Looking Beyond the Sticker Price - "What it really costs to operate a call tracking system"

Using TCO to Evaluate Help Desk & Customer Service Software Total Cost of Ownership
Using TCO to Evaluate Help Desk & Customer Service Software Total Cost of Ownership
Compare alternatives based upon Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)
Learn to ask the right questions that vendors hope you do not ask

Executive Summary

The purchase new IT help desk or customer service/call tracking software is always very stressful. While you need to do research and compare vendors you are still dealing with the day-to-day support issues. Unfortunately, the time that can be devoted to this project is difficult to find. The cost of new IT help desk or customer service/call tracking software for a midsized company can be very expensive when considering the total costs over three years! Many people looking for a new system only compare the acquisition cost. However, the acquisition cost is only a small part of the total cost of ownership (TCO). In addition to the acquisition cost, there are significant lifetime recurring costs in dollars and personnel. The decision of what vendor you select has to be right as you do not want to have to go through it all over again in just a few years.
This paper presents a guideline for making your vendor analysis easier. It provides you with an understanding of the many costs that should be considered so that you can make an informed decision. It will help you formulate the tough questions that vendors often hope you will not ask. It also provides you with the tools to create a level playing field so you can compare each vendor in an "apples-to-apples" analysis.

Summary of White Paper

Goal: To purchase a call tracking system that provides the best value to operate over the next three years. It has to be able to grown and change with the company.

Acquisition Costs

Application Cost
  • What is the basic cost of the server software?
  • What is the cost for user licenses?
  • What is cost for customer licenses?
  • Is there a charge for creating and viewing records?
Up-front Customization
  • If lacking necessary features, what is the average number of hours to customize the tracking system before it can be used? (Small, medium and large changes)
  • What is the consulting cost for customizing?
Server Requirements
  • What are requirements?
  • Will we need a new server or an upgrade?
  • Cost for server hardware?
  • What databases are supported?
  • Will we need a new database or an upgrade?
  • Cost for database?
  • Operating system software requirements?
  • Cost for upgrade or new operating system?
  • What server applications are necessary for network connectivity?
  • Cost for network software?
Web Implementation
  • Cost of Web application to allow customer submits and queries and users to close calls?
  • Cost of Web server hardware requirements?
  • Cost of Web server or server upgrade?
  • Operating system software requirements?
  • Cost for upgrade or new operating system?
  • What server applications are necessary for network connectivity?
  • Cost for network software?
  • Cost of licenses to have any customers use the Web tool?
Report Writer
  • Does application have a built-in report writer so that graphical results can be distributed?
  • Average cost of report writer application?
  • Average cost to integrate with report tool?
  • Is there a real-time view of the information?
Development Environment
  • Cost for a development server application?
  • Cost for admin licenses?
  • Cost of user license?
  • Cost of customer licenses?
  • Cost of operating system software?
  • Cost of networking software?
  • Cost of database and license?
Training Costs
  • Cost to train administrators?
  • Cost to train uses?
  • Are there multiple training locations for my global company?
  • What are there the training options available for all the different needs I might have?

