IT Policies

Supporting support: Where does the help desk fit in your IT planning?

There are lots of best practices that have been developed for IT management, but an organization's culture might resist efforts at standardization. This time, a peek behind the curtain to see a particular problem for small offices -- scaling support capacity.

There are lots of best practices that have been developed for IT management, but an organization's culture might resist efforts at standardization. Here's a peek behind the curtain to see a particular problem for small offices -- scaling support capacity.

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We've been doing some IT planning in my company recently. Our work has grown considerably over the past few years, and management has finally been convinced that the technical staff has to be expanded to support the new projects that they want to take on. Somewhat troubling for me, though, is that while we're growing the IT staff, much of the expertise we're hiring for will be applied to specific research projects, with IT operations duties taking a secondary role.

I'm not saying that hiring staff to develop specific IT projects isn't a good idea; it definitely is, since historically the IT pros in my office have had to divide their time between long-term projects and user support. Every technical person in the office is called upon periodically to provide direct help desk assistance to staff, and that's not unusual for smaller, cost-conscious organizations like ours. It doesn't change the fact that our management thinks of user support as a commodity, or a utility: as long as the bill is paid, service will be there when it's needed, in whatever quantity is required.

I don't think a quality support environment is built with the minimum possible investment, but I think that's exactly what small organizations like mine end up doing by building a little bit of support time into every technical position. What results is an illusion of coverage, when in reality the technical staff's divided attentions end up having a negative effect on all their responsibilities.

There are lots of ways to manage user support, some successful and many not so. In my organization, the informal academic culture means that there is little interest from our directors in taking an active role in managing IT support. When the wheels begin to squeak around the office is when we start looking to expand our support capacity, rather than trying to get out in front of our needs.

I'm interested to hear from you how your organizations build your user support teams and how your IT management sustains them. I know of other companies (more bureaucratic than mine) that set up formal structures for providing support, where staffing formulas dictate the exact number of full-time-equivalent positions that are required. I've also heard about organizations that run their help desk as an in-house service provider, charging back to individual departments if their consumption exceeds a certain level. This could give the help desk its own revenue stream to spend on staffing, if it sees fit.

What staffing strategies have you seen succeed in making your help desk effective and sustainable? Which ones have fallen short of those goals?

14 comments
avgoustinosc
avgoustinosc

Hi William, From my point of view IT support in a company is a time-consuming and not necessary task from IT perspective. What i mean is better to train your users in order to avoid all the "silly" support requests. I am sure that many of you are getting requests such as "My screen is black" when the computer is switched off OR "My mouse does not work" when the mouse is not plugged in. This the strategy that we followed for the last 2 years and you know something...IT WORKS!!! Firstly, we start with inhouse seminars about computers in general and the parts of the computers that are "lying" on their offices. This seminars are repeated every 3 months and also we are following an induction seminar for all the new users that are coming in the company. Also, for the remote offices that we have throughout Europe and we are responsible for them, we are sending them instructions material that is answering all of their questions in case of a "silly" support request. Also, we followed a strategy of "IT Support Hotline" which all the requests are coming in from one telephone or one email address and the request is forward to the appropriate person of the technical team. Roughly, this is the strategy that i followed the last 2 years and fortunately, it works. We save time from the silly requests and also we have a centralized "IN" channel which helps all of the IT department to provide quality and fast support. Avgoustinos Constantinides IT Manager Andreas Neocleous & Co LLC

bfpower
bfpower

For all their advanced knowledge, some engineers just aren't CS types. If you have enough work to keep a support person busy full-time, it is logical to get a person with exceptional CS and communication skills as well as troubleshooting skills. These skills, just like any other, do not come naturally to everyone, and are best when learned rather than improvised. Many engineers do have these skills and I'm not against them doing support, but lower-level support doesn't have to be simply an entry-level job - you can truly be exceptionally good at it. Few and far between, perhaps, but possible.

reisen55
reisen55

Scenario one: customers could just call the IT department directly, we could remote control over the network, answer emails and visit the customer in person at their desk. Beautiful client relationships. Scenario two: Helpdesk in India - reading from a script, no individualized attention, personal skills limited and answers from 3,000 miles away do not work. The appearance to staff of scenario 1 IT department is one of an integrated unit, easy to work with and attentive to needs. Scarnio 2 is a non-caring, cost oriented structure that does nothing and makes staff HATE the IT department. Often advertised as a Single Point of Contact = the user. Forget the IT department. You're on your own. As an independent consultant, I use scenario 1 with my clients. Oh, wait? My script directs me to always ask: Would you like an email survey?

