Refuse to under-staff IT departments

Kent Blake offers some tips on how to figure out how many people your support department should have and how to convince management to give you that number

Imagine you manage the desktop support function for your company including the help desk. You have three outstanding technical support people, each with seven years of desktop experience in your company, the interpersonal skills of Jay Leno, and the work ethic of a West Virginia coal miner.  Plus, you have three more people who are rising stars. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Astonishingly, when your end-users are polled, the results show that everyone hates your department and the lousy customer support you offer. You don't blame them. The phone queue is usually backed up. Response time to end-user requests is slow and end-user training is rare. If an employee's computer dies, he is out of the water for way too long, and your software and hardware documentation is horrible.  What's going on here?

The problem is your six technicians are supporting 1,200 people. If they were responsible for 600 employees they would be the dream team.

What is "right-sized"?

Users can be overwhelmed by technology but technologists can also be overwhelmed by users. When deciding how many technicians to employ, the question really is what level of customer support do you want to offer? Are you going to provide a Ritz Carlton experience, a Black Flag Roach Motel experience, or something in between? This decision will determine the number of employees you hire. When setting your service level agreements/headcount, consider:

  • How long should customers wait on hold?
  • How long should they wait for desk-side support?
  • How smooth do you want computer replacements to run?
  • Do you see the value of maintaining current documentation?
  • Catalog those services and a dozen other jobs technical support does in the best companies but often doesn't do well, if at all, in the rest.

Then figure out your headcount.

Managers in overwhelmed departments direct our attention on our technicians on board. Can't they work faster? That's probably the wrong way to look at it.  Previously, I blogged about  the value of experienced technicians. Mix that strategy with a well-staffed department and then...

Find out where the buck stops — and go get it

A few years ago the technical customer support manager at a small company where I worked resigned. He had been in the position eight years and had been asking the President of the company to buy a ticketing system for about that long.  I told this manager, after I had been promoted into the position, that I would be making the case for a ticketing system. He thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.  He said, "Forget it. Not going to happen."

After I had been there a few months and had a little credibility with the President I told a story in a senior management meeting. I mentioned how we had recently failed some important customers because we had lost track of their service requests. Really, I said, it was to be expected since we had a ton of requests and no tracking software. There was no way to avoid having some customers fall through the cracks.

The President did what he should have done — and what I hoped he would do — he got upset. That day I received the approval to research a product. Two weeks later I presented it to about six executives. The $13,000 for the ticket system was approved in two days.  Six weeks later it was customized and in service.

To implement most of the suggestions I have made will require that you make cases to senior management, up to the board in some cases, for more money. Here are some ideas on how to be successful:

You must become a salesperson who anticipates the primary objection and is the first to mention it. If it's funding, for example, you might say, "spending money to retain experienced technicians and maintain a full staff is expensive... but being good, in the long run, is not as costly as being bad."  (Price vs. Cost)

In this economy it's tough to get a substantial budget increase unless, through good stories, you demonstrate how profits will be increased by greater competency, or, if you prefer a current buzzword, greater "efficiency."

Likewise, be ready to de-bunk the concept of the IT department as "cost center." The standard definition is: "A cost center has no control over sales or over the generating of revenue." To say the IT department is a non-revenue-producing element of an organization is deceptive over-simplification. It is more accurate to say that IT departments do not directly produce revenue. There is a world of meaning in the word directly.

Get inside the mind of people who hand out money

CEOs and CIOs are usually hard-wired to think "Cost Benefit Analysis" and that's a good thing. They understand they can spend money to make more money. Be passionately fluent with these types of themes:

  • Inefficient technical support results in peer support.  Explain what peer support is and how it costs the company money.
  • Management sometimes knows the price of new hardware and software but they don't know the cost of old hardware and software. "Susan's four-and-a-half-year-old computer crashed and the hard drive data could not be recovered. We can minimize this in the future if we swap machines out on a three-year or four-year schedule." Explain how dated hardware and software costs the company money.
  • Explain the fury/cost of employee downtime waiting on the sophomore technician who can't fix the problem or answer the question because he has only been there a year or two and hasn't, understandably, put enough of the pieces together to get the employee with a moderately tough problem back to work.  (Executive managers get priority support and they think everyone else is getting the same. Hahahaha.)  Explain how experienced technicians SAVE/MAKE the company money.

Outstanding tech support hinges, in huge part, on talented, experienced, well-staffed departments. That's why turnover matters. What must change before the line of people waiting to get on the help desk is longer than the line of talented, experienced technicians trying to get off the help desk?

First, consider generous compensation, additional vacation days, training in the location and, on the subject of the technician's choice, and/or bonuses tied to performance. Second, place a few servers under help desk control. The Blackberry or Anti-Virus server are two possibilities. Consider putting IT Training under the help desk. Try to break the day up so that no one works more than five hours on the phone each day.

There are dozens of moves to make the help desk more of a career stop rather than a detour. When technicians work in an IT department filled with opportunities, variety, and compensatory rewards then retention and great customer support begins to take care of itself.

Kent Blake, kblake44 on TechRepublic, strives to present an authentic "ground-level view" of the service desk by joining twelve years in technical support with a degree in journalism.

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