IT Policies

How to improve help desk morale and service levels at the same time

What a tech leader did to improve help desk interactions with users

TechRepublic member Kevin Orr now works for Northrop Grumman, but before retiring from the U.S. Army in December 2002, he served as the CIO for its Aeromedical Center at Fort Rucker, AL, from 1999 to 2001. He said he looks back on that position as one of the most rewarding in his 20-year career. Perhaps some of the satisfaction he feels from the position is due to the remarkable changes he brought to the help desk.

Orr shared the story of how he managed to morph the help desk from "a place where happy people came if they wanted to get angry" into "a place where angry people came to get happy." He instituted physical as well as cultural changes and created a familylike atmosphere for the help desk pros he supervised.

The problems
According to Orr, the issues facing a military CIO are no less complex than those in the commercial sector. They may be a bit more challenging, he said, due to a rapid turnover of key and leadership personnel.

"The average tour length for an Army officer is about 24 months, although 18-month rotations are not uncommon," he explained. "As you can imagine, this places stress on the organization and can make the civilian employees who provide continuity somewhat jaded in their acceptance of 'good ideas' and 'required changes.'"

When Orr arrived for his tour of duty managing the help desk, its problems were obvious, right down to its physical characteristics, he said. As users approached the counter, a variety of signs warned them "not to pass this line" and to "make sure multiple forms were filled out and signed by supervisors." The counter was too high to lean on, there were no seating areas, and the door was often locked even during advertised "customer service" hours, he explained.

Assessing the problems
To ensure that he had a handle on the problems plaguing the help desk and its staff, Orr put into practice some advice he'd received from some "wise old sergeant mentors."

"I spent about 30 days with my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut," he said. To help him develop a plan to fix the problems, he visited his peers and solicited their input. Next, he assembled staff members and asked for their feedback. He told them he had two objectives for the help desk makeover:
  • To improve the technology and the customer's access to it
  • To make the division a fun place to work

Dealing with management
After gathering ideas, he approached his command staff with a clearly laid-out plan for fixing the department's IT woes. "I let them know that there would be expenses both planned for and unanticipated, and gave them my pledge that I would practice and instill a sense of stewardship in my staff with regards to both time and dollars spent in order to benefit the organization," he said.

The changes he proposed cost less than $20,000. He said he did encounter some resistance from senior managers and executive leaders, which he countered by making every effort to include them in the process of correcting the problems he'd identified. He said he used the word "stewardship" until it became a mantra within his division, and emphasized to management that he viewed this implementation of changes as a "trust litmus test."

"If the management truly wanted positive changes to occur, they would have to support the initial costs—dollars and egos—for making those changes," he said.

Dealing with the staff
Orr said he did have some individual staff members who were less than thrilled with his ideas for changing the department. Wherever possible, Orr incorporated the naysayers' views into the plans, but stood his ground where necessary for the common good. Eventually, he had to relocate a few folks who lacked the necessary IT skills to more clerical positions in other divisions.

The changes
Orr tore down the counter and all the "warning" signs. He added a few comfortable chairs and scattered a few magazines for waiting customers to read. He posted several humorous and inspirational pictures on the walls, and added a suggestion box. Basically, he "quit imposing barriers" on people who came to the help desk.

As for the staff, Orr set up a rotation of technicians—and admins on a voluntary basis—to man the counter so that customers could begin to associate names and faces. To create an atmosphere of fun, Orr encouraged joking and camaraderie among his team members. But it wasn’t all fun and games.

"I also expected the work to be done to the highest standards they could manage, and in return I refused to micromanage their efforts," Orr said. "I demanded that they approach me with problems and with ideas."

Orr told the team to maintain a courteous and professional demeanor with all customers, but "not to allow them to trample us individually." If an irate customer became rude, the staff was to approach Orr for help. "This happened twice, I think, and always resulted in a pleasant outcome," Orr said.

The results
The results of these changes were dramatic. Orr said that although customers responded to the changes "skeptically at first," they gradually became comfortable with the new protocol and demeanor of the help desk staff. It seemed everyone was happier. "Amazingly, we had customers dropping off thank-you notes and even candy with balloons on one occasion," Orr said.

The flow of walk-in traffic increased and was served by newly created pools of technicians assigned to various work order types. "We did have to restrict access to some of the admins, which was initially a problem for a few customers who were used to just barging in and interrupting workflow," Orr said.

The overall impact of creating pools of technicians was a more sensible workflow and limited interruptions for actual emergencies, Orr said. Not only did the help desk receive more requests for help, but the help desk's average completion time per work order improved. "When I arrived, the work order average completion time was about 11.7 days for any work order submitted," Orr said.

Orr said the average was suspect, since there was no reliable work order tracking database in place. But he created one, along with the other changes, and when he left his post, there were no backlogged work orders and the average completion rates for all classes of work orders were down to less than four hours.

"It was now quite common to receive a call from a customer asking why it had been more than an hour since the work order was called in and a technician still hadn't visited yet to resolve the issue," Orr said.

Moving on
Orr said he hated to leave his position and still keeps in touch with several former staffers. He said that while he did manage to achieve his two goals for the help desk, he can't take all the credit. "That is the remarkable thing about a team," he said.
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