IT Policies

System helps streamline help desk procedures

Answers to questions about prioritizing help desk calls

At TechRepublic, we've learned from our members that managing a help desk is one of the areas of IT management that could most use some streamlining. In fact, in July of 2002, we ran an article, "How to systematically prioritize your support calls", that was widely lauded by our members for its description of a technique that prioritized help desk tickets based on an old banking practice of "credit scoring." That article prompted some follow-up questions about how to hone the technique further. The author, Richard Stefka, responded to those questions and we present those answers below. We hope they will further clarify the prioritization method Richard describes in the article.

Background--The technique
Richard explains that the technique he arrived at came to light in his first job as an IT manager. Having come from a banking background, he knew about using the older concept of "expert systems" for credit scoring. He decided to incorporate this system into his help desk, with the idea being that technicians would work off a prioritized queue for support calls and really not be concerned about the reasoning behind the prioritization.

The benefits of the technique include
  • Service requests are objectively scored according to established rules.
  • Technicians need only to work on requests in the order presented by the system in their queues and do not need to assign a priority.
  • New requests are dynamically inserted in the proper order within existing queues.
  • Service requests can be systematically placed with the right technician and in the proper priority.
  • Training time for new technicians is reduced because they don’t have to understand the company’s or IT management’s priorities.
  • Technicians have management support. When they’re confronted by irate users, they can justify asking them to wait.
  • Support call logging can be done via a centralized help desk or Web site or via e-mail because the system will do the routing and setting of the priorities.

The technique in practice
In response to the article, member connw asked about incorporating a L1-L3 framework to the technique. Richard responded:
  • There's no need for a L1-L3 framework since the technician works on the tickets in the order presented in her queue. The scoring provides for a continuous scale rather than defined breakpoints."
  • The routing takes care of the routine tickets—tickets are automatically routed by answers to the questions to the right level of support, from help desk to Senior Level Technicians. In this respect, lower-level needs are properly routed to the appropriate group and are properly sorted in the order that they should be worked on.

Member ademaster expressed some concern with the wayward job tickets at the bottom of the list. He asks, "After working in an organization with a chronic shortage of resources, let's just say that there are 20 percent of calls at the bottom of the list that will never get a solution. Overtime isn't an option. Adding points to the older ones only increases the size of the queue over time, although eventually the really old ones get a solution. Any thoughts on how to effectively apply the points system in the face of limited resources?"

According to Richard, tickets that never leave the bottom of the priority list have two options: One is to have the system add points to tickets systematically over time. "The second option is to periodically clean up the queues with extra effort or with overtime if needed. I generally prefer the second approach because in reality everyone gets behind and it takes an extra effort to catch-up, whether it is the IT Technician or the IT Manager. My technicians were also evaluated based upon keeping their queues current and were encouraged to let management know of problems and to request overtime if needed."

Richard, however, conceded the fact that the overtime issue can be touchy when faced with resource shortages. In answer to this, he tried a few management techniques. First he developed an IT Information system that he could use to inform management of the benefits and costs to the company for actions that needed to be taken. "Surprisingly, they would authorize more if they understood the situation. The team was also informed and knew I was involved." According to Richard, these were the next steps he took:
  1. He moved senior technicians to exempt status, called them architects, set up a bonus system, and made the pledge that he would pay for better technology that would save time and effort. "Initially, my folks worked a lot of overtime but then they realized that maybe they better find better ways to avoid that overtime. Their bonus was paid on meeting uptimes and completing projects."
  2. This next step was a hard sell but very important. Senior technicians were required to do a certain amount of routine tasks. The benefits were that they found better ways to handle situations like writing scripts or encountering different technologies.
  3. He provided other perks to the average technician such as buying any technical book they wanted or paying for exams whether they passed or failed. The benefits were that they knew more, could solve problems faster, and were better motivated because I gave something back.

A question of priority
Member elwyn.williams described a system used at his organization that is similar in theory to the one presented in the article. In his, however, Priority 1 was given to instances where more than 50 people are affected and special business units where priority is needed, i.e., a call center. He also assigned Priority 1 to top executives. Richard addressed this last point:

"The President of our company did not receive any special points in the priorities. What did happen was that high profile calls had a special feature to alert IT management so that we were always on top of the current status. IT management could always intercede and provide extra priority if needed—but I made sure that this was the exception rather than the rule. This approach also helped create credibility to the everyday person needing assistance."

Richard adds that you can add other refinements to his system, such as adding points dynamically to certain situations when the needed response time has passed. The "credit scoring" system is a good place to start with your help desk, but as with any technique, you can refine and customize it best to suit your organization's particular needs.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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