Five management strategies for streamlining support

These low-cost strategies will help IT managers at small- to medium-sized businesses track recurring support problems to save time and increase employee morale.

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Most IT pros in small- to medium-sized businesses find themselves struggling with how to meet day-to-day support needs while remaining focused on the seemingly limitless IT projects that flow from the business. Here are five strategies you can use to get a handle on your support requirements and free up time for other projects in your shop.

Track calls then take action

Large organizations typically use help desk tracking systems with sophisticated reports which identify the categories of causes for support requests. Those reports track users who are most frequently calling in for support, the average time to resolve a ticket, and a myriad of other bits of information. However, small- to mid-sized organizations struggle with simple, often home grown, help desk solutions which lack high-end reporting functions. However, working in a mid-sized organization means you may actually have an advantage because your techs will be working more directly with your users. You can use that direct contact with a smaller group of users to your advantage by performing a support time study involving each user.

A time study should be conducted over a relatively short period of time, usually a day or a week. During that time, everyone is asked to keep detailed records on what they work on and for whom. The process of capturing the records is generally considered a great burden until it is really understood that the purpose is to identify those things which are consuming time and frustrating everyone. Capturing minute details isn't necessary; just record those things which take a non-trivial amount of time to resolve or issues that happen frequently.

The time study records are reviewed to identify patterns or opportunities for improvement. Consider setting up a training plan if there are several calls on the same issue. Frequency is one of the first clues that it's possible to improve and streamline the process. If you receive a dozen calls a week to reset a password, then reducing that to six calls a week will substantially reduce the amount of time spent on those calls.

Tasks that take a long time to complete should also be reviewed. If troubleshooting a printer problem took three hours then perhaps it's time to replace the printer. These types of time wasters can also severely hurt morale as team members become frustrated when work begins backing up in the queue.

Even without a time study, some IT managers can see the patterns in the support requests that they're getting. They know that there are problems which occur over and over again and suck the energy out of the team.

Set strategies in these five trouble areas

Although each organization is different there are some common trouble makers when it comes to time wasters in an organization. Here are five areas to address when setting your support strategy:

  • User Installed Software: Every mid-sized organization has to accept that their users will want to install software to personalize and customize their machines. This tactic invariability leads to problems which can take hours, or days, to resolve. The solution is simple. Provide guidance on what personal software can and can not be installed on corporate computers. You may want to require that all software go through a lightweight approval process/review before being installed. Download TechRepublic's Sample software installation policy to get started.
  • Account Lockouts and Password Resets: Nothing is more wasteful than a user or customer locking out their account or forgetting their password. Even if you're not yet getting calls every hour, you should decide on an effective lockout strategy . Remember that brute force attacks are often hard to mount. Try doubling the number attempts before a lockout. Try lengthening the time that a password is valid. If you don't need to require passwords be changed every 60 days,then don't. For help, download TechRepublic's Network Security Policy Quick Guide. (TechProGuild membership required.)
  • Personal Digital Assistants: Many of your users love their toys and personal digital assistants (PDAs) are the toys that everyone wants. PDAs have replaced the cell phones of old as status symbols. Advancements in hardware mean we now have PDAs with integrated cell phones and digital cameras, complicating your support liability. PDAs represent a problem in a corporate environment for several reasons not the least of which are the number of platforms and devices. You should standardize on one (or two, if you must) PDA platforms (Palm, Pocket PC, Blackberry, etc.) Stick to those platforms and don't offer support for other platforms, no matter how nice you want to be. Here is a Sample PDA IT support policy to use as a starting point.
  • Pesky equipment: We've all had that device that we wanted to make work but could never quite overcome frequent trouble. Consider replacing the device, remembering that you have to weigh the cost against the cost of your team's time. If you can't make it work right, or at least OK, get rid of it, take your lumps, and move on. For help, download Support and Configuration Checklists for Small/Midsize Networks.
  • Pet Macros and Templates: Every company has favorite templates and macros. In some organizations it's the spreadsheet used to launch rockets, figuratively speaking. In other organizations it's the access database doing commissions for sales people. These pet macros and templates can be great benefits to an organization, they can also be off-the-radar development projects that consume way too many resources. Figuring out which of these templates or macros are important is the key. If it's not important to the organization, don't use it.

Identifying and addressing key processes that eat up valuable time resources should free up more time for other projects in your shop. Eliminating these time wasters will also help improve morale for your users and your IT staff.

Robert Bogue, MS MVP Commerce Server, MCSE, MCS: Security, has contributed to more than 100 book projects and numerous other publishing projects. He is a strategic consultant for Crowe Chizek in Indianapolis. You can reach him at

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