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Setting up Efficient Help Desks

Customer is King and how does one service him better? Use help desks that are friendly, efficient and problem-free. Here is how you can do it.

One of the foremost issues impacting Information Systems (IS) Management is resolving the help desk crisis. At the core of this crisis is the IS Management's continued focus on repairing an old and failing help desk strategy. Originally developed as a tool to support an efficient, single-threaded environment of IBM 3270 terminals, critical elements of today's help desk strategies have not kept pace with changing desktop technologies. PCs and distributed computing have evolved and now present a new level of sophistication in which corporate employees perform their jobs.

Although today's corporate user still sits in front of a monitor stroking away at a keyboard, his or her desktop is now complicated by a hard drive, a diskette drive, a mouse, a network adapter card, a graphics accelerator, and a shelf full of applications software and documentation. With the increasing complexity of the technological environment, help desk personnel are taking much longer to provide solutions as end users are routinely calling with more and more sophisticated usage questions. In some cases, the customer knows more about their desktop applications than the help desk professional attempting to resolve their problem.

Another element of crisis confronting IS Management is staffing the help desk function.

Because the help desk has been historically considered a thankless, glamourless back office job, many technically competent people will not consider rotating through the help desk, or cannot wait until they leave the support role. With the lack of quality people resources to choose from, IS managers are forced to staff the help desk with lesser skilled personnel.

With crisis brewing for IS support organizations, the near future will determine if these troubles represent danger or opportunity. For support organizations that try to hang on and refine the "helpless desk," there is great danger. These organizations will simply fail to provide adequate support service to an increasingly complex technical environment. They will ask for additional staff and phone lines, at the same time the CIO is attempting to reduce support costs.

On the other hand, opportunity abounds in re-engineering a strategic solution to customer support. With the PC mission-critical to the success of the employee and the company, IS managers must rethink and develop a new customer support strategy to match the technical, staffing, and financial requirements of the next generation help desk. When constructing the new help desk strategy, IS managers should consider several important factors, including: the interpersonal, technological and judgmental qualities of the help desk personnel; the technical tools required to solve and prevent problems; the relationship between the help desk and staff and management; and the location of the help desk.

From the very start, IS managers must embrace a new philosophy which proactively seeks to eliminate problems from occurring in the first place. In essence, a proactive versus reactive mindset and culture should be the core competency of the help desk. At the "helpless desk", the staff fixes, and fixes and fixes. At the strategic help desk, the staff constantly searches for new ways to solve and prevent.

Because technological worth is valued higher for problem prevention than for crisis problem management, as much as possible, help desk personnel should be taken off of the phones and placed on technology projects and systems that will keep the customer from needing to call in the first place.

In addition, help desk personnel should utilize the help desk database not only to log and recall problems for fixes, but to also analyze which problems are recurring and indicate a "root" problem. At the end of the day, these people should then strive to review the database so that fixes can be put on a voice response system (VRUs and IVRs are discussed later) that the customer can listen to while they are in queue. The help desk should naturally use the database to communicate known "bugs" to application developers instead of waiting for an end user revolt.

Next, if problems are anticipated across the network, then customers should be contacted before the problem is experienced. While help desk personnel may complain that customers never call to tell them they are doing a great job, how often does help desk staff proactively call customers with solutions?

Remote connectivity and proactive network management tools are the instruments of success for a strategic help desk. As desktop applications are mission critical to company success, they are also a frequent source of problems. It is absolutely necessary for staff to have the ability to "takeover" and manage the PC or file server from the help desk. In many cases, it reduces problem solving time by more than 50 per cent and increases first call problem resolution by more than 65 per cent.

Next, application management software is necessary to proactively detect, correct and prevent software application problems. Thereby, the help desk is aware of a problem before the end user. This strategic software not only makes the LAN and PCs run smoothly, but it also increases user productivity and substantially reduces support costs.

Another strategic help desk tool is a CD-ROM tower. This enables instant access to problem resolution libraries, such as Novell and Microsoft. Do not assume that the staff will utilize these tools. IS Managers must teach the staff on how to use these tools rather than relying on memory recall and field dispatch.

A strategic help desk also invests in "front end" technologies known as VRUs and IVRs.

These voice response systems generally consist of a PC, voice cards and application software. They are situated between the telephone system and host computer databases, automatically answering and routing calls. They also access computer databases to provide callers with a voice response containing the information that they are seeking. Beneficial ways to implement VRU and IVR systems include password resets, terminal resets, surveys, call routing, system status, technical tips, and fax backs. Routine problems are quickly solved by systems without consuming staff resources.

Making life easy for the customer
The help desk must focus on making life easier for the customer. IS managers should empower staff to break rules if necessary to achieve customer satisfaction, as opposed to having to adhere to rigid operating procedures that are strictly enforced in the name of consistency. In a mainframe environment, this could be efficient. In a distributed environment where PCs are mission critical, operating procedures should allow flexibility.

Informal research supports this assertion: Matrix has concluded that the employees frequently recognized for superior achievement are the employees who are allowed rule bending or rule modifications to bring about a creative solution for their customers.

Next, IS managers should have an avenue in which customers can reach an advocate who champions their particular cause on IS technical issues. For instance, a technician could be appointed "accounting champion" and study the company's accounting system from the business as well as the technical side. This individual would attend department meetings and communicate one-on-one with accounting staff and management.

