The gloomy market conditions mean that store systems have never been more critical. Joanna Perry finds out how retailers are keeping them up and running

Mission-critical is a woolly IT term used to describe a system that is of vital importance to a business. It’s usually applied to big, centralised IT systems and the equipment that holds all the data they process. But within retail, the little things can be just as important.

No IT director wants to be blamed for poor sales. And many retailers cannot trade when their tills are down, even though the reason could be something as trivial as a loose cable. So store systems could be said to be mission-critical

The IT helpdesk is the first port of call for store staff when anything goes wrong with these systems. So how do you make sure that the helpdesk can resolve problems quickly and efficiently, without it costing the earth?

One option is to outsource some, or all, of your IT helpdesk services to a third party. Mosaic Fashions has chosen to outsource its first-line support – the resource that handles initial calls and attempts to resolve problems – while keeping its second- and third-line support in-house. Staff working in second- and third-line support have more technical knowledge and can also arrange for problems to be fixed that can’t be dealt with remotely.

Mosaic Fashions IT director John Bovill explains that the decision was taken to outsource all of its brands’ first-line support to Retail Assist because it was providing a helpdesk service for former Rubicon brands Principles, Warehouse and The Shoe Studio (now all owned by Mosaic) already.

He says: “There is a cost-saving, but that wasn’t the core reason. By bringing together the two helpdesks we get synergies.” All of Mosaic’s businesses now receive the same service levels and are dealt with using the same processes.

Bovill says that the handover in March was seamless. Since then the brands that are new to the Retail Assist helpdesk have seen some improvements. Bovill’s main concern was that there was no reduction in the level of service, as the previous helpdesk was running smoothly. He says that, after a period of stabilisation, the two organisations will work together to target further improvements.

At the same time, Mosaic has redeployed the staff who were working on first-line support into second- and third-line support, as well as other areas. Bovill says this has been good for the career development of the staff affected and, in addition, the team is managing the relationship with Retail Assist and also working on UK and international store openings.

Systems are go

However, outsourcing the helpdesk does not mean you can wash your hands of responsibility. Bovill says that the best results are achieved when the two parties work together: “It’s a relationship. The IT function [within Mosaic] needs to be able to support third parties and provide a good service as well. We are working with Retail Assist to provide the best service to the business.”

Retail Assist managing director Alan Morris says that one of the benefits of opting for an outsourced helpdesk is that you can avoid under-utilisation of resources. He says that utilisation rates might only be 30 or 40 per cent, but if you run your own helpdesk you are paying for 100 per cent of the resource.

At Retail Assist, there is one helpdesk operation which services all of the company’s retail customers including World Duty Free, Threshers and Adams. “Some staff are focused on head office and others on store calls,” explains Morris. “We also have people who are centres of excellence on certain accounts.”

He says that a shared service doesn’t mean it’s an inferior service. “Our first-line support goes a lot further than others would,” he says. “For instance, we resolve around 85 per cent of store support calls first time.”

Morris continues: “Where calls are escalated to second-line support then there are agreements in place for how quickly they should respond and the first-line support staff still manage the calls.” This should make the service appear seamless to the user, whether all the support is outsourced or only part of it.

At Mosaic Fashions, the change was communicated to store staff and they were made aware that the helpdesk would be run by a third party. However, Bovill says that this “should be invisible to them once they contact Retail Assist”.

Alternatively, a retailer can choose to run all of its helpdesk in-house. BrightHouse service delivery manager Neil Langridge explains that he joined the retailer to improve the quality of its in-house IT support. “Our stores rely on the network to connect to all systems,” he says. “If there is a break in communication, it has a massive impact on the business.”

It has just made an investment in a system from helpdesk software supplier Hornbill to help it create best practice in its IT service delivery using the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) approach developed by the Office of Government Commerce.

He explains: “The IT department was unable to cope with the volume of work so wanted to improve its systems. We are going down the ITIL route to reduce cost and make the helpdesk as efficient as possible.”

Langridge has worked within organisations using the Hornbill system before, and is confident the hard work going into setting up the system will pay off. “I’ve seen it work,” he says. “And I’ve seen the difference it can make to a support organisation overnight. People here realise that we need it, but they can’t visualise how it will be once it’s up and running.”

At your service

BrightHouse is in the process of preparing data and training for the new system. For instance, it includes a knowledge database that must be populated so that helpdesk staff have resources they can draw on to identify and deal with issues they may not have come across before. “The system is very user-friendly for helpdesk staff with a dynamic knowledge base, and this will help to increase the number of first-time fixes,” says Langridge.

Whether the helpdesk is run in-house or externally, there is agreement that measurement of the service levels received is crucial to get the best possible results. Metrics used for this include time taken for calls to be answered, volume of calls and time to resolution. If you engage a third party to run your helpdesk, these metrics will be included in a service level agreement (SLA) that outlines the level of service provided.

But Langridge agrees that metrics are just as important for in-house helpdesks. “This is something that we are working on and we will bring in SLAs. We need to measure how efficient we are and we need to prove that the new system is doing its job.”

He also hopes that this will enable the helpdesk to better identify common issues and, where necessary, change processes to resolve them. With the right contract in place, this can be the case for an outsourced service too.

Retail Assist works on a fixed-price contract. Morris says that if his company were to charge by the call then it would be in his interest to receive more calls. In fact, the company works on call reduction programmes, either with retailers or their chosen suppliers. Additionally, the company works on what Morris describes as a “risk-and-reward basis” – where significant call reductions are achieved, retailers will receive discounts on contract prices.

Morris adds that though statistics are crucial, user perception is also important. “We do annual satisfaction surveys to go beneath the statistics. They try to ensure that, when the statistics are perfect, 99 per cent of the time users think it is pretty good too,” he says.

He adds that this perception exercise is important for internal helpdesks too, as few measure their service levels to the extent that his company has to as an external provider.

Morris believes it is important for his helpdesk staff to be able to empathise with the problems that users will face. He says: “Our helpdesk employs people who have worked in store environments. We need to have people who can visualise what the problem means.”

Retail Assist likes to communicate with retail operations departments so that it knows about issues such as training and promotions and then brief helpdesk staff so they are ready for questions. He admits that this is one area where internal helpdesks have a big advantage over outsourced services.

Another issue is that not all the calls a helpdesk receives will be strictly technical. Morris says that his company’s helpdesk has to be for more than just IT because, outside of office hours, the only point of contact a store might have is its technical support. Calls can come in on issues as diverse as a key having broken in a safe, a till being stolen or a brick being thrown through a window.

Dollond & Aitchison information services director Paul Willows says one of the reasons it runs its helpdesk in-house is because it does more than just provide systems support. “Our helpdesk isn’t just for IT, but also deals with quite a lot of business process-related queries, such as how staff in stores process certain NHS vouchers,” he says.

On the issue of single helpdesks, Bovill says that different models suit different businesses. “The ultimate view we took was to do what is right for the business,” he says. “We have a separate outsourced helpdesk for store maintenance.”

At BrightHouse, a slightly different strategy is being used. Though its IT helpdesk will continue to answer only IT queries after the Hornbill software is implemented, the plan is to extend the system as a common platform to other parts of the business, such as property and HR.

Langridge sums up by saying that, however a retailer chooses to operate its IT helpdesk, what’s crucial is that it remembers its main aim: “If the shops don’t sell, we are out of business.”