Lifetime Costs

Support Costs
  • Call Tracking System and add-ons?
  • Database Support?
Day-to-Day Administration
  • Average time to set up a security group?
  • Average time to add, change or delete users from their system accounts?
  • Average time to make changes to pulldown lists?
  • Can I make changes to the system during business hours?
Future Customization
  • How much is involved and how long does it take to do a detailed design for changes?
  • Do any of the following require consulting services and average time required:
    • Add labeling to a view?
    • Resize a field?
    • Move a field?
    • Add a form?
    • Add a button?
    • Add a Menu?
    • Add a field to the database table?
    • Add a view?
    • Average time to modify views for display on different type platforms and monitor resolutions?
  • Workflow changes:
    • Average time to modify the way certain calls notify the service technician?
    • Does this require consulting programming costs or can it be done in house?
    • Average time to change the way certain calls are routed?
  • Average time to develop a feature that automatically creates multiple tickets (parent/child) based on workflow logic that is maintained by the service groups affected?
  • Average time to design, write, and debug triggers and stored procedures? Average time to design, write and debug an application program integration (API) utility?
  • Average time to document changes made to the system and where are these stored?
  • Average time required for testing changes?
  • Are there utilities to help with the testing?
  • Once changes are made, average time for end users to review and gain acceptance?
  • Average time to move the changed functions from the development server to the production server?
  • Are upgrades backward compatible? Average time to test and implement upgrades?
  • Do upgrades require consulting time?
  • If so, what is the average cost?
People Costs
  • Is the system reliable? How much downtime is anticipated a year?
  • Average time for a user to become proficient?
  • Ease of client installation?
Creating New Applications
  • Do you have templates or downloadable applications outside the help desk area?
  • If so, how much do they cost?
  • If not, how long does it take to create a simple application?
Network Costs
  • Average time to log on and load the client program when close to server and far distance from server?
  • What is the average length of time for a query to return 1000 calls when close to server and far distance from server?
  • Average time to submit a call when close to server and far distance from server?
  • If we go to multiple servers, what is the average cost for each server (Application, hardware, software, etc.)?
  • Will this take consulting time to implement?
  • Do you integrate with network monitoring applications such as LanDESK or SMS?
  • What is the cost to integrate with a network monitoring application?
Future Application Integrations:
  • Do you have an Asset Management application? Cost to integrate?
  • Do you integrate with remote control/access applications? Cost to integrate?
  • Do you integrate with Autodiscovery applications to inventory software on the desktops? Cost to integrate?
  • Do you have a Change Management (CM) application? Cost to integrate?
  • Do you have a knowledge management application? Cost to integrate?
  • Do you integrate with enterprise financials such as SAP? Cost to integrate?
  • Do you integrate with Report Writing packages? Cost to integrate?
  • Do you integrate with two-way paging applications? Cost to integrate?
  • Do you integrate with palm computers such as Palm Pilot? Cost to integrate?

Introduction - A real life experience of purchasing a new IT help desk application

Life was good for me as manager of the IT help desk on Friday night when I left for the weekend. I did not have too many fires to put out this week. I thought that if this trend continues, then perhaps next week I could start working on my numerous projects. However, today is Monday and before I could do any planning, Kevin, the CIO, called me to explain why the help desk failed to escalate an issue over the weekend. I told Kevin that it was a mistake by the on call person. There were several things going on at the time and he just forgot. Kevin asked, "what could help to prevent such mistakes in the future?" I said that the complexity of our operation has reached the point that we need more automation. Our current call tracking system does not provided these features. We have just outgrown our current call tracking system. "Well," he said, "What are you doing about it?" I said that I have been following the latest trends in call management applications, but I have not yet actually written a project plan. I said that this would become my top priority.
When I got back to my office, I became furious that we made another mistake. I was also furious that I was not going to complete any of my planned activities for some time. However, I realized this is a golden opportunity. A new tracking system will move us into the modern age and it will be an opportunity for me to show Kevin that I really understand my profession and the financial issues involved. However, the brief euphoria soon fades away. I realized that this is going to require a lot of work. At the last Support Services Conference I spent several hours looking at all the major call tracking products and came away with glazed eyes. After a while they all started to look alike. They seemed to all had the same functions and integration. Even the screens started to all look the same. If differences in functionality are not a significant reason to pick a vendor, then I need to find something more objective. I thought that long-term cost of ownership might be a valuable tool in the selection process. Combining functionality, vendor reputation and long term costs will take the guesswork out of making a decision. This will require more than just looking at the purchase price to make such an important investment in the future of the Company. I will also have to live with my decision for at least the next three years. I began my analysis of the situation.

