10 things help desk techs can do to improve service

A few best practices can make a world of difference in the eternal struggle between the help desk and its callers.

I've spent a good part of my career working on (or closely with) help desks and the rest of my career having to call them on a regular basis. Over that time, I've seen a lot of bad help desk habits that make a call go bad in a hurry. Here are 10 things all help desk workers should do to make sure that their customers are as well served and satisfied as possible.

1: Answer the phone properly

It is amazing how the first few words out of your mouth when you pick up the phone can set the pace for the entire call. Unfortunately, too many help desk organizations assume that their employees know how to answer a phone, while too many employees don't. Here is a good general "script" for answering the phone: "Hello, thank you for calling BRAND A TECHNICAL SUPPORT, my name is JUSTIN, how may I help you today?" This lets callers know that they have reached the right company and the right phone number, tells them who they are speaking with, and shows them you are there to help. All too often, calls are answered with a curt, "Do you have a ticket number?" or simply "Hello," which really makes callers feel like the tech is trying to get them off the phone as quickly as possible.

2: Explain why you are taking a particular direction

When I call the help desk, it is really frustrating to have a technician insist that we follow a particular troubleshooting route when I am certain that it will not lead to anything useful — and I am usually right. It is even worse when it is a direction I have already explored and told the technician about. At the same time, I recognize that many help desks insist that a problem be worked through according to a standard script or flowchart. Other times, the technician really knows something I don't.

Either way, I have found that it is best for the tech to explain exactly why we are taking the steps we are taking. For example: "Sir, I understand that you may have already tried this, but our policy requires me to try it anyway" or perhaps, "Ma'am, I have a knowledge base article here that is internal-only, which says that this setting may indeed be the problem after all." When you state things like this, callers understand that you aren't just trying to give them the runaround or that you are ignoring them. They see that you really do need to take those steps.

3: Read the ticket notes

If you want to make callers mad, ask them to do something a previous technician already did or ask them for information they gave on the last call. The real steamer? Asking them to tell you what the problem is. This kind of aggravation can usually be avoided by reading the ticket notes. If the notes are unclear or incomplete, you need to have a talk with the person who wrote them, and if that does not do the trick, you need to speak with his or her supervisor.

4: Write useful ticket notes

And speaking of ticket notes, be sure to leave notes of your own in the ticket! Things that you will want to record include:

  • Who you spoke with
  • Why they called this time
  • What procedures were performed, the results, error codes, etc.
  • Any parts that were used, the serial numbers, and so on
  • What actions the caller is to take before calling back and why
  • What actions the help desk is supposed to take, and why and when
  • When the help desk is supposed to contact the caller, and by what means, or whether the caller is supposed to call back

5: Investigate previous cases for the unit/customer

Many times, when a caller has an issue, the clues can be found in previous cases for that customer or perhaps that unit. For example, I once worked for a help desk organization that would take old units on RMA, refurbish them, and send them out again, but the refurbishing process sometimes did not resolve the actual problem. By looking at the past tickets for the unit, we could determine whether it was a perpetual lemon and let the RMA department know that it should be discarded. Other times, I saw certain customers with an issue in their environment that just didn't work with what we had. So by looking at previous tickets, it was possible to know when to start looking at their environment.

6: Know when to escalate a case

All too often, pride and ego keep us from sending a case up the escalation chain when we should; we're just too proud to admit that we are stumped and pass it along to someone who knows better than us. This doesn't help anyone. The customer isn't getting the problem fixed, you look resistant to trying to get a fix, and the organization as a whole comes off as incompetent. While there might not be strict guidelines for when to escalate a case in your organization, it's as they say: "Know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."

7: Understand current policies

It is hard to stay on top of policies in any organization. But it can really frustrate a caller to get inconsistent service from the help desk. For example, if Jim is willing to RMA a unit after one failure, but Susan insists on three failures, a caller can get pretty upset when Susan doesn't give the same quick fix that Jim will. The problem is that people are usually taught policies once during their training and rarely brought up to speed after that. This isn't the technicians' fault. But if they see that different policies are being applied to the same situation, they should ask a supervisor for clarification and alert them that there seem to be different understandings of the policy within the department.

8: Know the market

Callers will sometimes be looking to get technical information to help them decide whether the item they are thinking about buying is right for them. It is helpful to be familiar not only with your own product line, but that of competitors as well. Then, if someone calls in to get this kind of pre-sales information, you can be fully informed to help them — so long as your policy isn't to redirect those questions to a different department.

9: Have direct lines of communications

I keep stumbling across help desks that can't directly work with the next level of support. At best, they can leave a note in a ticket begging the next level to call the customer. To me, this is patently absurd. When a situation is blowing up for a customer, do they really want to hear, "I've left a note in the ticket requesting a callback" when the previous three notes haven't produced the needed call? Of course not.

While there are often policies against directly connecting a customer to the next level of support, you should find out how to directly communicate with them, even if you need to use your supervisor as an intermediary. That way, if a situation deserves an immediate response, you can provide one.

10: Take ownership of cases

There are two major reasons why you have angry customers: Either your product has made them absolutely miserable or your organization has bungled the response to their problems. In the case of the latter, the best strategy I have found is to reaffirm that while other technicians may have made mistakes or that the product in question is giving them problems, you are personally going to try your best to find a resolution. If you can't, you will take ownership of the case and ensure that a resolution will be found. Then you need to actually deliver on that promise.

Call the customer back when you say you will, provide frequent and regular status updates (even if it is to report that nothing has changed), and keep them in the loop on internal occurrences (such as a Level 3 technician being involved or a supervisor being alerted to a holdup). Most of the time, all it takes to make a customer go from "enraged" to "rather upset" (hey, it's improvement, right?) is to show them that you are taking it seriously. And that means more than words; it means actions.

Other bad habits?

What drives you crazy about interactions with help desk techs? Or if you work on a help desk, what drives you crazy about callers?


Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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