Help for the help desk

Is your help desk caught between commands to cut costs and demands to speed service? Here's how to implement cost reduction policies and power up your help desk at the same time.

When it comes to the IT help desk, it seems no one's happy. Management sees costly delays and, well, costs in general. Customers see costly delays and, yes, delays in general. Both parties experience aggravation in its many flavors, from the vanilla "Why won't this stupid thing work!" to the more specific rocky-road "Support takes forever, even on the simplest things!"

Given that nearly everyone is dissatisfied with the mere thought of contacting the help desk, how can anyone possibly make sufficient improvements to appease both the people grumbling over costs and the people grumbling over delays in service? Doesn't fixing the problem on one end of the equation merely make problems worse on the other end? Not if you focus first on the common problem of the two constituents: unrealistic expectations.

"In situations where internal employees are supported, services may not be well documented or communicated, so they tend to be unclear and/or undefined," explains Paul Ille, director of technical services at Alloy Software. "This causes employees receiving internal support to have no expectations at all—or too many expectations. Either way, it's impossible to tell what expectations they'll have."

A good IT help desk team and infrastructure ultimately becomes a retention tool to keep good employees

Duke Chung CEO, TravelBank

A service catalog or service-level agreement can be vital to setting and stabilizing expectations. "Agreeing upon and defining your services internally and externally will result in better customer service," explains Ille. That's not just because you can measure how you're providing services, but also because IT management can set the proper expectations.

If you can make expectations mirror reality, you'll be well on your way to making the disgruntled give you a satisfied grunt or two—that is, provided the help desk is also delivering great service in a timely fashion.

"Unify everything," recommends Graham Murphy, formerly a senior community developer who ran the help desk at Grooveshark.com and now head of customer operations at a cloud tools company.

"Having all support cases from every source (email, phone, social media, etc.) in one system saves a great deal of time—read: dollars—and ensures the consistency and quality of support," Murphy says. "The same goes for support tools. Having the necessary tools at hand allows us to save a great deal of time."

How else can you make the help desk more efficient? Oded Moshe, vice president of product management at SysAid Technologies, an IT service management provider, suggests adding two basic concepts to your help desk repertoire:

On-the-go. Give IT professionals the ability to access help desk requests and work remotely anytime, anywhere. For example, offer mobile help desk applications for all smartphone platforms: Android, iPhone, Blackberry, and Windows, Moshe suggests.

Do-it-yourself. Empower users through the use of advanced and insightful tools that provide them knowledge. For example:

  • Use knowledge bases. These are databases of tips and solutions for both administrators and end users. This time-saving tool helps end users independently resolve their own issues (preventing ticket submissions) and allows administrators to solve tickets as quickly as possible.
  • Set up an end-user portal. A portal allows end users to log into a web portal to submit service requests, access their service history, find common solutions in the knowledge base, and track the status of their service requests.

"Another important aspect in help desk efficiency is adhering to processes based on industry best practices such as ITIL," adds Moshe. "Many solutions offer predefined templates and reports. This helps contribute to easier and more efficient processes."

In any case, issues should be tracked from end to end to reduce frustration for all parties. Any help desk staffer should be able to tell at a glance what was done before he got the trouble ticket and where exactly the project was handed off. Conversely, any user should be able to tell at a glance what progress the help desk is making toward resolution.

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A great way to power up your help desk is to develop a culture that's in sync with the results you want. Inside the help desk, focus attention on helping the user get the job done instead of focusing on cutting costs. This way, people at the help desk see themselves as valued members of the team rather than as beleaguered whipping posts. The surprise is that users reflect that image. Users begin to see the help desk as the place to go for help rather than the place to go yell at someone or a corporate dead zone to avoid by creating a workaround solution.

Don't be surprised, however, if you find this attitude difficult to instill in everyone on the help desk staff. "A good customer support rep is hired, not trained," says Murphy. "This is most apparent when it comes to dealing with angry customers. Certain individuals have trouble viewing such situations objectively, and thus handle them less efficiently."

Once you've made all these changes to the help desk, don't forget to get the word out that it's anything but business as usual. "Companies that initiate internal campaigns manage to generate employee acceptance and at the same time increase efficient usage of their help desks," says Moshe.

Consider kicking off such a campaign with a short but informative presentation about the help desk changes and how users may get the most benefit from them. Reward users for returning to the help desk, and reward help desk staffers for "being the most helpful" or for "resolving the largest number or the most difficult problems." By the end of the campaign, users and help desk staffers alike should feel comfortable with the relationship. They might bring each other chocolate chip cookies. It could happen.

And make no mistake: There is a relationship between company employees and the efficiency of the help desk. "Having a good IT help desk team and infrastructure ultimately becomes a retention tool to keep good employees," says Duke Chung, who was chief strategy officer and founder of Parature, a company that delivered both internal and external support solutions for higher education institutions and companies like Rosetta Stone. Parature was sold to Microsoft in 2014, and Chung is now co-founder and CEO of TravelBank.

He makes a salient point. Whether the help desk is internal or external, it is a vital part of the company's team and not the equivalent of a janitorial staff standing by to do technical mop-ups. Once that basic truth is realized, all other obstacles suddenly become surmountable.