Write A Project Plan

On a pad of paper I began writing a project plan for picking a vendor. I know that I do not have a lot of time so the steps have to be simple. The plan looks like this:
  1. Write a clear goal for the new system. This will keep me focused with the end in mind.
  2. Create a list of all the upfront and lifetime costs of a tracking system. This will be used to evaluate each vendor and make cost comparisons more valid.
  3. List all the features that are important to me. I will also attach weighting to each of these. Some are critical and others would be nice to have.
  4. Pick no more than 3 vendors. These vendors have: a. product functions we need, b. cost effective solutions, c. excellent support organizations, d. innovation so that they will continually provide state of the art industry applications.
  5. Interview each vendor.
    • Test drive the application looking for the features that are important to my operation and any future applications.
    • Go through each item on the cost evaluation work sheet. Demand that every line is answered and demonstrated on a live system. Call other help desk managers to validate the answers.
  6. Choose the best vendor based on features AND total cost of ownership.

Write Your Goal

On another sheet of paper I wrote my goal.
"To purchase a call tracking system that provides the best value to my Company over the next three years. I further define value as both a financial issue and an adaptability issue. The system has to be able to grow and change with the Company."
Once I was sure that the goal was clearly defined, I took two additional sheets of paper. On one sheet I wrote, "Acquisition Costs", and on the other I wrote, "Lifetime Costs". Acquisition Costs are the up-front costs. These are the ones that vendors usually tell you about and compete to have the "best" price. However, these are often not the major costs. The Lifetime Costs are those that are incurred every day of every year. These are much harder to quantify and vendors are often vague about them. (See next section for my vendor questions list.)

Acquisition Costs

Application Cost/Licenses/Up-front Customization

Acquisition Costs are relatively easy to define. These are the costs to purchase the system. I began to write these on my paper. Obviously there is the application software, client licenses (licenses for anyone changing calls in the system), and customer licenses (for people that will only submit, query and view calls). I know that some vendors charge just to submit a call or look at a call. It is this kind of pricing that can have a significant impact because I want to make the application available to everyone in the company, not just the help desk and IT. Up-front customization costs are usually a big unknown. Depending on whether the application has all the features I want out of the box, customization costs could be large or small. I have to determine if the customization is something that I can easily do myself or will it require a consultant. In either case, if there is customization involved, it will cost both time and money.

Server Requirements - Software/Database/DBA

Server costs are another issue that needs to be addressed. What are the requirements and can I upgrade any current hardware systems that I have or do I need to purchase new systems. Besides the hardware, I will need to know the costs of any operating system software, network software and database requirements. Database support is another issue. We already have a full-time DBA and a corporate database standard. I do not want to add a non-standard database and then have to hire someone to administer it.

Web Implementation

At my Company we are putting everything on the Web. I have also read many articles that describe the great cost savings of having your call tracking system on the Web. The next item I want to determine is if the Web application software comes with the tracking system or do I have to purchase it separately. If I have a Web application, then I have to find out about a Web server, server software and the cost to implement the tracking system on the Web. I do not have a lot of Web expertise available, so ease of use is important. I do not want to wait in line for my Webmaster to make a change to the web view every time I make a change to my application. I need a system that creates these changes on the web dynamically. The cost of licenses must be considered! If I make the tracking system available to everyone in the Company on the Web, then will I have to purchase licenses for everyone?

Report Writing

Quality reporting is important for the CIO and other department managers. This means that I have to determine if the reporting that comes with the application will meet our needs. I want to be able to create nice graphical trends without requiring a lot of my time. If the system cannot do these reports, then I want to know about integration with other reporting tools, the cost of these tools and the cost to customize. What I would actually like is a reporting tool that will do real time reporting on the web for my call environment. I would like to know with a glance how many calls are open, how many need to be assigned, what calls need to be resolved to meet the SLA and what are the call trends.

Development Environment

Another critical area of acquisition costs is a development environment because I will eventually have to make changes to workflow and do upgrades. I do not want to be doing these in a production environment that could impact day-to-day operations. As a result, I included a development server, database and development licenses. Basically, I need all the same questions answered for the development environment as for the production environment. I certainly do not want to incur a lot of costs for a development environment that is important to have, but only will be used a few times a year when major changes are made to the call-tracking system.

