Rapid growth is pushing the help desk operations of two of the nation's biggest retailers to become faster and more efficient.
As a result of investments in technology and a focus on best practices, Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., and Target Corp., Minneapolis, have been able to improve help desk service levels while reducing the employees needed to support the growing number of stores.
Wal-Mart's Lee Moore, help desk manager, and Target's Rob Gardner, manager, client support center, recently spoke about how they did it.
Both have keyed on harvesting past help calls for solutions, thus saving time.
But while Target has worked to overcome a "mess" of a help desk situation in about four years, Wal-Mart is supporting a store and employee base that has increased fourfold in 10 years -- with fewer people.
In 1991, Wal-Mart had 1,745 business units, 330,000 associates and 140 associates working in field support, Moore said. By 2001, the store count had grown to 4,211 and the employee count had increased to 1.244 million.
Meanwhile, the number of help desks had grown to three: electronic data interchange, Retail Link (the company's proprietary business-to-business exchange) and field support. The number of associates involved in this effort has decreased to 123, Moore said.
"If the help desk had grown at the same rate as the business unit growth, today we would have 800 associates sitting in field support," Moore said. The help desk is named S.A.M., an acronym based on the first name of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and standing for speed of delivery, associate development and minimize customer impact, he said.
The help desk operation is highly aware that it does not bring in any revenues to the company and its job is support and even "advocate" for those in the stores that do, he said.
"Without them, I don't have a paycheck. We are an expense to the company. My job is to be efficient and to provide the best service we can. But more than that, my job is to be an advocate for the business units. I had to learn to listen and that is probably the hardest thing to learn to do," he said.
"We have to be intolerant of things that happen that we have control over," he said. "You've got to be the protector of the stores."
People from the help desk staff regularly attend company meetings and even work in the stores, especially during the holidays. "You get a lot of good ideas if you listen to people when they come back from the stores," Moore said. "Our biggest role is to be an ambassador of information systems to the stores."
Moore counts listening to the store personnel as the most important contributor to the success of Wal-Mart's help desk, but some technological efforts are not far behind.
For instance, the retailer has developed an automated ticket generation system that generates predictive warnings about impending trouble.
"It is the ability to know and prevent catastrophic failure in the business unit before the customer base ever knows it is going to happen," he said. For example, if a hard drive has an error on it, the system will generate a repair ticket.
To set up this kind of system, the retailer has to decide what events or equipment it wants to monitor. Some of the items included hard drive errors, application failures, transmission failures, incomplete data being received, communications failures and backups. Some warnings are needed in real-time, such as the hard drive failures, while others can be checked on a scheduled basis, like backups.
The automated system is part of Wal-Mart's proactive help desk philosophy, he said. The retailer aspires to fix things one time and to "apply experience to prevent the reoccurrence of problems," Moore said.
The physical setup of the Wal-Mart help desk department is also a key to getting fast answers to callers, Moore said. Managers sit in cubicles adjacent to the help desk associates, and when new software is being introduced, vendor personnel is there, too, until all the problems are worked out.
One of Wal-Mart's policies with application vendors is to make them use the product once it is implemented, an "eat what you cook" philosophy, he said. The help desk department also is actively involved with the vendors in the development of new generations of technology, he added.
While Target also has been growing rapidly in recent years -- adding stores and technology -- up until four years ago, the help desk center wasn't keeping pace.
It was "a mess," Gardner said. "We were not in front, we were running behind, and the result was increased frustration and confusion from our client's standpoint, our standpoint, and management's standpoint."
Long wait times were common for callers, and then, because of rapid turnover, the ability of the support people to solve problems was erratic, he said. Many problems that should have been resolved by the help desk were handed off to higher-level support personnel. "These were things we were responsible for, and a lot of it was basic and repeatable stuff that we just didn't have a clue on," Gardner said.
Gardner said they couldn't even talk in terms of "service levels."
"We couldn't tell a client when something was going to be fixed, either today, tomorrow or next week. It was just real ugly."
Staff was added, "but things were not getting better," he said. "We were not changing and adapting to our new environment the way we should have." The key was acquiring consistency and discipline, he said.
Target went after consistency first, he said, "defining the processes and then driving compliance with the processes."
Then the retailer initiated an "analyze and organize" phase, which the department found overwhelming at first.
"It was sort of instant analysis paralysis. But we ended up figuring out that we simply needed to start -- just jump in with both feet on the biggest challenges," he said.
Ultimately, the problems were divided into two categories, those with guest (Target's term for customers) implications and those with financial implications.
"We started to look for repeatable solutions, which was hard for us to grasp initially, but repeatability turned out to be core to a lot of the wins that we gained," he said. Soon the retailer was establishing a database to serve as a repository for this information, and best practices for department personnel in things as basic as how they answered the phone, he said.
After attaining consistency, Target went after efficiency by establishing more discipline, Gardner said.
"Whatever we focused on, we could fix" and the key to deciding on what to focus on was through establishing measurements on such things as phone use and problem tickets, he said.
"If you measure it, you want it to be actionable. A lot of things are cool to know, but they don't drive any actionability," he said. Productivity gains resulted in the support center being able to take more calls, and through attrition and disciplinary action, Target was able to reduce staff in this area.