Nearly all IT departments are overworked and understaffed right now. And in many organizations, no area is feeling the crunch more than the help desk.
In fact, IT departments say their help desk staff is just slightly more than half the size it should be, according to a 2011 survey from Robert Half Technology. On average, the companies surveyed employed one held desk staffer for every 112 users. However, when asked what the ideal ratio would be, the average answer was 65 to 1.
To make things worse, those too-small staffs often spend a lot of time fielding calls that can be preventable, are frivolous or just downright annoying. That includes simple questions most computer users should be able to answer by now, as well as calls about personal technology the IT department has no responsibility over.
Fortunately, it's possible to reduce the volume of those help desk calls by increasing training, creating or tweaking policies, and taking other steps.
Here are some things IT departments can do to cut the volume of help desk calls:
1. Create a social help desk
One of the effects of the consumerization of IT and the growing BYOD trend is that more users are working with technology that they understand and enjoying tinkering with. Also, the ubiquity of smartphones and other advanced gadgets means many people are more comfortable with technology in general.
IT departments can use that to their advantage by creating a social help desk where users can answer each other's questions and offer advice to their peers. Many companies are having success by setting up support groups for users with personal smartphones - for example, IT can create a section of the company's intranet where iPhone users can post questions or collaborate on wiki documents.
2. Have a help desk liaison in each department
Another benefit of users' increasing tech knowledge is that most or all of the departments in a company probably have at least one person with enough expertise to answer at least basic support questions. IT can recruit some of those people and have them act as an initial contact for when the rest of the department has tech problems.
IT can seek out volunteers for that role, and will often find some people who are more than willing to help. That can greatly reduce the number of basic questions that come through and give IT staff more time to deal with serious issues.
3. Write policies on what calls are accepted
Users often turn to the help desk for help with their own technology equipment - and that's becoming even more common now that the line between personal and work devices is blurring. In some cases, that's not a problem - many help desk staffers are more than happy to offer advice to help out their co-workers.
But in other organizations, things might spiral out of control and the help desk could be constantly fielding calls to fix personal issues. If that happens, it's time to make a policy about what calls the help desk will answer and make sure the rules are communicated to all users.
4. Educate users - and follow up
Help desks often have to answer a distressing amount of calls from not so tech-savvy users who have basic questions about Office applications or other common software. Many organizations attempt to limit those calls by offering basic computer training for users who need it - but often, they don't do enough to follow up and make sure the education is having the desired effect.
Offering training sessions on a regular basis can help, but IT departments should also make sure they're providing users with adequate reference materials so they can answer questions on their own. That can include print-outs, or an easy-to-navigate self-service IT support website. Staffers can also use calls as an opportunity to remind users about the tools that are available.
5. Let users know a problem has been reported
Many help desk calls involve several users - for example, when a department's printer isn't working or if there are hiccups in the company's Internet connection - and a lot of time can be wasted by all of those people calling in to report the same issue.
IT can cut down by informing all affected users that a problem has been reported and that it's being worked on. For example, a notice can be posted on the help desk portal, if the company uses one, or a quick email can be sent to all necessary users. That will also give people an update on the status of the problem, which they'll appreciate.
Conclusion: Train the help desk, too
In some companies, the relationship between the IT help desk and the rest of the company isn't so great. Sometimes, users are to blame for the way they communicate with the help desk - but the IT staff can often do things better, too.
So in addition to changing user behavior to make the help desk run more smoothly, IT departments can also focus on keeping help desk employees trained in the key soft skills they need to deal with users.
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.