Training Costs

Since we are going to be starting out with an entirely new tracking system, I need to make sure that everyone is well trained. I will not have the time to do it myself. In fact, I will need to be trained on all the administration aspects as well as my assistant. All the users who will actually process calls in my department and those that will work with the calls in the other departments will have to be trained. I should select a vendor that has flexible training options and is willing to build a training proposal around my needs.

Lifetime Costs

While the acquisition costs are important, it is the lifetime costs that I am most anxious to define and accurately measure. Since I have had to do most of the administration on our current tracking system, I know how much time can be spent on the daily chores. I do not have the time to spend on administration. If the new system is going to require too much of my time or special programming, I need to know that before I recommend a vendor. It might mean that I would have to add staff just to support the tracking system. That would certainly add a lot of expense to the lifetime costs.


Support for the help desk operations is critical. If my department cannot process calls, then IS will not be able to provide support and ultimately, our customers will suffer. I list both call tracking and database support.

Day-to-Day Administration

These are basic tasks any system will require. Such things as setting up user's service groups, adding, changing or deleting customer accounts. Several times a week I am asked to make changes to some of our pull-down lists. I want to know how long this will take me to do these tasks. Over the course of three years, the time required for normal administration can really add up.

Future Customization Costs

In the time I have been with this Company, there have been many changes and I have had to adapt the way the help desk provides service. This kind of change will continue so I want to make sure that the call tracking system can be adapted as well. Under future customization costs, I enter questions about the time it takes for detailed design costs, adding labeling, resizing and moving fields. I also want to know about adding forms, buttons and menus. The following is potentially a significant expense. How long will it take me to add a database table, field or view? I do not want to have to shut down the system for days just to make this kind of change. I also do not want to have to work nights and weekends to make these changes! One of my biggest headaches is designing various views to display correctly on all the different platforms and monitor resolutions that are around the company. I added this to my list of requirements. Again, if these tasks require consulting expertise, then costs will increase significantly.
Workflow changes are an inevitable fact of life in the fast moving world of IT support. I remember how often there have been changes within IS and I have been asked to change the way the tracking system handles certain calls. An example was the recent rollout of a new email application. The Messaging and Help Desk service groups wanted assurance that these calls received top priority, the service groups received special notification and customer feedback was quickly available. Our current system cannot change workflow requirements without a lot of programming.
I wanted to make sure that my next tracking system has the ability to have Parent and Child tickets. For example, when one ticket comes in, such as a new hire request, multiple tickets can be created automatically. This will allow me to automate repetitive tasks and reminders to various departments, while keeping these requests from "falling through the cracks." I also wanted to have this workflow process maintained by the various groups that are affected. This would mean less administrative work for me. Other customization costs I know we will incur are the designing, writing and debugging triggers and stored procedures and application program interface (API) utilities. I do not know much about writing these so I want to make sure that the application makes it easy for me to write these programs. I also added a line for the cost of testing and documenting the customization changes. I also added a line for the cost of utilities that could help with this. Another possible time consuming activity is reviewing changes by my department and end users. The last entry for customization is how easy is it to move from a test environment to the production environment.


I am really concerned about upgrades. In the past, they have been so painful that it took me months before I would implement the upgrade even though I wanted the new features. I want a vendor to keep improving their product, but when the resources required to implement the upgrade are too significant, it is no longer a benefit. I also add to my list the desire for backward compatible upgrades and the required time to test and implement these upgrades. I also will need to ask if upgrades are something I can do with my own team or will it require consulting time.

People Costs

Direct people costs are those things that will impact user productivity. The productivity of users will be affected as their tools will be changed. I know that system changes will lead to stress. I need to know whether the system will be reliable, easy to learn and what are the training requirements. I also wrote a question about whether the client is easy to install and easy to use.

