One of the biggest challenges for the help desk manager is training new help desk operators how to respond to requests for help. On one hand, you want your analysts to resolve certain kinds of problems as quickly as possible. On the other hand, you don’t want analysts wasting time on problems that they cannot (or should not) try to resolve on their own.

With experience, your level 1 help desk analysts eventually will learn what trouble tickets they can work on by themselves and which ones need to be escalated to a more senior person. However, for new hires, I recommend creating a training document with a matrix that groups common support tasks according to the appropriate decision-making levels. With that matrix in hand, new call center analysts don’t have to guess about how to respond to requests for help.

A reason for the matrix
I created the matrix of help desk tasks for one of my consulting clients after the company experienced a security breach. The breach was related to actions taken by one of the dozen of help desk analysts on staff for this midsize company.

Late one Thursday afternoon, a manager made the decision to terminate a contract IT employee. The manager contacted the network administrator and requested that the contractor person’s access privileges be revoked immediately. The manager planned to dismiss the employee the next day (Friday).

By coincidence, the IT contractor showed up earlier than usual on that Friday and was surprised to find his network account had been deactivated, and he couldn’t log on. Assuming that the change was a mistake, the contractor called the help desk department and asked an analyst to reset his password. The analyst reactivated the contractor’s account, and the contractor logged on to the network.

As you might guess, the manager was livid when he arrived and discovered that the contractor’s account had been reactivated. In my view, at least two things could have been done differently to prevent the unauthorized access.

  • First, only a few people—help desk staff included—had the system privileges required to reactivate a user account. So the network administrator should have sent out an e-mail on Thursday night to inform that group of people that the contractor was set for termination and that the account should not be reactivated.
  • Second, the help desk analyst exceeded his authority by reactivating a disabled account without obtaining approval from his manager or from the network administrator.

How could this situation have been averted? You might argue that the help desk analyst should have known better. However, with a decision-making matrix handy, the help desk analyst could have determined beyond any doubt that resetting a system password was a task that required input or approval from someone else.

Decision-making authority vs. severity of the incident
In any discussion of prioritizing help desk calls, you must consider the severity of the call. Some calls need to be answered on an emergency basis, while other calls can be resolved in a day or two without inconveniencing the end user. For the sake of this article, I’m concerned with teaching help desk analysts which tasks they can do alone, and which tasks require assistance—regardless of the severity. To read more about prioritizing help desk calls by severity, download TechRepublic’s help desk triage policy.

If you’re lucky enough to work in a shop where you have an automated call-tracking system, you probably don’t need to create a matrix of tasks and decision-making levels. Commercial help desk systems typically make it easy to categorize a help desk call and assign it to the right person or group.

However, in shops where users with questions either pick up the phone or send e-mail to the help desk, a formal list of common problems and solutions can come in handy. I recommend organizing such a list in three categories:

  • Level 1: Issues that analysts can and should resolve completely on their own
  • Level 2: Problems that analysts may resolve only after obtaining authorization or input from a manager or a senior analyst
  • Level 3: Issues that analysts must escalate to a senior analyst

Figure A illustrates one way to categorize some common help desk requests. If your help desk staff currently relies on the “intuition” method for responding to customer calls, create a matrix like this one and list the issues frequently raised by the end users in your organization. If you like, you can expand your matrix to include specific steps (or links to how-to documents) for resolving each problem.

Figure A
Create a matrix like this one to define the decision-making levels for your help desk analysts.

I use level 1, level 2, and level 3 to refer to the categories in my matrix. Of course, to help your analysts remember to refer to the list of problems, you can use any naming paradigm you like, such as “low,” “medium,” or “high” or “code blue,” “code yellow,” or “code red.”

How would you solve this one?

To share your own method for defining decision-making levels for tech support in your shop, or to add your suggestions for the decision-making matrix, please post a comment or write to Jeff.