HimDownStairs
HimDownStairs

Currently at my company the IT staff is only two: me and another person. So instead of running to every computer that has a failed keyboard, we've adopted the policy of teaching them how to troubleshoot. If someone has a problem, and it's something we don't have to spend a lot of time on, we'll show them how to fix it themselves. We have about 70 employees so efficiency is key. We also give them a window of response to certain items, so if it's not serious, we can finish other projects or bring them to a stopping point instead of dropping what we're doing.

aathey
aathey

This is an issue that is near and dear to my current situation, so I'll be happy to share what I've experienced. I've worked in an SMB with a peak of 50 employees, and was originally hired as the company's first full-time network admin. At first, I was strictly user support. As I built my reputation and requested project work, however, my duties steadily ramped up while I remained on the hook for user support. I encountered the exact same problem you refer to: staff came to view the helpdesk function as a given, and the intermittent interruptions to projects (both billable and internal) became deadly to my productivity. Not to mention my sanity, as there are few things more frustrating than falling behind on deadlines because of being regularly pulled aside on easy but time-consuming tasks. I've since worked with my manager to setup an IT packaging system. The crux of it is an open source ticket tracker, OTRS, which I use as a filter for IT requests--as staff contacts me in the usual ad-hoc, tap-on-the-shoulder way, I refer them to instead send their request in e-mail form to our ticket system. That gives me some ability to queue and manage the work, allowing me to better balance project time with support time. The next step is to implement department charges. With the ticket tracker, I can already show which staff consumes IT resources, and from that we can put a cost to the company. We're building a monthly report to be submitted to management, showing both the sheer amount of requests and an appropriate charge for time. So far, results have been mixed: I've gotten a majority of staff going through the ticket system, though there are a stubborn few for whom I'm continually manually creating their tickets. I do make sure they receive e-mail notice of said tickets, in the hopes they'll make the transition in the future. I'm also still fighting the entrenched expectation that most people expect immediate action on any requests...I'm working on diplomatically explaining to them that prioritizing their request means ignoring someone else who has already asked for my help. As my billable time has increased, however, I've gained enough respect that I can usually put them off when I must in order to hit project milestones. In summary, my take on the problem is this: package off IT by using some kind of problem/solution tracking system, make the company aware that they are consuming a chargable resource that will be tracked (works well on that sense of entitlement), and use that as leverage to stay on project tasks. Done well, this actually enhances IT quality--with a tracking system, I may not do everything in two hours but I certainly won't forget about it...the OTRS queues will always remind me of open requests. Not to mention, the historical data of the tickets acts as an informal knowledge base of sorts--I always log resolutions to problems when closing requests. Apologies if I went on too long here...it's a sensitive enough subject that I felt the need to explain in detail!

reisen55
reisen55

I conduct seminars for my clients on proper usage of computers so you plan does work. I also advocate an office CHAMPION who can solve the basic issues. But do you get into registry editing? DLL files that are non-funcitonal? How about system restores and crashes? And if you have a large group of clients and customers, 1,700 or so as I have supported in an IT group, how many of them during the working day are really interesting in self-diagnostics of their problems when they have, gee, oh that other thing called THEIR JOB to worry about. We already have enough hell in our field to justify our employment, so educating users may be a good thing to a point, but be careful for you are also educating yourself out of a job and responsibilities. There is a fine line here, do not cross it.

reisen55
reisen55

Technicians per se are a funny lot, and can be amazing out-there when dealing with people and not computers. Almost wrecked a consulting arrangement yesterday when my colleagues, a brilliant technician, proposed an annual agreement that took control right out of the client's hands and put everything into our hands. He is a somewhat superior idiot, so the proposal died almost instantly and he conceded that my original idea, which was more cooperative in scope, was better. He was viewing the client as a technician, not as a marketing rep or a salesman. My background, includes years in tech, also includes years in sales and marketing. So the people-touch is important and very good to have. Necessary in fact, but few have it.

