Help desks are changing as technology evolves and users grow more familiar with choosing and supporting their own systems. Use these insider tips to maximize your help desk's productivity and make sure it remains an essential part of your business.
As technology and business continue to evolve, the IT landscape looks far different than it did 10 or even 5 years ago. The traditional on-site help desk – which handled all device rollouts, support questions, break-fix emergencies and other urgent needs – is changing too. Many organizations cut costs to preserve or promote revenue-generating personnel, and the growing trend to outsource what are deemed low-level processes can hand many a help desk over to an external provider.
Furthermore, new trends and challenges such as remote access, cloud services, mobility and global interconnection can produce additional pressures on the in-house help desk. This is exacerbated by today’s instant gratification society, as well as the mindset by some in the business world that the help desk is an impediment to their productivity – something they need to make an end run around rather than working with to achieve their goals (a mindset quite likely produced by help desks that don’t keep up with the changes or which are hamstrung by inefficient operations).
A relevant help desk capable of meeting the current challenges of technology can more than earn its keep by helping employees to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. There is a misconception that help desks don’t generate revenue (the best case scenario is that they are viewed as a negative revenue preventer – in other words, helping to combat lost productivity and wages by keeping systems running), but that’s not necessarily the case. A successful help desk ensures that staff can work as effectively as possible by keeping them informed of new developments, helping them find shortcuts to work efficiently and formulating best practices for the organization to standardize – for instance, developing a PowerPoint template for employees to use in creating presentations which comes with logos and links to reference sites or file shares. These tactics will in turn help build out the careers & capabilities of help desk technicians.
Outsourced help desk services will be quick to tell you they can cut costs and improve service by offering a 24x7x365 infrastructure that will be more efficient and responsive. This may be quite true, and many issues can be resolved remotely through externally managed systems. However, nothing beats hands-on technicians who can respond to situations face-to-face. A dead laptop, for instance, is a lot easier for a technician to support if they can troubleshoot, diagnose and/or replace it immediately, rather than subjecting employees to phone calls, wait times and shipped systems. With this in mind, perhaps the ideal help desk going forward will be a hybrid of on-site and off-site personnel.
Whether on premises, outsourced or hybrid, these 10 operational methods can help keep your help desk relevant and aligned with business priorities:
Streamline the ticket process
Drive-bys, pop-ins, quick questions and unexpected visitors can quickly overwhelm on-premises help desk staff. The same can apply to phone calls to external technicians.
Every successful helpdesk has a ticketing system for users to log and track problems. Some ticketing systems themselves are more successful than others; the better ones offer the ability to open tickets through email, a web portal, or other electronic methods (of course, if all else fails the phone should also be an option).
In the past a ticketing system would often be located on an in-house server, examples include Cerberus or Track-It. Chances are that now the help desk system will be on a public-facing external provider’s system; AtTask and ServiceNow are two cloud-based examples. These are easy to set up and use, can be customized to meet your environmental needs, and are updated regularly by dedicated staff. The reduced costs and lowered complexity involved with offloading a ticketing system onto someone else’s servers can more than justify such a move (less maintenance and troubleshooting), and it will help establish a better presence and access to assistance for users.
However, regardless of which method or product you choose, the ability for users to quickly open tickets, check on the status of tickets, respond to replies from help desk technicians and otherwise stay in the loop will help make sure your technicians are able to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Assign priorities to tickets (high, medium, low) as well as response times by which users will know they will be contacted (within 15 minutes for high, an hour for medium, and a day for low). This will cut down on the “just wanted to make sure you got my ticket” queries which can interfere with the resolution of another user’s problem.
Keep users in the loop
Any planned change to company systems or services should be communicated in advance to users. It keeps them informed and also protects the IT department from “You didn’t tell me you’d be changing [X] or installing [Y]” conflicts. Users have a right to know what changes are being made and how these will impact their activities.
A standard “maintenance” email template can help facilitate the process; explaining Windows patches are being rolled out Friday at 2 AM or the company proxy server will be rebooted at 5 pm, preventing internet access (sometimes this is a good thing for productivity!).
If possible, set up a webpage for announcements where users can check to see what’s happening. This can come in handy during system outages; if email is unavailable you can’t send out a company-wide message to let people know, but at the same time you don’t want help desk technicians to have to recite the same lines over and over as the phones keep ringing. Make sure employees know where to go to check for any status updates.
Don’t send out TOO much information, however; many people will screen this out, defeating the purpose of communication. Make the announcement as specific as possible and provide subjective examples – state you’re “patching Internet Explorer to protect users against a vulnerability that can compromise their PCs” instead of “rolling out updates since we’re required to do so.” That way they will grumble less at the enforced reboot (which to be fair never comes at a convenient time).
