As eyes are the windows of the soul, so help desks are the windows of IS. Here’s how to keep your help desk in top condition.

Secrets of Successful Help Desks

As eyes are the windows of the soul, so help desks are the windows of IS. Here’s how to keep your help desk in top condition.

Ask anybody in IS what the most important group in the department is. Nine times out of ten, they’ll tell you it’s the end-user support group—the help desk. These people are the front line of the organization, the “face” of IS to the rest of the company. Keeping them friendly and effective is crucial to the success of the department as a whole.

Sure, those of us who spend our days on the raised floor are important as well, but it’s the help desk staffers who know what the users are dealing with every day. They have their fingers on the pulse of the company when it comes to information systems. I put in two years on an enterprise help desk at a major telecommunications company in Seattle. Although it was difficult at times, I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. There’s nothing like supporting everything to give you perspective on how a company’s systems are doing and how the users are feeling.

Because of its unique role, your help desk can make or break your IS organization. Your users’ opinion of the help desk is their opinion of IS, and this perception will be passed up through the chain, eventually ending at the top of the company. A well-trained and effective help desk can be a tremendous marketing tool for IS, so take advantage of it.

If you’re a help desk manager, your staff has a crucial role in the company’s information systems structure. Creating and maintaining a successful help desk group comes down to four basic techniques: training staff, controlling call volumes, keeping users and managers informed, and being proactive rather than reactive. Let’s look at these topics individually.

Train to Maintain

A well-trained help desk staff is an IS manager’s greatest asset. Likewise, an untrained staff can be a tremendous liability. Ever make a call to a support or customer service department and find that you know more about the system or product than the representative does? Disheartening, isn’t it? Don’t let this happen on your help desk. When a new person comes on board, move quickly to identify his or her training needs and then formulate a training action plan. This can be as simple as a basic checklist (“What every XYZ Corp. help desk analyst should know”) or it can be a more involved career-mapping document.

Also, it’s important to devote one of your senior help desk people to training the new staff member. The senior staffer should spend time off the phone doing one-on-one training, as well as taking some calls and discussing them afterward. Sure, this takes a senior person off the phone, but it’ll pay off later as the newbie gets up to speed more quickly.

Be sure to budget time and finances for ongoing help desk training. In-house training on new systems is essential if the help desk is expected to support them. Formal off-site classroom training can be a bonus for ambitious help desk workers who want to go on to more advanced careers in IS. Surveys show that training is one of the most important factors in retaining quality people. This is especially true in a help desk environment, which is a natural stepping stone for many people. Unless you get a real charge out of filling open positions every few months, offer ongoing training to your help desk folks. It’ll help you hang on to senior people longer and give your users better service.

Control Call Volumes

When I was a help desk professional, during busy times I’d sometimes look at the large number of calls waiting and ask, “What the heck do all these people want?” Good question. Use surveys, call recording, and other tools to find out what drives the calls to your help desk. Then use this data on “call drivers” to develop ways to address the reason for those calls. For example, if the help desk is being bombarded with “How do I change my password?” calls, create an illustrated document explaining that procedure. Deliver the procedure to the users via an intranet Web page, fax-on-demand document, or recorded walk-through that they can get to through a voice response unit. Some users will still insist on personalized service (which you should still deliver, by the way), but believe it or not, many of them will welcome the chance to solve a problem on their own and without waiting on hold. If you make a concerted effort to identify top call drivers, you can re-route or eliminate a number of incoming calls.

Keep People Informed

System outages are a significant source of help desk calls. When a major system goes down, the phones light up. The first few calls are valuable because they let the help desk identify the problem and either begin working to solve it or escalate it to the proper person or group. Unfortunately, the rest of the calls sit on hold for 10 minutes, only to be told, “Yes, we know it’s down, and we don’t have an estimated uptime yet.” Highly inefficient.

