Intelligent Automation/RPA

Making the case for service desk automation

After 3 years of metrics, it’s clear that automation has a place in your service desk—and can provide solid ROI in a short time.


In early 2020, I published the article Service Desk 2025: What we can expect, which featured my predictions about how automation will affect service desks in the near future. I predicted that leading up to 2025, service desk contact volume and first-level resolution (FLR) would decrease as customer satisfaction improves. After one year’s worth of data, it appears my forecast was accurate, although not as drastic as I thought.

In 2021, I published Measuring success at the service desk in a new way. In that article, my predictions were validated by data from 2020. The article also explored how FLR is falling and posed the question: if FLR is the gold standard for measuring service desk effectiveness, what metric will be used to gauge effectiveness now?

CAI’s answer is a new metric, the “shift left index.” This factors in several data points—including contact volume, FLR, and customer satisfaction—to track service desk effectiveness. “Shift left” activities help to drive incidents and service requests away from human resolution and instead to self-help, self-service, and automation.

There are many industry analyst groups that report on cost per contact, contacts per user, FLR, and contacts per service desk agent. These are all data points useful to the topic at hand. But another key metric cannot be tracked so easily: customer satisfaction. It’s difficult to get an industry average on this because there are so many ways that customer satisfaction can be tracked and calculated. For this reason, I will not address customer satisfaction trends in this article.

Comparing predictions to 3 years of data

So, how do my predictions hold up after three years of data? With respect to contact volume, the number of contacts per user, per month, for all industries and sizes fell for the third year in a row. There was a significant drop in the number of contacts per year over the last three years. I believe this drop can be attributed to a few factors.

One, software and hardware are getting more reliable. For example, cloud infrastructure has drastically changed how businesses share and store data. Moving applications from on-premises servers to the cloud greatly reduces failures due to insufficient company infrastructure, meaning that the programs and information being stored are now better protected.

The second cause is due to the availability of self-help and self-service. I believe this will continue to be the trend with a younger generation of users. Many of these users are solving their own problems through the use of well-maintained knowledge bases, which allows them to fulfill their own service requests instead of using a company’s service catalog.

The implications of this look different depending on the size and maturity of a business and their IT solutions. For an organization with 5,000 technology-enabled employees, it means that on average, their service desk got 51,500 contacts in 2019 and 38,000 in 2021. That equates to a 26.3% drop in contact volume over a two-year period. For large organizations, this reduction in the number of contacts doesn’t mean the cost of support is decreasing. Rather, each point of contact will cost more because the incoming tickets will require resolution from highly skilled analysts. This also suggests that hiring for IT support will drive costs up as well.

Average FLR across all industries and sizes fell again in 2021.

I believe this trend will also continue. With users resolving “easy” issues themselves and fulfilling their own service requests, it’s likely the overall number of contacts that the service desk manages will be more technical, business-critical issues. These take more skilled workers and more time to resolve. When you factor in how account automation eliminates the repeatable workflow contacts, the pool of easy-to-resolve contacts shrinks further.

The cost per agent-handled contact is also increasing. This trend shows that the remaining issues service desk analysts addressed, after automation and self-help/service, were more difficult and time-consuming. And, because the remaining issues are more difficult, the analysts handling these tickets must have the knowledge and skill to resolve them. Coupled with them spending more time on each contact, the cost per agent handled contact is significantly higher for 2021.

The ROI of service desk automation

Using our example of an organization with 5,000 technology-enabled employees creating 38,000 contacts per year (or 3,166 contacts per month), we can calculate the ROI for service desk automation. We know $21 is the average cost per agent-handled contact. To get to the ROI, we also have to know the cost of automation. Taking an educated guess for a simple or low complexity workflow, here are some example scenarios.

Let’s assume an organization already has automation software and capabilities. Perhaps they’re using tools like UiPath and ServiceNow. The cost of automating a low-complexity workflow would be between $20,000 and $25,000. In our example, we’ll use the mid-point of those two numbers: $22,500.

Once automation has been implemented, the required maintenance is approximately 4 hours each month. Knowing the price for support is $150 per hour, the annual maintenance cost can be calculated.

4 hours of maintenance/month x $150/hour for support x 12 months = $7,200

Taking the cost of annual maintenance and adding it to the initial cost of automation implementation, we arrive at the total cost of automation for the first year.

$7,200 + $22,500 for automating a low complexity workflow = $29,700

If the total cost for the second year is only for maintenance, then the cost of automation for 2 years is $36,900.

$29,700 + $7,200 = $36,900

To get to the example of the 2-year ROI for a service desk automation project, you take the assumed total cost of automation for two years and divide it by 24 months to get the monthly cost.

$36,900 ÷ 24 months = $1,537

This is the monthly cost of the automation and its maintenance.

$1,537 ÷ $21/per contact = 73

Identify only one low complexity transaction that occurs 73 times per month, automate it, and your ROI is 2 years. This number of 73 is a fairly low threshold—think of all the on- and offboarding transactions that take place in a month in a company of 5,000. Automating password resets, identity verification, and other similarly simple transactions is a no-brainer.


Justifying service desk automation isn’t a hard case to make.

The additional benefits include increased accuracy, improved efficiency, the ability to move talented resources to more “value add” work, and in most cases, an improved user experience. Beyond the immediate financial benefits, there’s also staffing to consider. Talent acquisition has never been more competitive. Knowing where to plug in automation can help companies save money on headcount and help them prioritize finding the right people for the complex IT roles that require human input.

If you would like to discuss this or any of the topics present in this series of articles, please contact us.

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