Recently, I talked with the IT leadership of a large publicly traded company, which I'll refer to as "Contoso," about IT's role in the business. During the conversation, I asked how much, on average, a call to Contoso's Help desk cost. The CIO quickly responded that each Help desk incident cost about $9.50. Two of the network architects in attendance were shocked—they considered this price high. They were even more surprised when I told them that $9.50 per call is actually a very good figure in relation to industry averages. Contoso had done a lot to reduce the cost of operating its Help desk, but when I asked the IT staff what they had done to reduce the number of calls the Help desk received, I drew blank stares.

Target the Easy Pickings
Contoso had made some smart decisions regarding Help desk operations, for example instituting smarter scheduling, shifting to a combination of interns and full-time employees, reducing average call time, and deploying a call center application with improved knowledge-management capability. But what the company failed to do was look deeply at reducing the total number of calls to the Help desk. Lowering the number of calls your Help desk receives is an effective way to lower your total support costs and make the most of precious IT resources.

To begin examining how your organization can reduce Help desk calls, target the following three types of calls. Think of them as low-hanging fruit that you can easily harvest if you use the proper tools.

Most frequent calls. The most-frequent-call list is a gold mine for reducing IT support costs. Because these calls make up a large volume of a Help desk's total calls, reducing them by even a small number can create significant IT cost savings. For example, Contoso's five most common Help desk calls constituted 40 percent of the overall call volume. Reducing these top five calls by just 20 percent would reduce Contoso's overall call volume by 8 percent. At $9.50 per call, this reduction adds up quickly—for Contoso, the savings would be approximately $50,000 a year.

Desktop and application customization calls. Many users like to customize their desktop with background photos and icons for frequently used applications, as well as with application toolbars. Such customization can aid productivity, but if each user alteration is accompanied by a call to the Help desk, user productivity gains will quickly be offset by increased IT costs.

New tasks support calls. Whenever users must perform new tasks on their computer, they're more likely to need IT support assistance. Most often, support is requested when new or updated applications are deployed. Tasks that appear simple to the IT administrator may be very complex to the end user. In particular, tasks that require multiple steps and are not done frequently, such as mail merge operations, can be daunting for novice users in a new application.

Simple Methods That Work
How can you reduce the number of calls to your Help desk within these three categories? The most effective method is instructor-led classroom training, but classroom training is expensive and doesn't scale well. Fortunately, three effective, low-cost alternatives exist.

Posters. Posters drive awareness and deliver basic training to large groups of users. These qualities make posters particularly well suited to reducing Help desk calls in common support areas. Users won't spend more than a few seconds looking at a poster, so keep posters as simple, useful, and direct as possible. Each poster should clearly identify incorrect behavior, tell the user what to do instead, and inform the user about where to get more information. Hang posters in places where users typically congregate and in high-traffic areas—for example, near water fountains and in break areas and copier rooms.

Quick-reference charts. Quick-reference charts are excellent vehicles for publishing the steps involved in simple task-oriented actions such as customizing a desktop or applications, or performing simple computer tasks. Because these charts are reference tools, enabling users to easily find the information they need when they need it—rather than digging through a desk drawer or searching a Web site—is important. Use form factors that will ensure that the content is accessible when the user needs it to be: Wallet cards, monitor decals, mouse pads, and keyboard overlays are great ways to deliver quick-reference aids.

Job aids. For tasks that are unfamiliar to users, particularly complex tasks, job aids can be incredibly useful. A job aid contains all the steps that are necessary to complete complex or multistep tasks and is generally heavy on graphics and workflow diagrams. When you update an existing application or deploy a new application that takes the place of an existing application, a job aid that depicts how to complete tasks in the previously used application and the new one is especially useful. A pilot deployment is a great way to discover which tasks users will have the most difficulty with in a new application. Those tasks in turn make great subjects for job aids. You can publish job aids on colored, laminated paper or as a series of quick-reference cards, depending on the amount of information you need to convey.

Track Your Savings
When using any of these methods to reduce support costs, keep a complete and accurate record of the time you spend on the project and the cost of the materials. You can use this information later to calculate the project's ROI. For example, say Contoso were to spend $2500 on creating posters to reduce the number of calls in the most-frequent-call category and in 3 months sees a reduction in calls of 100 per month (which is a reduction of about 3 calls per day). Assigning a cost of $9.50 per call, the project would save Contoso $8900 (i.e., \[(100 calls × $9.50) × 12 months\] - $2500 in poster costs). The annualized ROI for the project would be 356% (i.e., $8900 ÷ $2500).

Even if your organization doesn't track the per-call costs of your Help desk support, if you track the reason for each call, you can make a huge reduction in your IT support costs simply by targeting the "easy pickings" to reduce the total number of calls. Best of all, you can easily measure the impact of your efforts on the bottom line. Posters, quick-reference charts, and job aids are all easy-to-create training and awareness tools that can result in huge ROI when properly targeted.