As eyes are the windows of the soul, so help desks are the windows of IS. Heres 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.
- By Pat Newton
- March 01, 1999
Ask anybody in IS what the most important group in the
department is. Nine times out of ten, theyll tell
you its the end-user support groupthe 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 its 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 wouldnt
trade that experience for the world. Theres nothing
like supporting everything to give you perspective on
how a companys systems are doing and how the users
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 youre a help desk manager, your staff has a
crucial role in the companys 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. Lets
look at these topics individually.
Train to Maintain
A well-trained help desk staff is an IS managers
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, isnt it? Dont 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
Also, its 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 itll 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. Itll help you
hang on to senior people longer and give your users better
Control Call Volumes
When I was a help desk professional, during busy times
Id 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 its
down, and we dont have an estimated uptime yet.
Fortunately, there are many tools at the help desks
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 friends 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 peoplenot 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 didnt
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.
Change is inevitable in IS. New systems come online every
year, and they all need support. Some help desk managers
dont stay on top of these developments and are blindsided
by the additional support load when new systems are rolled
out. Dont 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.
Dont 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 youre
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
werent aware of.
|There are a number of resources
for help desk managersso 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 youll
find links to books, magazines, conferences,
and other resources, as well as a searchable
You should also visit the Help Desk
which offers conferences, training programs,
and various publications of interest.
You might also want to check out these
- 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, dont get caught up in call volume Catch-22.
If call handling takes over as your only priority, other
crucial aspects of your groups 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, its 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, youll hold on to your best
people longer, and theyll appreciate their help
desk experience that much more.