A real world example is if the payroll file server is down and the department will miss a deadline, the accounting champion would go to the controller to update on downtime. The controller and payroll staff will have increased respect for the help desk function, improving the working relationship between the help desk, management, and other related departments.

A single point of contact is another strategic customer solution for the help desk. Two heads may be better than one, but when calling a help desk, customers want one central number versus two, three or twenty. It was for this very reason that Harvard University recognized and consolidated support departments. The University was surprised to discover that it had, in many cases, 20 or 30 technical support groups servicing the same people.

By cutting the sheer number of groups and consolidating the strategic help desk function, IS management can efficiently set and promote a policy of preferred practices and standards right down to a basic list of productivity software. These standards also aid in examining which desktop software is reasonable and cost effective in terms of compatibility, interoperability, and support.

Placement of the strategic help desk function within the building makes a clear and visible statement. By moving from the back office to the front office, the location of the centre will send a positive message to company clients, employees, and vendors. They will view the help desk organization as an important centerpiece to the company-wide strategy for customer support.

And, as a result of their perceived importance, the help desk personnel will be more content, more productive, and more willing to serve in a customer support capacity.

When implementing the strategic help desk solution, IS management will encounter staffing issues, budget concerns, and numerous product, service, and technology decisions. To ease and re-engineering processes, IS managers should consider these helpful insights:

  • Resist the temptation to accomplish everything overnight and instead, focus on doing a few things very well.
  • Re-engineering the help desk should not be considered a project, but a work in progress. A strategic help is always evolving and adapting to technical changes in the desktop.
  • Do not underestimate the importance of tailoring the help desk to the customer so that they understand and readily use its benefits.
  • Make a concerted effort to reach and reward the new help desk mindset.
    Armed with this strategy, the help desk staff will campaign to eliminate problems at their root causes. In addition to creating a more efficient help desk environment, the new strategy will heighten company respect for the help desk function, improve staff quality and retention, and ultimately renew the spirit of "help" in the "help desk."

Corporate Help Desks
If you think that running a help desk only involves handling trouble tickets and looking through reports that spell out a seemingly endless list of PC users' woes, think again. The new generation of user-support software elevates the internal help desk into the realm of so called "infrastructure management."

That is the term industry analysts use to describe a growing trend in user-support software that is changing corporate help desks into control centres for all the assets of a large organization. From managing computers to cars, telephones to trucks, software to security systems, the internal help desk is moving out of IT and into the mainstream.

The support centres of the future, unlike those of today, will be capable of managing, tracking and responding to issues that impact all of the day-to-day activities of a business.

The move to separate the internal help desk from the external call centre, is the second major trend at work in the internal user-support marketplace. Both the help desk vendors and their customers are putting "more focus on knowledge tools and integration of network management technologies" with the internal help desk.

IT mangers in organizations of all levels look for several key capabilities in the help desk software they now deploy. Several vendors including Computer Associates, Tivoli etc. incorporate such features into their help desk products.

Another of the help desk's most critical needs is e-support, the term for supporting users electronically. It is essential for companies to ask themselves questions such as "How do we support employees over the Internet? and, "How do we get users to use self-support services on the web?

Web enabling the help desk should be a requirement to be in the help desk market. Most help desk providers, including Bridgehead Software, Clarify, Peregrine, Tivoli, Computer Associates, Remedy and Network Associates, are meeting this demand by delivering browser-based versions of their future.

In fact, Network Associates offers only a browser-based version of its Magic Tool Service Desk, having given up on the client/server architecture almost entirely.

Web-enabled help desk software gives end users self-service access to the help desk and its resources, including the organization's knowledge base of tips, defect reports and solutions or work grounds to commonly encountered hardware and software related problems. It is one of the prime ways help desks can accomplish more with fewer resources.

Web access is perfect for internal help desk use because it allows users to create their own [trouble tickets], search for [equipment] solutions, add updates and get status online, feel many solution providers. With a web-enabled help desk, users who cannot find the answers they need in the knowledge base can contact the help desk online quickly and easily.

Another critical need of every help desk is the ability to track users' assets [e.g., PCs, peripherals and software] and their problem history. Asset tracking is a key capability for two reasons:

First, it assists the help desk agent analyze a user's problem more quickly and it is vital because of the frequency of software and hardware migrations that organizations are forced to make when vendors upgrade their products. It is virtually impossible to upgrade desktop computers without knowing what software and which versions run on them.

Help desk managers are becoming more concerned about tracking users' entitlements. In help desk parlance, entitlements refer to the level of support that services departments or individual users receive from the support organization.

This, in turn, means IT help desk managers in large companies want to be able to automatically create, manage and follow through, on so-called service level agreements [SLAs]. SLAs spell out the details of the degree of support services. [e.g. types of response times, percentage of downtime allowed] that a particular user, group or department is entitled to or has been guaranteed.

It appears that large organizations increasingly demand support software that allows them to deploy what are known as change management systems. These give help desks complete control in defining how processes — such as the previously mentioned new employee hire are handled.

Help desk mangers at the low end of the market individual help desks in small businesses or divisions within the larger companies have significantly different needs than those in the enterprise. Some of these are functional and others are organizational.

Small-to medium-sized help desks are also looking for easily customizable support centre software. The ability to change agent and management screens is important because small businesses may not have all their processes defined or fully documented.

Keeping the changing environment of businesses today and increasing demands from global customers, help desks should be re-engineered to become more efficient and should work in true spirit of the `help' in help desks. NM

For more information contact: netmagindia@vsnl.com

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