Baggaz
Baggaz

Whilst the theory of dividing project and operational work sounds ideal, it comes with its own issues, not least a high turnover of operational support staff as they will want to improve on their skills if they're worth having at all. It might be worth considering a rota for support work instead. For example, if you have 5 support staff and a 60/40 split in favor of project work then 2 engineers work full time on the support side for a week whilst the others get to concentrate fully on project work for the same period, then rotate. Obviously the numbers and time periods are all variables but it can be made to work and you'll spend less time training new engineers. The week on Service Desk may not be the most popular but the benefits of several weeks with zero support work soon become obvious.

ajohansson
ajohansson

That is the hardest part. Been in SMB's entire career and have set up a few helpdesks in that time. I go a similar route to aathey's. The biggest roadblock is getting buy-in from the top. Once you get upper management using the system instead of dragging you away from your work, the others follow suit. It's a cultural shift, and as all MBA's will tell you, it won't work unless it comes from the top! It also helps to empower the users, often with one-on-one teaching sessions. Stroke those egos and they will do more for themselves (most people anyway).

avgoustinosc
avgoustinosc

Hi Reissen, I totally agree about the fine line here and this is why i gave a couple of examples. By educating i dont mean that you gonna educate the users to do your job. Of course we have a support team which is responsible for "more advance" troubleshooting. Also, note that using this methodology we manage to educate about 200 users including 3 offices at Cyprus, 1 in Moscow, 1 in Kiev, 1 in Budapest, 1 in Sevastopol, 1 in Brussels and 1 in Prague. From my experience using this strategy the last two years, support requests minimized in relation with previous years.....BUT...in order to avoid some support request you need to have the correct hardware, the correct infrastructure..etc, etc. If you do not have the right infrastructure, the right hardware, etc, etc you will not be able to minimize the requests since everyday new and more complicated problems arise. Avgoustinos Constantinides IT Manager Andreas Neocleous & Co LLC http://www.neocleous.com

wtburnette67
wtburnette67

Companies that think of support as a drain on money and resources are missing the point. Good support / customer service to your internal and external customers is essential in keeping the "machine" running smoothly and to keep the network/engineers focused on the projects. Your employees and customers need to work and your engineers need to focus on the things they get paid the big bucks for. An adequately staffed helpdesk/desktop will allow for that. Too many companies try to cut corners on this and pay a higher price in lost productivity then they would have in paying for the support staff. Too bad common sense doesn't seem to survive in the rarified atmosphere of upper management.

denybkd
denybkd

The (current) preception across many organizations, specifically those headed up with non-tech savvy individuals, that the helpdesk is a commodity/utility are sorely missing out on the hidden potential of its technical support staff. I've come across many techies in my life who have a built-in thought process that actively screens 'established' processes that can be re-engineered into a more functional and profitable enterprise solution...I've seen some of the best presentations of my life only to be battered down by upper management, even if it meets/exceeds their requirements!... There is too much dead wood in the current corporate environment. I KNOW that once they are removed, this country will have a Service Revolution. Given the balance between dollars and SENSE will alway be a prevelant force in executive decision making; however, the more attention one gives to the SENSE, the dollars will be recouped in little or no time.

bfpower
bfpower

One helpful thing is to have (if budget allows) a L1 support tech who can handle lower-level requests and research higher-level requests before passing them on. This is a typical model in larger support operations, such as my company. I am essentially a L2 desktop tech and the Help Desk is supposed to get first crack at any issues. This takes the heat of generic issues off the engineers (my email client is freezing but I don't want to reboot because ....)

reisen55
reisen55

Common sense means nothing to American management when it comes to back office support. Not only Information Technology, but accounting and human resources are all victim to OUTSOURCING, doing the (same) job for less, cheaper, faster, better. It is that word in parenthesis (same) that messes up everything. You often do NOT GET THE SAME QUALITY RESULTS but instead have workers half-trained, half a world away, with an outsourcing company in control of your environment and vendor support, and often hardly with the client's BEST interests at heart. A company such as CSC and ACS has to maintain THE CONTRACT at all costs and that means, often, not doing what is good and right for customer. Exact opposite sometimes. Good support, whether level 1 or 2 or 3 is always a valuable asset well bought if paid for correctly with a dedicated staff on the client's payroll as part of their team. Having someone else in control half a world away reading from a script means bad results across the board. Oh, wait. My script says at the end of a Tech Republic blog to always ask "Would you like an email survey?"

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