had some lessons as well. The idea of remote control is exciting, and for a while there was a mantra, “if it can be done remotely it should be done remotely!” That ultimately led to dissatisfaction on the part of both the support teams as well as the customers. Face-to-face interaction is necessary for building a good rapport and relationship, so processes needed to be adjusted to allow for that in the larger sites that would benefit the most from on-site support. Leadership has grown to understand that establishing a rotationa “second hat” type shiftallows the desktop support teams to maintain customer relationships while still effectively leveraging remote support.
Once remote support became integral to the overall IT strategy, local analysts had less time for much of the hands-on work they might have handled previously. For example, each staffed site would coordinate its own hardware procurement, stocking inventory locally for new hires or maintenance events. Likewise, the local staff would spend time doing repairs on broken hardware, which necessitated a large number of analysts being certified for self-maintainer (warranty) work as well as time spent researching and ordering replacement parts.
To keep focus on the core work of customer support, these functions were centralized nationally. Inventory moved from a customer-owned model to a common inventory that is held at the National Fulfillment Center. Equipment needing repair is replaced at the local level, and the damaged machines are shipped back to the warehouse where a dedicated repair team does the detailed troubleshooting and repair of the device.
This approach has not only freed up the technology support analysts to focus on the customer, it has resulted in significant savings for the company. The common inventory model eliminates redundant pockets of hardware; no longer does each business own and manage a separate inventory. Using the common model, computer equipment can be shared across all business units, reducing the overall quantity of machines needed to support the enterprise. It also reduces the number of new machines that need to be purchased each year, as we typically redeploy 50% or more of our hardware, eliminating the need to buy a new device.
We learned a few lessons with this model. For example, we quickly learned that a very small pool of what we termed hot-swap equipment was needed at the larger sites. Even though we could quickly turn around a machine from the warehouse within a business day, we felt that this was still too long and our priority was to get the customer back up and running as quickly as possible. This small pool of local inventory allowed the local support team to quickly replace a damaged machine with equipment that was readily on hand. When the damaged machine was returned to the fulfillment center for repair, a replacement device was returned to the local site to fill in the hot-swap inventory.
The journey so far has moved desktop support from being a mostly physical, hands-on process to a virtual, second-level support team. A natural next step is to move the team further to the left and integrate them more closely with the service desk. We’ve done that by creating what we call “warm transfer” teams where calls are transferred directly from the service desk to a second-level analyst. Not every incident qualifies, and our knowledge management system quickly lets the service desk analyst know which incidents to transfer and even what workgroup would take care of the issue. The customer is given the option of waiting on the phone for the next desktop support analyst, or an appointment is made for a call-back. This process has been very well received by our customers, and our follow-up surveys show excellent feedback.
However, we’ve gone beyond even the integration of service desk and desktop support. At Optum (a UnitedHealth Group business) we have a dedicated team known as End User Technology Services (EUTS). This team is much more comprehensive than just customer-facing support. It integrates all of the different disciplines into a cohesive group all working toward a single mission:
We go the extra distance to deliver value to the customers we serve, including cost effective, simple and useful end user computing technology and services.
EUTS is made up of nine teams, which include the service desk, desktop (second-level) support, third-level support, and executive support. But in addition to those teams that directly face the customer, there are other support groups providing development, specialized to create tools designed to either make the support teams more efficient or even directly used by the customer. There are financial and business operations teams that focus on forecasting future needs of the business, providing financial and resource management, strategic planning, operational reporting, and business process in support of our customers. There are portfolio delivery teams that specialize in seamlessly providing integrated products and services to our customers, which includes assisting acquisitions in their integration into the enterprise. We have an automated provisioning team who is focused on our shift left strategy, moving support and services closer to the customer, to get them new technologies when they need them, or get them back up and running quickly without too much interaction with technology support.
Getting all of these different teams to work together is challenging. It will always be challenging, because we’re all human and we all have different ways of looking at things. But developing an underlying culture that guides our approach is probably the most important thing we’ve done. Each team has cultural ambassadors that represent them and help to educate team members on specific values we find important to running an effective business. There are five values: integrity, compassion, relationships, innovation, and performance. Our continued growth as a company and how we are perceived by others, both inside and outside our organization, is directly tied to our culture. Everything we do should reflect our values.
Next Generation Support
I truly believe what we have at Optum is the next generation of support, that we’re truly on the leading edge. We’re not just a service desk or a desktop support team. We’ve moved well beyond that and are now a complex, comprehensive team of dedicated professionals that have specifically targeted customer support from within many, many different disciplines.