Good HELP is hard to find

Help desks are like the local utility company: you forget they exist until a storm knocks out your power and you're stuck in a cold, dark house. Their role in keeping companies running smoothly is critical, yet often thankless.

Help desk employees get little recognition, spend most of their time fighting fires and must meet ever-rising expectations for today's tech-savvy workforce. Nevertheless, if a help desk is consistently below par, its leaders may find themselves being helped to the exit door.

So how does an average help desk become an outstanding one? The calibre of the staff is paramount, but there are other considerations. Successful help desks display a high degree of teamwork, have sophisticated training and education programs, enjoy support from senior management and can effectively integrate new technologies, says Ron Muns, chairman of the Help Desk Institute. Muns points to Bank of America (BofA) as an example of a company with a world-class help desk. A visit to its centre in California reveals some best practices for building a help desk from scratch or re-engineering an existing one.

It's not chaos, really

On the floor of BofA's help desk centre, serenity rules. Help desk workers, called analysts, sit in oversize cubicles in spacious groupings of four or six desks. Wearing headsets and speaking in calm, cheerful voices, they answer calls and toggle expertly between windows on their desktops as they search for answers. Somehow, they manage to smile when irate callers vent in their ears.

Yet beneath the facade of tranquillity flickers an unmistakable current of frenetic energy. At noon, four hours into her shift, analyst Geri Connolly is in the midst of one of the many juggling acts of her day. She chats easily with her current customer, Steve, commenting on the weather and reassuring him that help is on the way. A new account manager, Steve is flustered because he can't find customer information in one of his applications. While Connolly helps him, a co-worker stands at her cubicle with an urgent question and her phone beeps with the next waiting call. Time is of the essence here. The bank has stringent service level standards for response time, and Connolly doesn't want to be the slow cog in the wheel.

Unable to locate the problem, Connolly transfers Steve to a more experienced analyst and logs the case into the help desk system on her screen. Quickly, she answers the next call - an easy question about the process for ordering a new product - and hangs up the phone.

The can-do attitude of workers like Connolly pays off: The bank is meeting or exceeding industry standards for response time and quality across its four help desk centres across the US. Nearly 80 per cent of calls are answered within 30 seconds, and 87.5 per cent of problems are resolved without being transferred to IT specialists - compared with Gartner's average of 64 per cent call resolution at first contact.

Keeping those high service standards is not easy for the bank these days. Tech support is just one of the many BofA units struggling from the 1998 merger with NationsBank. The merger brought together two help desks from each bank, each with different processes and technologies. Ed Hawthorne, senior vice president of technology support, leads the bank's national help desk operation and has the formidable challenge of bringing the new bank's support strategy smoothly into the future, which means coming up with standard processes and systems and refining people skills.

Organisation matters

It's 1pm, and Dale, a bank employee, is having trouble with his Internet password. Analyst Lisa Sharp patiently helps him navigate through the process of selecting a new one, and five minutes later he's ready to surf. "That was painless," Dale says happily as he hangs up the phone. Sharp says she has several repeat customers who ask for her by name.

Employees like Sharp must be prepared to provide speedy answers to questions about hardware, software, operating systems, networking, and even voice and video systems. The volume and staffing needs are enormous: A total of 282 help desk employees handle a combined average of 3700 incoming calls a day. Carefully orchestrated processes ensure that the help desks run like clockwork from the moment a call hits the floor.

Here's how it works: an employee dials one of three national help desk numbers based on their department or region (eventually the bank will have just one number, routing callers to an appropriate centre based on the nature of the problem). Next, the automated menu on a hardware/software device called the VRU, or voice response unit, routes them to first-level support (a group of 70 analysts) who try to pinpoint the problem. If the first-level analyst cannot resolve the call, he or she transfers it to the second-level group of 11 analysts organised by specialty, such as desktop support or branch systems. If all 11 second-level analysts are busy, an analyst will call the customer back as soon as possible - although Hawthorne says this is more often the exception than the norm. Two smaller groups handle voice and videoconferencing calls.

Finally, if the second level can't resolve a problem - usually because a repair is necessary - the analyst transfers it outside the help desk to third-level support or dispatches a technician from the vendor. Third level is a diffuse network of technology-specific groups within TechnologySolutions, BofA's 5000-strong umbrella unit of people responsible for infrastructure and telecommunications. Whether the call goes to third level or not, the help desk follows it and keeps in close contact with the customer through e-mail updates until the problem is fixed. "We own the relationship from the first call to resolution," says Marti Levada, senior vice president of support.

