IT Policies

High cost of perpetual help desk training might not be justified

Keeping your help desk staff properly trained can have a surprisingly dramatic effect on your bottom line. Find out how to ensure you're providing the right training and that its cost is justified.

Keeping the help desk staff boned up on latest technologies can cost as much as 12 percent of the fully burdened cost—salary, healthcare, benefits, etc.—of each help desk worker, according to Dr. Jon Anton, an academic researcher with the Lafayette, IN-based Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University. If you have ten help desk workers, for example, your annual training budget could be $120,000, Anton said.

But does that $120,000 annual training expense for help desk workers really pay off in terms of higher employee retention, higher productivity, and happier internal customers? To answer that question, I spoke with Anton, a training provider, and a help desk manager at a major national corporation. He says keeping the help desk staff knowledgeable can yield substantial business benefits, if done correctly. But to know for sure, you must determine how to measure its effectiveness, and then select the training and training methods that will yield the best results.

Measuring help desk effectiveness
While it's difficult to quantify a monetary return on investment for help desk training, some measures provide clues to a positive correlation. To build a case that shows that training pays off, Minneapolis-based client service manager Mike Blanchfield at Jostens advised managers to start by benchmarking common help desk metrics. Then, compare the metrics before and after training.

Metrics, for example, first call resolutions or time to resolution, can provide some gauge as to the effectiveness of ongoing training, especially if you see the numbers improve.

Another way to judge training value is to look to customer satisfaction surveys before and after major training initiatives to see if there's a marked change in satisfaction ratings, according to Jeff Carpenter, vice president of client services at SIVOX Technologies, Inc., a training provider based in Lombard, IL. These satisfaction ratings might also help predict the likelihood that customers will turn elsewhere to get their computer problems solved—such as a colleague or spouse, Carpenter said.

What often happens at companies with poorly rated help desks is that workers who need their laptop to run without crashing will—having met zero success with the help desk—take the computer home and have their wives or husbands tinker with the box, Carpenter said. This is a definite no-no.

"You don't want the people who have been dissatisfied with you to seek solutions elsewhere," he said.

Another measure of training effectiveness can be a reduction in the time it takes to prepare an agent to handle calls, Carpenter said. Getting workers up to speed quickly can help reduce employee attrition.

"If they're unable to do that [resolve problems], their frustration level goes up; they feel like they're unable to handle the customer's call; they'll get callbacks; they'll start looking elsewhere because they'll feel that they can't readily support their customers," Carpenter said.

Stemming the tide of help desk worker dissatisfaction through proper training can save a company money. The average cost of recruiting and training a call center agent is $6,000, Anton said. This, of course, can run higher or lower depending on the complexity of the tasks and the environments and product the worker needs to support.

Keep the training focused
The training itself, in terms of appropriateness and quality of delivery, will also have a significant effect on whether the expense is worthwhile. For starters, topics for the help desk worker have to be correctly tailored to meet the requirements of the job. At Jostens, Blanchfield dedicates training funds for nine phone agents and two field agents. To keep himself and his staff on the mark, Blanchfield lumps training into three camps:
  • Training for technology skills
  • Training for morale's sake
  • Training for soft skills

The training for technology skills makes perfect sense because it gives the help desk analysts confidence and the ability to handle a broad array of desktop questions that may come their way. It also is an essential, inescapable requirement for any help desk worker expected to support both standard business applications and proprietary tools that many businesses have running in the enterprise.

"You can't expect a person who doesn't have tech training to do tech support," Blanchfield said, simply.

On the other hand, help desk managers might be tempted to offer their help desk workers training in subjects such as network administration, to take into account an individual's career aspirations, Blanchfield said. However, avoid the urge to train staff members in things unrelated to the direct job they'll be performing.

"It may increase morale, but is it really a smart, sensible thing to do?" Blanchfield asked. "There's probably not a good payoff there."

Other kinds of training often take a backseat to technical skills development, and this may have a negative effect on the ability of a company to meet customer service and employee retention goals. Soft skills training falls into this camp.

The building of soft skills sometimes gets pushed aside with the thought that if a worker can handle the mechanical details of troubleshooting customer problems, the help desk has done its part, Blanchfield said. But, if callers gets treated rudely or curtly while the analyst attempts to fix a problem on their desktops, it leaves a negative impression in the mind of the caller, Blanchfield said. This dark cloud of maltreatment can overshadow the otherwise positive aspect of having a highly technically-skilled help desk.

Blanchfield said he has had employees who were incredibly adept technically, but because of their abrasive personalities, they couldn't satisfy a customer. Don't take for granted the importance of handling calls courteously, Blanchfield said. You can't count on the fact that just because an analyst is technically adept that they'll know how to handle a call.

Yet another cost factor affecting the help desk is attrition; according to Anton, proper training can help retain workers. Feeling inadequately trained is the number two reason, behind poor leadership, that causes help desk workers to resign their jobs, he said.

"There's nothing more fun than being truly able to bail out a customer by knowing your stuff," Anton said. "Inversely, you feel so screwed up [if you can't fix the problem] and then they tell you you're screwed up and hang up on you."

Importance of delivery method
How the staff is trained is as important as the subject matter, noted the experts interviewed for this story.

"The delivery method has a big impact on the effectiveness of the training," said Blanchfield, who has been studying the impact of various training methods on modifying behavior.

Many help desk managers know it's difficult to have the staff leave the office for training, so they tend to rush people through week-long cram sessions.

"By the fifth day, the guys are saturated," Blanchfield said. "They come back to the office the next week and they've lost half of what they were supposed to have learned."

To get around this dilemma, Blanchfield has sought out training course that stretch the learning out over a matter of weeks. The courses might meet for three hours each week after work, for example. Some courses are offered in this manner by Minneapolis-based training provider Benchmark.

Other courses, such as those provided by SIVOX, use simulation methods, allowing help desk analysts to practice real-world scenarios in a mock training setting, to make sure they're saying the right thing and keying the right thing at the right time, Carpenter said.

Both options—spreading training out over a number of weeks or using simulations—allow analysts to take what they've learned and immediately apply the lessons to their jobs. This makes for a better training investment because the training "sticks," Blanchfield said.

Consider the whole picture
In the end—when considering metrics, appropriate training, and effective delivery methods—appropriate costs for the task at hand figure into the equation of whether training the help desk pays off.

"If you're not properly trained, that customer is not going to give up," Anton said. They're going to call back and try to get someone else. This will increase the number of calls, increase aggravation, and ultimately swell the bottom line for the help desk. At an average cost of $7.01 to $17.78 per call, according to Carpenter, not servicing the customer quickly due to poor training begins to look like a slow hemorrhage.
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