Provide sufficient staffing
Your help desk needs a proper ratio of technicians to staff to be effective. The exact ratio for best service will vary depending on your organization and how technology is used. Factors that will affect the ratio include:
Do users have administrative rights on their machines?
Do you employ a sizable amount of remote workers?
Do you use a diverse array of software programs/versions/operating systems?
Do employees select and purchase their own devices for your IT department to support?
Do employees only report major problems such as when a system is down?
Do you have a significant number of users who describe themselves as computer illiterate or need more hand-holding from IT than tech-savvy users?
“Yes” answers to the above will lead to lengthier and more numerous support calls, requiring more staffers.
On the flip side:
Is your environment carefully controlled with settings such as Active Directory Group Policies?
Do users have anti-malware products installed on their machines which are regularly & centrally updated?
Does your organization buy devices for employees to use? If so, are only a few models provided to staff?
Do you have a standard workstation image which you deploy to user machines containing all the programs and settings they will need to get their jobs done?
Do you have only a few common programs such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop or Internet Explorer in use in your environment?
Do users have virtual machines available which can be snapshotted and centrally deployed?
Does your organization conduct or arrange technology training for users?
Answering “yes” to the previous set of questions will help to establish a more predictable environment less prone to errors or mishaps, and therefore will require less technicians.
Gartner Research has stated that a ratio of 70 users per 1 technician is ideal, but experimentation after analysis of the above questions will be necessary to find out the best fit for your organization.
For those concerned that a ratio too low may lead to technicians sitting around idle, keep in mind there are always tasks that staff can perform during downtime: documentation, research of new developments, or the tried-and-true practice of walking around the company (or calling users) to ask “How’s your computer/tablet/smartphone working?” This last option is guaranteed to keep them busy.
Train them to handle your company’s current needs
You’ll be able to keep your user-technician ratio higher if your technicians are well trained on the technology they’ll be supporting. Learning on the job is a valuable skill and most if not all IT professionals benefit from it… but this shouldn’t be the only training they receive. As the saying goes, being forewarned means being forearmed. Windows 8.1 is coming to your company? Make sure your help desk is familiar with the nuances and changes such as the Windows 8.1.1 update which will be mandatory for businesses as of now. You’re deploying a new Cisco VPN client? Make sure the people supporting know how it works across a multitude of operating systems and network environments (on Linux or Mac OS X, at home over broadband, via Wi-Fi, on 3G/4G mobile networks, etc.).
Many IT workers like to self-study and discover things on their own. This is a valuable part of the learning process, but make sure the training they engage in has measurable goals so their knowledge levels can be easily identified and advanced. Also make sure they’re taking advantage of virtualization such as by testing operating systems and programs using VMWare Workstation or vSphere.
Focus on new developments and trends
It’s not just the stuff you’re running today that help desk techs should know. They should also have the opportunity to focus on new technology and develop a forward-thinking mindset by researching what’s around the corner (preferably also as measurable goals sponsored by the business).
Not only will this help your technicians respond to new developments more rapidly, they can also help plan these developments by providing useful input into what technological changes you should be making. Cloud storage is finally just about secure enough to pass those hefty regulations? New tracking methods for lost are stolen portable devices are being invented? Wearable technology can soon help you cut down on smartphones for employees (or help the employees reduce the amount they spent on personal technology to perform company work)? Your technicians can help with the pursuit and implementation of new ideas if they have the ability to scout ahead on your behalf.
Offload as many tasks as possible
It may sound paradoxical, stating that your help desk will be more relevant if they can get out of doing tasks, but the goal is not to block the work but rather redirect it. Some help desk technicians are beleaguered with work that users could perform themselves (a little pep talk might be in order for some). Getting users to take charge of the low-hanging fruit can free up techs for more complex and meaningful endeavors.
Simple, repetitive, and easily self-serviced tasks to set up or fix minor things like adding an email account on a smartphone, changing the default printer or handling minor system problems like Outlook or Word errors should be written up in a centralized location. Examples include a knowledgebase, Sharepoint site, internal blog or wiki. You can even record audio or video presentations outlining how to do various tasks; it will add a personal touch which users will appreciate. Make sure to direct existing hires as well as new ones to this resource and keep it up to date.
It’s also possible to set up automated systems to handle things like password resets (ManageEngine and NetIQ are two such examples) or new account setups so that employees can conduct these steps on their own (ManageEngine offers a solution of this nature and so does Microsoft, using Powershell scripting). Check into where your help desk technicians are spending the bulk of their time and see what tasks fit this category so you can help reduce their workloads.
