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.

More help desk resources

Other tips?

Have you found some ways to streamline help desk operations or make things run more smoothly? Share your advice with fellow TechRepublic members.

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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.

15 comments
bluwhale
bluwhale

I am in the same biz as you are, when you mentioned spare reimage, is that mean you just prepare blank drive with Windows/software loaded? Just replace the hard drive in the store?

rhal
rhal

I think this is hilarious...but at the same time one's a week meeting would be okay as long as it's beneficial for everybody..

OurITLady
OurITLady

I can't even get them to start with what the problem is, most of my conversations start along the lines of "is there a problem with the network" or similar. When I ask why they'd think that then I may actually get some hint as to what the problem is, almost everyone thinks they can self diagnose though and starts the conversation with what they think is causing the problem not what symptoms they experience.

dennylutz
dennylutz

Definition of Runbook from wikipedia In a computer science system or network, a runbook is a routine compilation of the procedures and operations which the administrator or operator of the system carries out. Runbooks are often used in information technology departments of commercial companies and NOCs as a reference for system administrators. Runbooks can be in either electronic or in physical book form. Typically, a runbook will contain the procedures to begin, stop, and supervise the system. It can also contain descriptions for the handling of special requests and of contingencies. An effective runbook will allow other operators, with prerequisite expertise, to effectively manage and troubleshoot a system. Through runbook automation, these processes can be carried out using software tools in a predetermined manner.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

If you're using standard images, make sure the delivery/installation of those images doesn't take more time than a full system rebuild. I've seen cases where image installation (including full local configuration takes up to 3 hours!

dogknees
dogknees

I agree with a lot of what the article says, but there are a few gaps/problems. #1 - This is something I would disagree with. Communicating with someone other than the one that is experiencing the problem just means 4 steps to get an answer to any questions. I ask them, they ask the staff member, the staff member answers them, then and only then do they give you the answer. I'd say a better option is that the person having the problem "checks" with their manager and with others in their department and if there are no known issues, report it to the helpdesk. #2 - When the issue is due to network issues they may have lost connectivity making it impossible to record the steps. If the problem is that they don't know how to do something, there's nothing to record. #5, #6 - My experience is that re-installing almost never helps with the problems I see reported. They are more often network related, knowledge/training deficiencies or security issues. As I said, there are some excellent ideas in the article, but it is a bit too short to cover the real world. Which leads me to ask why we don't see more substantial articles. You really can't cover that much in a few pages. We need a few chapters!

dennylutz
dennylutz

This article is missing the fact that every IT department must have a run book. This is how IT Departments are streamlined and policies are followed.

n2add
n2add

Re #5 If the user is having a problem with an application, what would wiping the HD and reinstalling Windows accomplish? Re #6 (I read this in a novel years ago) A meeting should be for an exchange of ideas. If all the boss wants to do is make new policy rules, write a memo.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The replacement drive already has the basic image on it. All you have to do is install the replacement, boot the system, and let the install script take over. It would be nice to have the capability, but if I had a spare drive for every different image or function, I'd have over 20 drives on the van.

dogknees
dogknees

The main benefit I see is not so much speed but accuracy. Once you have your image right, even if it takes 3 hours, at least you can be confident it will work properly. One way around the time issue is to keep one or two machines imaged and ready to go. Of course the downside is the cost of having a couple of PCs sitting on the shelf.

Greg Shultz
Greg Shultz

...have a stack of imaged hard drives sitting on a shelf as opposed to an entire machine? If the initial triage results in finding a botched operating system or application, just replace the hard drive, not the whole system. That would reduce the amount of time the tech has to displace the user, and the user would more quickly be able to return to a productive state.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

But it's not really an option for us. We're supporting several different customers, all with 100 or more locations and most with two or more standard PC images (store, pharmacy, self-checkout, etc.). With two spares each, there would be close to 50 boxes just sitting around waiting to be shipped to the on-site tech; add in thin clients and it exceeds 60. As far as the end-user is concerned, it's better for us to reimage. I will say that we just received a new image to replace the three-hour job and I used it last night. From start to finish it took less than an hour, a vast improvement.

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