Define metrics first, then call for help

'This is the type of service agencies wanted to keep in-house ... but as contractors brought in better trained and qualified people, you can get a better level of service for a lower cost,' GSA's Bob Suda said.

Robert Otto, CIO and chief technology officer for the Postal Service, made the decision to outsource his agency's computer help desk to EDS Corp. the same way he would buy pens or paper. Otto sees help desk services as a commodity.

'If you get a good supplier that learns what you need and can provide a high level of service at a reasonable price, it makes perfect sense to contract it out,' he said.

USPS went from 100 help desks'which included both Postal employees and contractors serving the country'to three as a part of its effort to centralize its infrastructure, said Larry Wills, USPS manager of distributed computing and IT.

The Postal Service is following the lead of many agencies that are outsourcing their help desk functions. Bob Suda, assistant commissioner for the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service, said over the past year the number of agencies going that route has increased. The IRS and the Social Security Administration are among the agencies that have outsourced their help desk services in recent years.

'Agencies are outsourcing help desk because of the pressures to meet the competitive sourcing requirements under the President's Management Agenda,' Suda said. 'This is the type of service agencies wanted to keep in-house because many believed they received better service. But as contractors brought in better trained and qualified people, you can get a better level of service for a lower cost.'

Many experts, though, caution against simply substituting one for another. Wills, for instance, said when USPS had a decentralized environment, the 100 help desks worked better.

Get specific

Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president for the Professional Services Council, an industry association, said the key to buying help desk services is describing the functions in precise detail.

'The risk of dissatisfying the end user is very high so you have to understand how the process works,' he said. 'There are critical metrics like the time to answer a question that must be considered, and you must consider your system and the number of applications it uses.'

Otto said he made sure EDS' contract included both generalized help desk and agency specific services because Postal employees use 650 applications.

Otto also advised against blindly following industry standards. USPS started with the 60-second industry average of time to answer a call and lowered it a little, but Otto said they probably would have driven that time down even more if they had known more about the types of calls the desk would be receiving.

'You have to determine what metrics lead to the best customer satisfaction,' Wills said.
USPS is now capturing those benchmarks and surveying its employees, and will modify the contract when its time for renewal, Otto said.

Another pitfall to avoid is paying for a specific call volume. USPS built flexibility into its contract so if the call volume fluctuates 5 percent in either direction, it will not cost USPS any extra money, Wills said.

Inner workings

Suda recommends agency managers and vendors spend time getting to know the way the agency works to solve problems more easily.

Suda added most contracts he is seeing are for three to five years and include a monetary award fee for meeting certain levels of service. USPS included a 5 percent to 10 percent award fee, Wills said.

'Help desk services are routinely bought in the private sector because the experience base is fairly large,' Chvotkin said. 'The government is following suit because this is not unique to government work and that makes it a fairly strong candidate to outsource.'

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