Through the years, the IT help desk has been viewed as a necessary evil. But as IT remolds itself into a service center, IT managers are finding that the help desk not only helps service, it also improves application quality and makes it possible to build better product. This is a departure from conventional thinking, when IT’s mediocre performers landed on the help desk because they couldn’t hold their own in application development.

Today, new thinking about the help desk (and better help desk tools) are recasting the help desk as an area of core competency in IT — especially with sites moving to cloud-based infrastructures that demand high levels of service for both internal users and end customers. Here are 10 strategies that can help ensure that you’re getting the most out of your help desk investment.

1: Use the help desk as an entry point for new hires

This is not new IT thinking, but it is as strategically applicable today as it was 10 years ago. When you place new IT hires on the help desk, they see the systems that they will ultimately support with their own “fresh” eyes — and also from the user’s eyes. As they gain familiarity with systems from an IT standpoint, they will gradually lose this “user view” of systems, but an initial exposure to end-user frustrations from a stint on the help desk is experience they can take with them. Ideally, it will also fire them up to develop better IT products and services.

2: Reward for help desk performance and develop a career path for those who excel

Most of us, when we were cutting our teeth in IT, saw the help desk as a career dead end. If we were put on help desk, a daily goal was plotting how we could propel ourselves into being an applications developer, a project manager, or a database/network administrator. Yet believe it or not, there are people who love the help desk and would like nothing more than to make a career of it. With the growing importance of service, CIOs need to find ways to create parity between careers in the help desk or QA with equivalent positions in application development and systems programming. Creating equivalent career ladders, opportunities, and respect will encourage those who excel in an area like the help desk to make a long-term commitment to it.

3: Plug the help desk into your SLAs

More IT departments are being asked by their internal users to meet SLA levels, and key SLA elements are time-to-response when a trouble ticket is created and time-to-repair for the problem itself. These two areas should be primary metrics for the IT help desk, which plays a key role in user satisfaction.

4: Maintain total help desk visibility

State-of-the-art help desk software now operates in real time and gives everyone engaged in the process a collaborative role, allowing them to execute real-time updates and obtain real-time information. Not so long ago, corporate business users were scratching their heads, finding ways to work around problems while they waited for an IT solution. This generated enormous frustration. With the new help desk technology, everyone in the process has an end-to-end view of every trouble ticket and what has been done. The help desk may not be able to solve every issue in minutes, but at least no one is left wondering about what’s going on.

5: Invest in strong help desk technology

There is never enough budget to fund every technology you want to bring on board, so it is tempting to let functions like the help desk and QA just limp along. If you’re in charge of an IT department that is moving into cloud-based infrastructure with a set of strong SLAs that the business is going to hold you to, you shouldn’t short-change the technology investment you make in your help desk, which becomes a primary service function.

6: Implement mobile, networked communications between the help desk and its users

It’s common for IT help desk personnel to move around to various end-user areas that have trouble tickets open. This makes it imperative for help desk workers to be able to collaborate with each other and with end users via mobile technology. There simply isn’t time to wait until the end of the day to return to the office and then update all your trouble tickets.

7: Periodically cycle key performers from other IT areas through the help desk

You might not be able to afford to keep some of your highly paid subject matter experts on the help desk for long, but a temporary tour of duty — say, two weeks — helps those with limited experience working with end users to empathize with the ultimate consumers of their work.

8: Recruit from end-user areas

There are savvy end users who know the applications in their businesses well and would love a shot at IT. The help desk is a natural spot for them because they already understand the pain points of the end business.

9: Link help desk input into applications development and enhancement

Many IT departments mistakenly relegate the help desk to troubleshooting and fixing problems. Instead, they should be organizing regular meetings where the help desk reviews trouble reports by application and pinpoints the ones giving the most trouble. These are applications that likely should be improved or replaced. The applications area can also learn from help desk experience so that it will design better applications in the first place.

10: Don’t over-automate help desk communications

Complicated phone or online “trees” of who to contact for what bum users out as much as the robot call-taking that automates corporate phone systems. A help desk should be easy to access — and it should always be possible to quickly reach a human being. After all, “ease of use” is the help desk’s signature.

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Other advice?

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