Speedy systems and tight teams

This complex maze of communication is managed through the combination of a help desk system from Tivoli, the VRU and small electronic message boards that hang from the ceilings. The message boards link electronically to the VRU and display information about the call volume at each of the four help desk groups. When things are really cooking, second-level analysts can pick up first-level calls still in the holding queue. At the desktop, analysts use the Tivoli system for all their tasks: accessing product and support knowledge bases and problem scripts (there are 3500 scripts at BofA), logging and tracking problems, and transferring calls to other groups. An internal messaging system broadcasts alerts about major server crashes or nosy magazine reporters lurking around.

The system also uses demand forecasting and historical analysis to help managers with the complex task of scheduling the appropriate number of analysts for every day of the week. Even so, kinks from the merger remain.

It goes without saying that a $US30 billion financial institution has pockets deep enough to absorb the costs of fancy technology and a specialised staff. Still, through what Hawthorne calls "creative staffing", the bank tries to keep costs down wherever it can. When the two of the centres made the transition to full 24x7 operations in July 1999, they did it without hiring additional people. First-level analysts were already staffed 24 hours a day, while second-level personnel now rotate through pager duty for week-long shifts.

This organised system of backups is what allows the centres to maintain their high service levels. Hawthorne depends on his people more than on any whizbang technology. "They really understand the value of what they do, all the way to the end customer," he says. Every day from 7am to 1pm, one centre's peak hours, a second-level analyst roams the floor to offer on-the-spot help to co-workers on the phones. On Monday mornings, the busiest time of the week, managers can be found working the phones too.

The team culture proved invaluable last year during the confusion of merging the companies. Call volumes went through the roof, mostly because employees changing locations wound up calling the wrong help desk. Service levels plummeted for several months, so a group of analysts formed an ad hoc team and came up with a plan to reassign the desk's e-mail specialists to better distribute workflow. Ultimately, service levels rose - in part from the reorganisation but also as a natural result of the merger chaos dying down. The plan delighted Hawthorne because it required no additional staff or tools. The team was equally pleased about its accomplishment, and members received incentive pay for their efforts.

If you train them, they will stay

But teamwork isn't the only thing the help desk has going for it. BofA has discovered that training gives employees the chance to make a broader impact on the organisation - and hopefully stick around. A few years ago, Levada says they were lucky to keep analysts for more than a year. Today, thanks to career planning support, education and project work, employees stay an average of three years. New employees are hired for their technical proficiency and then go through three months of classroom and/or on-the-job training. Analysts learn about the technologies in their functional area, like PC support, but are also cross-trained on common issues so that they can answer all calls during crunch times.

From there, employees can map their career paths and take computer-based training through the bank's virtual campus on the intranet, which won a corporate university award from the National Alliance of Business in 1999. To reduce burnout, Levada says she'd like employees to spend 20 per cent of their time away from the phones in self-learning activities - though she admits the help desk has not yet achieved this goal.

Employees also know they don't have to be stuck on the phones forever, if that's not their calling. As the centres become more specialised with departments for quality improvement, process design and special projects, there are more options for moving around. The bank is also working with industry groups to introduce certification levels for help desk workers. "That will make the job more of a profession," Levada says. And many employees bring specialised expertise that rounds out their job descriptions. A long-time customer service representative prior to working at BofA, Connolly leads soft-skills workshops for co-workers as her schedule allows. While Hawthorne would not provide numbers, he says the help desk's attrition rate has declined dramatically in the last year.

Better, faster service

Hawthorne and his management team are constantly looking for ways to ease the frustration of their customers. His long-term goals include providing more automation and more self-service capabilities. And the bank will simplify by consolidating its four centres to three sometime this year. In addition, Hawthorne hopes the common help desk information system will make the user experience virtually seamless and more consistent.

In the future virtual help desk model, when calls go through one phone number instead of three, the phone system's routing capability will be able to spread demand between the three centres during busy times. Hawthorne also plans to reduce the help desk's costly call volume by allowing customers to send e-mail requests for help or search for answers right on their desktops through the company's intranet or scripts embedded in applications.

Employees can already check the status of their problems on the intranet, which has reduced call volume by 1000 calls a month.

Monitoring performance is high on Hawthorne's list. He does it through standard measures like response time, but also through regular customer feedback.

