Finish feud

Few areas in business create more sparks, conflict and frustration than the interplay between tech support and its customers. Expectations on both sides are often unrealistic, and appreciating each other's position is tough. Here are some tips to help take the sting out of the help desk/customer relationship.

Educate: Who, you may ask, has the time and money to train users? But training pays. The managing director of IT at a New England hospital chain who didn't want to be identified says one of his facilities, a large city hospital with 700 to 800 physicians, does little user training. A smaller community hospital, with about 100 physicians, teaches its staff everything from logging on to putting in orders and getting reports.

The payoff: Tech support gets complaints every day from the city hospital, but it has had only two in the past six months from the community hospital.

Infiltrate: Well-placed and well-trained users can help relieve the pressure on both sides. Quadion, a Minneapolis manufacturer of rubber and plastic components, has as its first line of tech support a business person in each department who has been trained by IT to handle support issues.

Called IT coordinators, these users understand software applications and other technical issues typical of their departments and provide tech support in addition to their regular jobs. Only when they can't solve a problem does IT get involved.

According to Steve Paskach, vice president of IT, this decentralized model has shortened the time it takes to solve users' technical problems from four hours to about five minutes, with the coordinators able to handle about 85 percent of the questions.

Automate: Simplifying manual processes is what IT is for -- and it can head off problems. The IT staff at Harrah's Entertainment Inc., a Las Vegas-based gaming and hotel company, found that when users were on the road, they often had trouble using their laptops to communicate through the company network. "We had to walk people through the process of setting up their laptops innumerable times," says senior vice president of IT and CIO Tim Stanley.

So IT developed a script that users access through an icon at the bottom of their screens. Launching the icon automatically handles all the setup issues. The result: few, if any, support calls.

Differentiate: Users should be encouraged to do some things, but others are best left to professionals. They need to know the difference. "The R's are always a good place to start: reboot, restart, replug and retry," says Dave Farrow, director of IT finance and customer support at packaging maker Smurfit-Stone Container in Chicago.

Cora Calhoun, director of support services at Lanier Worldwide in Atlanta, concurs, saying that if a user is on a PC, rebooting is a good idea. "For anything else, I would prefer they call."

Communicate: "You cannot overcommunicate with your user community," says Jim Burdiss, vice president and CIO at Smurfit-Stone. When there's a problem, the company quickly e-mails all users. IT also publishes an annual report that discusses the partnership between business and IT.

Enunciate: Help desk workers should explain things carefully and encourage users to ask them to repeat things if they don't understand, Calhoun says. Always encourage questions, and never make users feel embarrassed to ask.

Remonstrate: Help desk workers should never accept abuse. Frustrated users may take it out on tech support, but workers should politely let users know when they are out of line.

Sometimes, user abuse isn't what it seems. Mary Backus, director of library information and customer service at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., tells of a student who would swear and shout every time she called the help desk. The tech-support people asked a supervisor to talk to the student. The student was shocked to hear about her reputation. She said she loved tech support. She wasn't swearing at them; she was aiming her venom at her computer, which she hated.

Relate: Even the best help desk staff can't read minds. If no one answers at the help desk, CIO Steve McDowell of Holiday Retirement Corp. in Salem, Ore., has a tip for users: Leave a message. "If we don't receive a message, we can't help," he says. "And users are almost always more frustrated the second time they call."

Reciprocate: Finally, when the help desk solves a problem, users should do what their mothers taught them: say thank you.

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