After Hours

10 timesaving strategies for the help desk

Vague descriptions, off-the-wall requests, and ad hoc 'quick questions' can slow help desk operations to a crawl. Try these tricks to remove obstacles and speed things up.

I spent the first several years of my IT career working in a help desk environment. During that time, it seemed as though there were never enough hours in the day to get everything done. Over time, various co-workers and I came up with great timesaving techniques.

Not all these techniques will work in every organization. Things like existing policies and corporate politics may stand in the way in some cases. However, all these techniques are things that I have seen work in the real world.

1: Let department supervisors triage the problems

One of the big issues that affected our help desk was that users would often call in with problems that could have been easily resolved without a help desk call. For example, we sometimes received calls from users who couldn't print when the only problem was that the printer was out of paper.

We were able to reduce the number of these types of calls by putting in place a policy stating that only supervisors were allowed to contact the help desk. Some supervisors did nothing to try to resolve user's issues before calling, but others were helpful in taking care of simple problems so that we didn't have to.

2: Don't settle for vague descriptions of the issue

Another thing that wasted a lot of time was that users often sent vague requests for help. A technician would have to spend a considerable amount of time on the phone with the end user before getting to the real reason for the call.

Today, vague requests for help can be avoided. Windows 7 and 8 include a utility that allows users to record the steps that resulted in the problem. This allows the help desk staff to see the exact error message the user is receiving, as well as what the user did that caused the error to occur. Insisting that these types of recorded steps be attached to help desk requests can save technicians time.

3: Take advantage of remote capabilities

Back in the day, remote computing capabilities were in their infancy and the help desk staff had no choice but to visit each user in person. Now, most of the travel time can be avoided by establishing a remote session to the user's computer. There are always going to be some cases that require technicians to physically interact with a computer (such as a computer with a bad power supply), but this should be the exception rather than the norm.

4: Be firm about requiring proper channels to be used

By far the best advice I can offer to anyone who is trying to achieve better time management is to be firm about requiring users to go through proper channels when requesting support. Until the company I worked for started doing this, end user requests were extremely disruptive. There was a time when I couldn't even walk from my desk to the front door to go to lunch or to go home for the day without being stopped at least once by a user who had a "quick question." Sometimes these quick questions would result in a couple of hours' work.

Forcing users to go through proper channels didn't do anything to decrease the workload, but it did at least enable the help desk to schedule service calls rather than having technicians ambushed as they tried to do other things.

5: Set time limits for repairs

Some computer problems are easy to fix, but others take time. Sometimes, a lot of time. One of the policies that was put into place at one company where I used to work was that a technician had 20 minutes to diagnose and repair a PC problem. If the problem could not be fixed within that time, the technician was to wipe the hard disk and reload Windows (assuming that the problem was software related). This policy greatly increased the number of calls that the help desk was able to handle in a day.

6: Keep staff meetings to a minimum

Every once in a while, meetings are necessary. But all too often, they're a waste of time. I once had a boss who liked to schedule meetings on an almost daily basis. Most of the techs speculated that these meetings somehow fed the boss's ego. We joked that the only purpose of a meeting was to book another meeting.

Unnecessary meetings can be a huge waste of time. Therefore, it is a good idea to schedule staff meetings only when absolutely necessary.

7: Track user case history

I have worked in environments in which help desk software was used to track each computer's repair history. Although service information might be compiled on a per-computer basis, most help desk applications will also let you view service history on a per-user basis.

If the help desk receives a call from someone that they aren't familiar with, a quick look at the user's track record might save time on the repair. It has been my experience that there are users who routinely abuse the equipment or that call about the same problem over and over again. Having access to such information up front can be a time saver.

8: Make appointments for the repairs

Whenever a repair warrants onsite work, it is a good idea to schedule the repair with the user instead of just showing up. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a technician go to a user's desk to take care of a problem only to discover that the user is out to lunch and the computer is locked. The resulting wasted time can be avoided by simply scheduling the repair.

9: Give the help desk staff the right of refusal

This one probably sounds odd, but it's important. The help desk staff needs to be empowered to deny end-user service requests. I once had a boss who was really gung-ho about customer service and insisted that we should always strive to accommodate the end users. The problem is that end users can make some really strange requests. I once wasted the better part of an afternoon trying to repair a fax machine. The user had accidentally called the IT help desk instead of telephone help desk and the boss was insistent that we try to help the user.

10: Automate the reinstallation process

Reinstalling Windows used to mean manually loading the operating system and the application set. Today, a fully provisioned operating system can be deployed automatically using the Windows Deployment Services or any number of third-party tools. If an organization is not already using preconfigured images to deploy desktop operating systems, it would be worth looking into doing so. Using deployment images saves a lot of time over manual deployments, and the process is much less prone to human error.

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About

Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

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