Habits of Healthy Help Desks

FRAMINGHAM (04/19/2000) - Want to keep your network humming like a well-oiled machine? It takes more than a team of smooth-talking techies and a service hot line to handle the job. Network World asked three experts to share their favorite help desk strategies.

Hire service-minded help.

When staffing a help desk, the knee-jerk approach is to look for highly experienced technical minds. But solid customer-service skills are not as easily trained as technical know-how. That's why Lawren Findley, user support coordinator for Haynes and Boone LLP, an 800-employee law firm in Dallas, wants people with a service-minded attitude.

"I don't demand certifications or college degrees. I look for people who really want to do user support. A couple of my best people actually have a legal background. These people care about our users and want the firm to be successful, so they work hard," Findley says. Recognizing the need for new employees to be a good match with existing staff, Findley gives her department a say in the hiring process.

Don't bore support staff to death.

Assigning your staff to specific service levels and routing all network problems to the NT wizard or groupware issues to the Lotus Domino expert might increase call center efficiency. It's also the fast track to boredom and burnout.

Variety ensures a happier help desk, notes Findley, who requires anyone available to answer incoming questions; no calls are routed to specific staffers. "They're constantly challenged to learn because they never know what kind of question will come next," she says. Her policy of rotating staffers off the desk and onto floor support two days per week is also popular, both with help desk staff and the firm's employees. "We strive to visit every office at least once per day. Users get to know us and really feel like we're there to help them," she says.

Another way to ward off turnover is to offer ample training and career growth opportunities, says Marianne Bays, measurement services director for Technology & Business Integrators in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey"Pay for continuing education. Reward your employees for earning certifications," Bays recommends. "Expect them to grow and offer them a distinct career path."

Use multiple service options to maximize efficiency.

To increase the flexibility and effectiveness of your help desk, consider augmenting telephone and in-person support with self-help knowledge bases, automated e-mail or live chat tools. "All users are not the same," Bays says.

"Some might want you to e-mail them a resolution; others may prefer you to call them back. In remote situations, you need to be able to escalate calls on the fly or have higher-level representatives answering the calls."

Keep in mind that these alternatives require tight integration with your existing trouble-ticket system or reliable response tools of their own. "Many companies jump on the e-mail and Web support bandwagon and get buried without the proper response mechanisms in place," says Deborah Phillips, principal of North Highland, an IT consulting firm in Atlanta.

Balance the daily grind against long-range goals.

The best help desks recognize the importance of balancing short-term tactical activities against long-term strategic efforts, Phillips says. "Tactical thinking is reactive and transaction-based. You're being tactical when you're concerned with how many phone calls or e-mails you can take or the procedures for managing calls," she says.

Although operating in a firefighting mode resolves the issues of the day, "you need to be thinking strategically about eliminating these problems," Phillips says.

Encourage employees to look beyond individual calls for symptoms of larger trouble spots that can be addressed with hardware or software tweaks or user training.

Measure success properly.

Customer service goals are useless without a way to see if you're meeting them.

The trick is to reward and measure the right things.

"Measuring the number of calls resolved or tickets closed on the first call encourages the help desk to close things that are unresolved. Make sure you're measuring problem resolution in the eyes of the user," Bays says.

Some good measurements of help desk effectiveness include how long it takes to answer calls, how many calls are abandoned and what percentage of problems have to be reopened within a certain amount of time.

Georgia is a freelance writer based in Hudson, Massachusetts. She can be reached at bonny@wordsatwork.net.

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