Creating New Applications

While I was busy entering all these questions, I received a call from Mary Ann in the finance department. She wanted to know if our department can write a tracking application for her to track invoicing problems from customers. I told her of my current dilemma. I will make sure to ask the new vendors what is required to create a simple tracking system. Perhaps the vendor has templates or applications available which can satisfy this request.
Now is the time to call the rest of the IS managers. They always have good ideas. They can check over my work and let me know what they would like to see in a new call tracking system.

Network Costs

Jay, the Network Manager, begins the discussion. He says, "I am mainly concerned about network loads". In systems that load all the screens at once, there can be a large network burst when all the users login at the same time (start of the day). He is also concerned about loading screens that may never be used. Also, "I am concerned that queries could slow down the network if all our employees are able to query their calls through the Web." I asked Jay his concerns if I expanded my support services around the world. Jay said, "that would mean that network traffic would have to be very small to have acceptable performance for several countries away. If the new system took too much bandwidth, it would impact customer productivity, not only those trying to use the call tracking system, but others that were on the same line". I know that a tracking system will have to grow with the company. With a sustained 10% growth rate over the next three years, we will be adding more customers locally and remotely. Jay says, "That's true. For the network considerations, I would like the option to either use a single server or distributed servers that can sync up on a regular interval." I also will need to consider the cost of increasing licenses as support and the company grows. Finally, Jay says, "I would love to have the new tracking system be able to integrate with a network management system." Thanks to Jay's enthusiasm, the rest of the group discusses their wish lists.

Future Application Integrations

Rob, Desktop Support Manager, says, "I desperately need an Asset Management system so that I can track all the hardware and system changes. This is going to be a requirement of the leasing company chosen for the new corporate initiative to lease all the hardware." Kevin, the CIO, says, "My priority is to be able to have all of IS coordinate and track all changes to the corporate system. The Change Management system must integrate with the tracking system so that we have an accurate list of tasks performed. It should also have an automatic approval process built into it."
Leave it to Kevin to demand the world. I hope he is so accommodating when I bring him the Purchase Order. This reminds me that an integrated knowledge management system would save a lot of time and money in training new people on the help desk and allow me to capture knowledge before it walks out the door. The other managers agree and say it would help them to keep information current so that the help desk agents could quickly solve more calls. Elisabeth, the Applications Manager says, "Integration with the SAP system would open up a whole New World for integration. I would like to be able to track the purchase order process, the new hire process, temporary help, etc." Ken from one of the Applications groups warns, "While integration is critical to the future growth of support, I do not want any of these new applications to require different scripting languages because this would defeat the purpose of easy integration and support." I thanked them all for their inputs. It is so nice to have such supportive coworkers. I know that when the final decision needs to be made, they will be glad to have been included from the beginning.
Now back at my desk, I started to think of other integrations that would help with workflow. I add to my list: (1) automated report writer to post performance and other critical indicators on the Web, (2) integration with mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads to show call details and allow call management via these essential tools. As I do this, it occurs to me that no one application will be able to have all these features imbedded. I would like to have the flexibility to be able to pick and choose which applications to integrate with and when. That way I can take advantage of the leading technology at the time.
I look at my completed lists. Just by comparing the entries for the long-term costs and the acquisition costs, it is obvious that there are many more long-term costs. There is almost a 2:1 ratio! It appears that the long-term ownership cost could certainly be a greater over three years than the price to purchase the application. My next task is to put this basic outline into Excel and create a detailed cost template.
While this planning exercise has been difficult, it will be worth it when I finally call in the vendors and present them with both the Request for Proposal (RFP) document that I have and the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). I remember how confused I was at the Support Conference with all the vendor/application choices. I want to be in charge when I invite the vendors onto my own turf. With all my questions written down, I can stick to the objective analysis and not get into an emotional, subjective evaluation. Besides, this will ensure that all vendors compete on a level playing field.

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