Provide useful tips about computing best practices
This one sounds like extra credit and maybe a bit of a pain unless you're journalistically inclined, but a weekly company email to help keep users abreast of how they should best be using their computers can work wonders at keeping the help desk in the “know it all” crowd – in a good way.
It’s more than just letting them know about maintenance or outages, but tips to stay sharp. Windows shortcuts are always a popular idea, for instance, or perhaps information about how to prevent mobile device theft or what to do if their home PCs are hit with ransomware. You can sign up for tips from numerous online sites such as Knowbe4.com’s Cyberheist Newsletter (which is a great resource for IT pros) to keep them on their toes. You could also look at how staff are using their computers and see what they could be doing differently, perhaps by cutting steps out of lengthy manual processes.
You don’t need to hire the staff of the Daily Planet for this one, but perhaps rotate the assignment among help desk staff (or do it yourself; obviously an outsourced help desk might not be the best bet for this task since it could be considered outside the scope of their duties). The best part about this idea is that the person(s) writing about the subject will learn more about it themselves!
Know their schedules
To keep a help desk in shape it’s important to know what technicians are working on, what their schedule looks like, and to establish a baseline for common tasks. You don’t have to implement an onerous time tracking system, and don’t get too OCD with concepts like “it should only take 30 minutes to troubleshoot an Outlook problem” or “building a new workstation won’t take longer than an hour.” Issues snowball, and all too often those emergency “drop everything and fix this now” requests aren't factored into time planning. This leaves IT staff juggling multiple priorities (sometimes inevitable), falling behind (bad) or dropping balls (worse).
If you give help desk staff project work, balance it out so their schedules still have some gaps for free time. It won’t be used to sit around doing nothing, of course, but rather will be filled in with all of the unexpected events which occur in all companies. In short, have an awareness of what’s on their plates so you can best allocate them as the valuable resources they are.
Make sure they’re apolitical
Office politics are a fact of life – often an unfortunate one. The job of the help desk should be to serve the users in as fairly and effectively a manner as possible, not to get entangled over who might consider themselves more important (or deem others less important) when it comes to getting fast service. If Bob feels his laptop problem is more important than Dave’s printing issue, it’s not up to the help desk staff to have to argue, justify, or otherwise feel pressured, since this will just distract them and put them in a no-win scenario which might breed resentment.
Someone needs to be the buffer to ensure the staff remains neutral and not find themselves part of a tug of war. Whether it’s the help desk manager, a supervisor, the IT director or human resources, a method for escalation for “I was here first/my needs are greater” types of clashes should be identified in advance. Help desk technicians aren't pawns on a gameboard.
It’s impossible to know how you’re doing or what people think about the process if no one provides feedback. Gather input both from the company and from the help desk staff regarding what they like or don’t like about policies and processes. This could be in the form of a dedicated mailbox, e.g., helpdesksuggestions(at)company.com, a survey (Outlook can be used to create company-wide surveys via email – Outlook provides a sample survey), or face-to-face meetings with department heads.
Steer clear of anonymous input, since it often contains more rancor than feedback associated with a human name and face. Remember that it’s not possible to please all the people all the time, but focus instead on averaging out feedback. For instance, some users may hate the concept of waiting in line and thus complain it takes too long to get good service, even if it’s 5 minutes or less. Others may enjoy slow help desk response times since it means they don’t have to work if their computers aren’t running! Read or listen to what employees and technicians are saying so you can make course corrections and keep both sides as satisfied as possible.
There may be different operational tactics involved with applying these tips to an in-house vs. an off-premises help desk, but for the most part these should work the same or can be modified accordingly.
Another important point: don’t be penny wise and pound foolish – keep track of the trends and, if possible, add more staff or resources as needed to keep technicians focused, otherwise they may burn out or transfer elsewhere. This is expensive with an in-house help desk since it involves employee turnover, but can also have a negative impact with an outsourced help desk. After all, you want the technicians to know your company and users so they can be as a familiar as possible with your environment and needs – but this is only possible if they stick around.
Even though many users are now self-supporting (the Apple crowd is a good example), history is rife with examples where the help desk showed relevance even in situations where they were deemed unnecessary – getting cranky conference room equipment to toe the line is one such example, as is pointing out that the handy new company blog set up by the guy in Marketing on an outside server doesn't use encrypted traffic (meaning passwords or data could be at risk).
Ultimately, your goal is to get people to see the help desk as the first and last stop when it comes to technical assistance. Hopefully these tips will serve you well when it comes to getting the most bang for your buck out of a help desk – which is an investment like any other, and deserves the best possible upkeep.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator (Windows/Linux), IT consultant and freelance technical writer. He has worked in various technology roles since 1994, including support, project management, training/documentation, and implementation of new systems and services.