Monthly customer satisfaction surveys go out to random samplings of 4000 employees nationwide, and they provide valuable clues for future improvements. Burning issues for the moment include dissatisfaction with the help desk's automated menus and service delays for severe problems that require outside help or vendor involvement.

The centres' quality response team monitors these severe cases, provides frequent status updates to the customers and looks for common problems and prevention strategies.

At the executive level, it's Hawthorne's job to maintain good relationships with bank managers, and he often hosts help desk tours for senior vice presidents (the CEO even showed up once). "If their people aren't productive, we hear about it," he says.

Hawthorne isn't reluctant to talk about the help desk's (virtually) spotless track record and rosy outlook. Yet he knows that the slightest dip in service could be disastrous if it affects the bank's profitability or customer relations.


Four must-haves for world-class support organisations 1 Management buy-in: the corporate culture must place a high value on support.

2 Professional training: includes analyst skills, technologies, and on-the-job training and coaching for an average of three months.

3 Team attitude: flexibility and collaboration get problems solved faster.

4 Technology integration: there is no single vendor solution. The challenge is making all the pieces fit together.

Habits of healthy help desks

Bonny Georgia

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. We asked three experts to share their favourite 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 a user support coordinator for a large law firm wants people with a service-minded attitude.

"I don't demand certifications or 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," she says. Recognising the need for new employees to be a good match with existing staff, the support manager 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 centre efficiency. It's also the fast track to boredom and burnout.

Variety ensures a happier help desk. At the law firm anyone available answers 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," the support coordinator says. Her policy of rotating staffers off the desk and onto floor support two days a week is also popular, both with help desk staff and the firm's employees. "We strive to visit every office at least once a 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.

"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 maximise 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."

Balance the daily grind against long-range goals.

The best help desks recognise the importance of balancing short-term tactical activities against long-term strategic efforts. Tactical thinking is reactive and transaction-based. By being tactical when you're concerned with how many phone calls or e-mails you can take or the procedures for managing calls. A strategic manager would 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 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.


A snapshot of vendors operating in the help desk & call centre market with information based on suppliers' submissions. Compiled by Lauren Thomsen-MooreAstea InternationalServiceAllianceServiceAlliance is a service delivery management system which automates and centralises customer service operations. It provides management of support and help desk, and also of field service scheduling and dispatching, preventative maintenance, customer requests, contracts and service level agreements, sales and service orders, pricing and quotations, depot repairs, inventory and logistic, and billing, and process analysis and reporting. ServiceAlliance can be configured with capabilities for Web-based and wireless mobile e-service solutions, integration with sales force automation, accounting and other enterprise applications.

Pricing: on application

Contact: 1800 240 855

AVA Systems


Efficiency automates and integrates key business functions including sales, marketing, service and support on a single database platform. This provides sales people, call centre, administrative and technical support personnel with a view of all contact activities with customers and clients. Written in Powerbuilder and shipped with the Sybase SQL Anywhere database, the product is made up of 22 modules. These can be purchased individually or as a complete package. Modules include help desk, company and individual contact management, sales force automation, mail desk, campaign and event management, membership, call centre - inbound and outbound, field service, asset management and a knowledge base. Efficiency is Web enabled and links with MS Exchange and Groupwise.

Pricing: on a per module basis and the number of concurrent users.

Contact: (02) 9906 3505

Compaq Computer Australia

Call Centre Solutions

Compaq has a range of pre-configured call centre solutions that can stand alone or be integrated with customers' existing systems.

Through collaboration with its technology partners, Compaq can deliver:agent and contact managementcomputer telephony integration (CTI)integrated voice response (IVR)automatic call distributionInternet connectivityPricing: on request or application.

Contact: (02) 9022 1962

Duplex Telecommunications

Callware Callegra Unified Voice and Fax MessagingThe Callware Technologies products run natively on either Microsoft NT or as a NetWare Loadable Module (NLM) on NetWare. Callegra as a voicemail product will support from four to 96 ports. Up to 10,000 mailboxes are available for providing voicemail, fax mail, question and answer boxes, uniform call distribution, call routing automated attendant and IVR.

Pricing: $5700

CyTrack Call Monitoring, Accounting and ReportingDuplex CyTrack is built on the Microsoft SQL Data Engine. It logs and collects data from telephone systems for monitoring and reporting. CyTrack features Multi-site via TCP/IP and integrates with Callware Callegra for voice mail reporting and Goldmine for interpreting customer relationship management data.