Fortunately, there are many tools at the help desk’s disposal to keep users and managers informed of the situation. A friend of mine manages a 40-person help desk that supports 13,000 users, and he shared with me some of the tools used in his large enterprise environment.

First, his firm uses software that allows a help desk staff member to enter outage information into a database. This information is automatically paged out to a large list of managers’ and analysts’ alphanumeric pagers. The managers can then spread the word to users. My friend’s company also uses special software for communication within the help desk. An analyst punches outage information into his PC; this information comes up on a one-inch scrolling “readerboard” window on all of the other help desk PCs. In a group that large, communication among help desk staff is key, since the “YellNet” loses effectiveness rather quickly in groups larger than five people—not to mention how it annoys the neighbors.

When I worked in a help desk environment, we relied heavily on an intranet page with up-to-the-minute outage information. When I left there, most users had gradually been trained that, when a system crashed, they should turn to their Web browser instead of the phone. Obviously this didn’t work for all outages (like when the IIS server running the intranet crashed, for example), but it was a vast improvement over 200 calls asking when the system was coming back up.

Stay Proactive

Change is inevitable in IS. New systems come online every year, and they all need support. Some help desk managers don’t stay on top of these developments and are blindsided by the additional support load when new systems are rolled out. Don’t let this happen to your group. As a help desk manager, stay on the lookout for rumors of new systems being developed and new processes coming down the pike.

Don’t assume that project managers will remember the support element of new systems, either. Sometimes they forget to bring in the help desk until the last minute. So get out there! Diplomatically barge your way into systems development meetings if you have to, but make sure your group is represented in the process and thus prepared.

Finally, during help desk slow periods (if you’re lucky enough to have them), survey users to see how the group can improve its service. Users may have some innovative suggestions, or they might point out problem areas you weren’t aware of.

Additional Information
There are a number of resources for help desk managers—so many, in fact, that it can become confusing. A good place to start is HelpDesk.com (www.helpdesk.com), which bills itself as the complete help desk reference on the Internet. Here you’ll find links to books, magazines, conferences, and other resources, as well as a searchable product database.

You should also visit the Help Desk Institute, www.helpdeskinst.com, which offers conferences, training programs, and various publications of interest.

You might also want to check out these books:

  • The Complete Help Desk Guide, by Mary Lenz, Telecom Books, $24.95, ISBN 0-936648-96-1. For more information, go to www.telecombooks.com/.
  • How to Manage the IT Helpdesk, by Noel Bruton, Digital Press, $26.95, ISBN 0-750638-11-7. For more information, go to www.bh.com.
  • Microsoft Sourcebook for the Help Desk (includes book and CD-ROM: Techniques and Tools for Support Organization Design and Management by Mark Perry), Microsoft Press, $49.99, ISBN 1-572315-82-2. For more information, go to http://mspress.microsoft.com.

Watch Out for Catch-22

Any telephone support professional knows that high call volumes and long wait times cause untold frustration for customers. This dissatisfaction is expressed to the unlucky support staffer who answers the call. Whatever you do, however, don’t get caught up in call volume Catch-22. If call handling takes over as your only priority, other crucial aspects of your group’s performance will suffer. You owe it to your staff and your users to let people off the phone a few hours a week for other significant business, such as training, representing the help desk at important meetings, and career development (observing other IS groups, for example).

If you find it impossible to do this while maintaining acceptable hold times, it’s time to add staff. I know from experience that if help desk professionals are chained to the phone every hour of every workday, their useful lifetime is perhaps a year, tops, before complete burnout sets in. If you mix up the pot a bit with side projects and training, you’ll hold on to your best people longer, and they’ll appreciate their help desk experience that much more.

About the Author

When he isn’t racing his car or spending time with his fiancée, Pat Newton is an NT Engineer for Multiple Zones International in Renton, Washington. Pat is a graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s evening AATP MCSE program. Send him your help desk suggestions or horror stories at pnewton@seanet.com.

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