Helpdesks and Call Centres - a Comparison

By Noel Bruton, Independent Help Desk Consultant in the UK. (contact details ).

The line is blurring between the Helpdesk and the Call Centre. Which came first? Both are fairly recent phenomena, but broadly speaking the IT Helpdesk as we know it today started to take on that form in the mid-1980's. Those were the days of the Intel 80286 and the first versions of Windows. Suddenly PC's were relatively user friendly, and corporations started to use them instead of mainframe-attached VDU's. This led to an explosion in desktop computing, with inexperienced users needing assistance with flaky software (come on Uncle Bill, you have to admit that Windows was flaky then…not that it is nowadays of course…ahem).

The Call Centre, in all its IVR and CTI-laden glory, is by comparison a nineties thing - although I'm sure the big mail-order firms like Great Universal Stores and Littlewoods could produce a convincing argument that they had call-centres way back in the sixties. It is the Call Centre Market, rather than the longer-established Helpdesk market, which has fostered the new technologies of Interactive Voice Response and Computer Telephone Integration.

Now we have Helpdesks adopting IVR and other essentially Call-Centre practices, even though the Helpdesk was first. Why is it this way round? Why are so many companies subsuming their Helpdesks into their call-centres rather than offering the existing IT Service/Helpdesk manager the opportunity to start the new call-centre? The answer is a simple one - money. The Call-Centre was born as a sales aid, so it was a profit centre from the word Go. It had different management and a different mission. But it had something else that I would content most Helpdesks still lack - a cost-benefit justification.

It is not that the Helpdesk does not have a financial justification, it is just that many companies have not found it yet. My view is that if ten years ago, the Helpdesk had been placed on a business, rather than its usual exasperating technical or service footing, then the Call Centre initiators would have gone to the Helpdesk manager first. But it's too late for that now, at least for some Helpdesks (I'll describe a cost-benefit analysis of the IT Helpdesk in a future column).

Apart from history, mission and financing, the two other main differences between the Helpdesk and the Call Centre are the use of knowledge and telephone method.

Knowledge management is a particularly important distinction, for it partly dictates how the two functions deploy that most essential of service resources, namely people. Both functions use knowledge to impart information to callers. However, the Call-Centre's knowledge is usually extracted from a finite, known pool of knowledge. Typically, this will be a catalogue, of products and services on offer, their features, pricing and availability. Occasionally, call-centre operatives may have to glean that information from a variety of sources, in the way the old Information Centres of the eighties DP departments used to do, but essentially the knowledge is still already in existence somewhere.

The IT Helpdesk is different. True, they will also impart pre-manufactured knowledge, but they also have another way of producing knowledge, namely diagnosis. Unlike the typical Call Centre, the Helpdesk is a problem-solving resource. This simple fact separates the two departments most starkly, in that they must use different staff with different skills. One does not usually need a manufacturer's certificate or profound technical knowledge to work in a Call Centre - use of a knowledge base or recitation of a set of pre-scripted questions is a competence that can be gained relatively quickly. But I would contend that the Typical Helpdesk operation of defining a technical problem, while comforting a distraught computer user, requires a peculiar mix of skills which are quintessentially Helpdeskish, and not usually associated with the Call Centre.

This diverts us into the realm of crossover services, where the terminology starts to blur. In the main concourse of London's Victoria Station, there is a rail-traveller's 'Helpdesk'. It is not a Call-Centre, because it operates face-to-face with the client. But neither is it a Helpdesk, because it delivers pre-prepared knowledge of service availability (what time is the train, why is it late, where do I change trains). The word 'Helpdesk' is emblazoned on its counter. They use this word because it has passed into the language to describe a widely understood purpose. However, 'Helpdesk' in this context is too loose a definition for service professionals like the readers of this article. It is perhaps more accurate to call it an Information Centre, which is the term accurately adopted by many Tourist offices. But the universality of the term 'Helpdesk' even causes some call centres to adorn themselves with it. OK, I'm splitting hairs, but we need to know what we're talking about here.

The importance of knowledge, and its skilful deployment is paramount in all service centre definitions. The value of diagnostic ability coupled with a customer service ethic is pushing up salary levels in IT Helpdesks. Yet although the call centre is a profit engine, salaries there are notoriously low, and I have known a case where call centres in a certain city openly discuss their salary levels with one another.

Probably the biggest difference between the two is that if the call-centre gets a call requiring diagnosis outside the script, this must be sent to a second-line resolver. This too is a Helpdesk practice. But because it happens so often in the true Helpdesk, we engineer our skills to go for a first-time fix, where possible. In the Call-Centre, the limited nature of the knowledge makes the first-time fix the norm.

Although Helpdesks have come to use Call Centre-style telephone technologies for incoming calls (press one for this, two for that or hold for an operator, if you' can't log on then hang up because we're already fixing it, etc.) the Helpdesk does not have anything like the Call Centre's need for the management of outgoing calls. You know the sort of thing - you are just sitting down to supper and the telephone rings. You have been selected out of the phone book by a computer, which has dialled your number and then put you through to a charming salesperson, who is delighted to tell you that you have just won a holiday in a timeshare in Tenerife. But then that requires sales or lead-generation skills; and selling is not usually part of the Helpdesk's mission. The sales imperative of the call centre generates outgoing calls, initiating the customer relationship. But the Helpdesk tends to allow or encourage the customer to open a service negotiation.

The concepts of Helpdesk and Call Centre are not interchangeable. Although they borrow ideas from each other, they serve different purposes and use different practices to achieve their end.

Noel Bruton is an independent consultant specialising in organisational best practice for Helpdesks and the author of 'How to Manage the IT Helpdesk' (ISBN 07506 3811 7). Contact him on 01239 811646( UK), Email noel@bruton.win-uk.net or visit his Website at http://www.bruton.win-uk.net .

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