Why Are We Still Using Email? Cognitive Dissonance in the Support Sphere
In 1996, a PhD supervisor was in New Zealand on sabbatical and so guidance seemed impossible. Yet my email request for feedback, sent from Edinburgh, received a reply within under 5 minutes. This post is not a rant about email. Instead it probes the default assumption that service desks need to support email as a means of raising tickets.
Doing so may be provocative, triggering cognitive dissonance which Wikipedia describes as:
when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that.
so be prepared to have strong opinions triggered!
What Does Good Communication With A Service Desk Look Like?
Service support relies on good communication between the user and the service desk.
There are some basic requirements –
- both parties can identify each other – we may think of this as the “introduction” or “handshake”
- they are the correct parties for the subject matter – it is in scope
- the communication is not open-ended, that is, it may be resolved or agreed as unable to be resolved.
Communication may be synchronous (allowing immediate dialogue, with both ends of communication engaged at the same time)
- internet chat
or asynchronous (involving delays between response)
- web form / self service / app
Synchronous communication is particularly effective and desirable for Incident Management as it allows a dialogue to help characterise the nature of the issue. However synchronous support is more expensive to provide.
In contrast, service requests (known as Request Fulfilment) are bounded by your service offering, defined by your service catalogue. These are expected, anticipated requests which your service desks undertakes to fulfil. As such, it should be possible for your users to self-serve. Service requests are the most frequent ticket type for our University service desks and handling them asynchronously keeps costs down.
Major Incidents, when many users experience the same issue, can quickly saturate synchronous channels. Major Incidents are not business as usual, and provided communications around Major Incidents are planned, there is no a priori reason for using a given medium. Indeed that medium may itself be affected by the Major Incident.
The remaining user-initiated request type is a Request for Change. These are not part of the normal service offering (and thus not subject service or operational level agreements), but Request for Change may be useful service improvement suggestions.
None of this communication is solely dependant on email. None of it is significantly better for using email.
Surely You Have To Allow Emailing For Service Support?
Why? Is it because we have always done so? Is it because it is too convenient for the user?
What if we had data suggesting the service they receive as a result of using email is poorer?
The obvious retort would be why is it poorer! Work harder!
But the service support staff are working harder. Support load in our organisation increased 50% in January 2020 compared with January 2019! Staffing levels did not increase.
In February 2020, 18% of service requests originating from an internal email did not result in the sender being recognised.
After processing, 5% still remained unattributed, so 1 in 7 requests involved additional effort over and above just fulfilling the request.
Given that 57% of our service requests arrived by email reportedly from 69 different internal domains in February 2020, it is clear that a technical fix is no easier than a cultural one.
Estimating what this represents in staff required is difficult, but my estimate is that 5% of service desk staff time is lost to having to process email rather than fulfil the request. The figures exclude the “noise” emails (such as junk and out-of-office), so the estimate of staff time processing email may be too low..
So with a 1 in 20 chance of not even identifying the user, a missed opportunity for the user to self-serve and be prompted with information they need and that 5% overhead on support, there is a real cost to allowing email.
A Future Without Email?
Weaning staff (and staff using shared functional mail accounts) off their email addiction may be too much to bite off for now. However, the new EdHelp service desk for students will not be receiving tickets by email. As such it may prove a trailblazer for service desk life after email. Students will be able to raise tickets remotely using the Self-Service portal or in person.
Back in 2017 the Service Desk Institute posted about “The Benefits of Switching Off Email To The Service Desk and Going Self-Service” with just over half of respondents not ready to make the jump. Three years on some institutions have done so. With Gartner suggesting
… in many cases that requires dropping an older channel like email for a better option like messaging.
this is a trend already recognised in industry.
When I first arrived at this University, much of service was done via memos on paper and carbon copy forms. It is highly probable some are still in use! Many service functions still believe they are modern because they use a shared mailbox. So whilst technology changes fast, culture in an organisation may take longer.