What is the defined scope of different support levels or lines?

If a job post asks for a 1st-line supporter or an RfP is requesting a first- and second-level support, the exact scope is more a question than a direct answer. Different lines-of-support is more a differentiation of team divisions, than an industry defined share of vertical integration. But let us discuss it bit by bit:

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An in-house IT support could be divided like below example:

  • The 1st-line support team is part of the IT Service Desk. Agents skills are developed by an on-the-job training, a knowledge base related weekly preparation and personal experience. The range of activities include the recording of all incidents, if possible the solution of the issue as well as forwarding of unsolved incidents to a specific 2nd-line group. Service requests will be accepted and processed. Furthermore work-flow actions executed by other teams monitored. Typical service requests are hardware orders, password resets, software package distribution and user rights management in the directory system. Needed training skills of agents are an apprenticeship certificate in IT, Microsoft certificates, ITIL® foundation, in-house vocational training or similar.
  • The 2nd-line support team is virtual; they are assigned by a rota-plan from the operational teams. Imagine a team of four people responsible for the e-mail server operations incl. hardware. This team will schedule one or two employees on a weekly basis to be the e-mail-support team. The assigned employees will resolve the incidents that could not be fixed in the 1st-line support, they will perform complex service requests e.g. removal of mailboxes and they will create knowledge articles for the 1st-line team. Unresolved incidents are forwarded to the 3rd-line support.
  • The 3rd-line support is carried out by the manufacturer of the software. 3rd-line resolver teams are usually operated by external companies on maintenance contracts. In-house developed services will be supported by the in-house programming team.

Above is just one example, nevertheless this set-up is often found in medium-sized companies whose main business is not IT. Now imagine a large e-mail provider whose main business is managing e-mail-accounts. The SPOC (Single Point of Contact) for his non-business customers will be in help desk style. Agents are semi-skilled and are trained to solve standardized incidents, because the share of typical incidents is large. As you see this example messes up above lines of support idea. What is the deal about support levels in this scenario?

  1. level Help Desk (call acceptance)
  2. level Service Desk (skilled support)
  3. level support by a team close to the operations
  4. level developer of e-mail services

Bottom line: the split into the different support teams in performance capabilities is quite individual by company and oriented to organization and efficiency. An IT service provided to a lot of customers, comes along with a cost-effective team only capable solving simple cases but protecting a more specialized agents from easy questions. If the call entry is well managed and able to solve a high ratio of cases, logs with a high quality and able to inform precisely about next steps, then the customer satisfaction will be fine.

A scenario from the other end of size: A small IT is only able to provide two employees who take care of everything. This means support at first contact is always at expert level.

To make things a little bit worse: The main difference between a Help Desk and a Service Desk is the vertical integration. However a Service Desk organizational wise is usually a team or department, due to this fact the subdivisions within the Service Desk departments are sometimes named 1st– and 2nd-line or 1st– and 1.5-line (one-and-a-half-line) support.

On the search for an industry support level definition we can check the usual bible ITIL®. Further reading tells us: climbing the hierarchy of support groups know-how and skills of experts will increase, additional more time and resources per incident are available. This description is absolutely correct, but not the anticipated solution to the initial question we wanted to discuss. I am very sorry, but you have no other chance than asking: “How are you organizing your support?”.

I do not want to end without granting relief: If a job advertisement issued by a non-IT company asks for a second-line support agent in the Service Desk, you can assume without hesitation they are searching for an employee experienced in Microsoft products, not necessarily a mature administrator but the knowledge to set up and maintain a home network consisting of 5 computers.

A tender including “second-level-support” should describe precisely what is meant. Also the vendor is asked to define the role concept in his answer. Otherwise both parties are talking past each other and that’s never good. Talking about RfPs commonly used terms without a clear industry wide definition are:

  • Application Support: Sometimes used to demand a Service Desk that covers a solution rate for in-house applications or business transaction related incidents. Nevertheless this also can be extended up to ERP, CRM, etc. administrator level.
  • Technical Support: Expectation ranges from “We do not want a help desk anymore, we need a real service desk” up to a skill level that needs certified administrators.

P.S.: You may noticed I mixed level and line. This is on purpose, both terms are commonly used and there is no difference by definition. Nevertheless some organisations distinguish between second-line- and second-level-teams. Which is in my humble opinion more confusing than helpful.

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