Pricing: from $750

CallFlow Call Centre Suite

CallFlow supports five to 200 agents, whether and provides intelligent call routing; intelligent call distribution; intelligent outbound dialling and callback; World Wide Web integration and Wide area network CTI.

Pricing: from $30,000 (10-user suite)

Contact: (02) 8337 8200


Clientele help desks

Clientele aims to minimise user downtime through detailed call, asset and knowledge management, and through the tracking of customer profiles.

Epicor claims the windows-based system is easy to install, configure and maintain with a customisable, drag-and-drop process. The system is designed for budgets of mid-size companies and provides a scalable architecture that can grow as the business grows.

Pricing: on application

Contact: 1800 033 857

Genesys Laboratories Australasia

Call centre architecture and solutions

Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories' open, scalable framework and applications enable network routing, enterprise routing, workforce management, outbound contact, and e-mail/Web contact capabilities.

The integrated, software-based interaction management solutions include: integrated screen pop-ups, load balancing, workforce management, outbound dialling, data-driven routing, blended inbound and outbound and Internet contact centre.

Genesys is infrastructure independent, allows the integration of a wide range of customer interaction software, enterprise resource planning software and databases to optimise enterprise capabilities.

Pricing: on application.

Contact: (02) 9599 0164

Infra Corporation

Help desk range

Infra Corporation's range of help-desk and change-management support automation products include client/server, relational database and Internet technologies and cover a range of products:

Infra-Help: manages productivity of internal IT help desks, high-volume customer service groups and inbound call centres.

Infra-Change: workflow product manages change across a range of environments.

Infra-Web: Web-enabled, allowing customers, third parties and offsite staff to access support database using only a browser.

Infra-Asset: asset register fully integrated across all Infra products.

Infra-Partitioning: supports enterprise implementations by addressing security and time-zone issues.

Pricing: on application

Contact: (02) 9956 6555

Nortel Networks


Clarify eFrontOffice presents customer information, gathered from a wide variety of sources.

The Clarify eFrontOffice product suite consists of four separate solution areas: sales, marketing, service and e-business.

Contact: (02) 9923 0111

Pascom Voice & Data Communications

Rockwell Transcend

Rockwell Transcend is a Web-enabled customer contact solution for small and mid-size contact centres.

It is scalable with ability to add agents, functionality, or third-party applications and allows management of e-commerce contact requirements. Availability is typically four weeks from date of order.

Pricing: from $5000 per seat, depending on the configuration and the complexity of the call centre.

Contact: (03) 9810 3637 or (02) 9436 Philips Speech ProcessingNatural dialogue solutionsPhilips Speech Processing's natural dialogue platform SpeechMania and SpeechPearl speech recognition engines are used for banking, travel, auto attendants speech portals and white and yellow pages automation.

Pricing: on application

Contact: (02) 9925 3337

Point Australia

TeamPoint and WebPoint

The Point CRM product solutions are based on two architectures:

TeamPoint client/server solution: CentrePoint; CarePoint; MarketPoint; SalesPoint; and MobilePoint.

WebPoint the HTML/browser solution: Customer Portal, Enter-prise or Agent Portal, and Partner Portal.

Both can interact to give a multichannel solution across call centres (centralised and distributed) sales groups, marketing departments plus road and office-based service groups.

Pricing: on application

Contact: (02) 9957 4860 or (03) 9654 0498www.pointaustralia.comRockwell Electronic CommerceRockwell Electronic Commerce creates contact centre technology for use across the entire enterprise based on open standards, reliability and rapid return on investment.

Products feature Automatic Call Distributors (ACD), Computer Telephony Integration (CTI), call scripting, personal announcement, screen pops, remote agents, skills based routing, intelligent queuing, comprehensive reporting and multimedia.

Pricing: depends on configuration.

Contact: (02) 9959 1806

Tivoli Systems

Service Desk

The Tivoli Service Desk suite consists of three integrated, knowledge-based applications:problem management: provides interaction and request management; problem resolution; integration with network and systems platforms; and self help tools.change management: for control over the process involved in making any alterations to IT infrastructure.asset management: works as a complementary solution with asset discovery tools provided by Tivoli or from other software vendors to offer an organisation a ‘collaborative' view of its assets.

Supported platforms include Windows NT, Solaris 2.5 and HP/UX 10.x, OS/2 (Warp 3 or Warp 4). Clients are supported on any platform capable of running a Web browser.

Pricing: Tivoli Service Desk is $9920

Contact: 13 2426

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