Every help desk manager has his or her own theories and methods for finding and retaining the best people to work in call centers. Recently, I asked one former and one current help desk manager to share their advice for finding and keeping good people in their help desk operations. Both preferred to remain anonymous, but they were willing to share some of their favorite hiring and retention tips. After you read their techniques, I invite you to contribute your own comments.

In a minute, that phone is going to ring…
The first person I interviewed, I’ll call Terry. A few years ago, Terry hired and trained receptionists for a large law firm. Now, he works as a telecommunications support analyst for a Fortune 500 company, and he’s in charge of teaching telephone etiquette to all the new operators in his department, as well as to the administrative assistants in the company.

When I asked Terry if he had any secrets to hiring good help desk people, the first thing he said was, “I make them answer the phone for me. I’ve been burned too many times by people who came across great in interviews but just didn’t work out when you put them on the phones.”

Pressed for details, Terry said: “If I’m interviewing someone I think has a good chance of making it, I tell them, ‘That phone is going to ring in a minute. I want you to answer, “ABC Company,” and take it from there.'”

Terry then leaves the room, calls the line, and when the candidate answers he says, “Well you’ve disconnected me five times in a row now. Do you think you could possibly connect me to Frank Farnsworth and get it right this time?!’”

He said people’s reactions have varied from just hanging up to cursing at him, but what he’s looking for is the person who’s able to keep his composure.

“I like to see how they’ll react to a hostile caller, because on the help desk, we get a lot of those,” he said.

Determining technical proficiency
As a general rule, Terry doesn’t administer any tests to determine a candidate’s technical proficiency. He typically doesn’t interview candidates who don’t have the right stuff on their resumes. However, every now and then, if he gets a certain vibe during an interview, he’ll ask the candidate to explain, in user’s terms, how to perform a basic task like changing a password.

Listen up
I’ll call the second person I interviewed Jerry. He works for a national healthcare provider. I first met Jerry when I interviewed for an open position on his help desk team.

In his position as manager of system administration, Jerry has ten full-time help desk analysts reporting to him. They provide level-one support for over 16,000 network users, but they specialize in issues relating to security administration and access to various network resources and 27 enterprise applications. (When you call the help desk at Jerry’s company, you have to press 3 to get routed to his group.)

Jerry doesn’t believe in making people answer the phone as part of the interview. He trusts his gut when it comes to evaluating a candidate.

“Communication skills are more important to me than technical skills,” Jerry said. “I can teach technical skills. I pay attention to how a person communicates with me during the interview. Listening is the most important skill for a help desk analyst, and I look for people who are good listeners, who pay attention during a conversation.”

The wrong type of person
When I asked whether Jerry knew of any personality types that he thought didn’t make good help desk analysts, he quickly replied, “People who are too technical. I’ve had people in here who were technical wizards but weren’t very good at communicating.

“I can sit and talk about BIOS settings and operating system versions and explain why such-and-such happened,” Jerry said, “but that’s not what our customers want to hear.”

I asked if he’s ever made a bad hire and had to let someone go, and he said, that he had hired a real technical guru who had learned the applications quickly, and was sharp as a tack, but couldn’t speak in laymen’s terms to the users.

“His customers were frustrated because he always talked over their heads, and that made him frustrated,” Jerry said. “You have to be able to talk to people of all levels of formal education and users with all different levels of experience using the applications. You have to be flexible.”

Jerry said that he eventually found Mr. Too-technical another position in the company “over in Geekville,” where his technical skills would be better appreciated.

When Jerry says ’90 percent phone time,’ he means it
I asked Jerry how he knows if someone is going to like being on the phones all the time. He said he tells folks up front that the job requires spending 90 percent of your time on the phone answering calls. He puts it in the job description when it’s posted internally and in the description when an ad is placed on Monster or in the paper.

“I tell people, ‘if you don’t think you can handle sitting in a cubicle answering calls all day, then this job may not be for you,’” Jerry said. “The other thing I make perfectly clear is the fact that this department has an on-call schedule. We have ten full-timers, and that means you’ll be on-call about once every nine weekends or so. Everybody takes a turn.”

For many people, one or both of these factors is a turn-off. Some people think when you work on the help desk that you control your own schedule, but it doesn’t work that way, Jerry said. His team has two scheduled breaks and scheduled lunch hours.

“My people also look out for each other,” Jerry said. “If one of them needs to run late from lunch or misses a break, the others pitch in and keep the lines covered.”

Measuring success and avoiding burnout
One of Jerry’s help desk analysts has been on the job for eight years, and another for five years. When I asked him how he managed to keep those good people from burning out after all that time on the help desk, he gave me several examples:

  • Silent monitoring. Jerry has the ability to listen in on calls for quality assurance monitoring. If he detects that an analyst is frustrated, tired, or having any other signs of burnout, Jerry counsels the employee and makes every effort to resolve any problems or concerns.
  • Rewards. Jerry knows that his analysts need time off the phones every now and then, so he rewards teammates at different times with project assignments that allow the analysts to attend meetings and interact with employees in other departments.
  • Statistics. Each week, Jerry’s team reviews the call analyst numbers and discusses ongoing issues. During the week I interviewed Jerry, his team had succeeded in keeping the Calls Closed On Initial Contact (CCOIC) percentage above 80 percent. The other key indicator, Calls Closed On Same Day (COSD), shows that 90 percent of the calls that weren’t closed on initial contact were closed on the same day.
  • Positive reviews on the Board Of Health. The bulletin board in Jerry’s department is called the Board Of Health, and that’s where Jerry posts positive feedback from users about his help desk team’s performance. That feedback can come in the form of e-mail or in responses to customer support surveys. (Jerry’s company uses Deyta, Inc., a third-party vendor, to survey customers selected at random from the call center database.)

The last thing Jerry told me was that his company’s CIO had made one thing clear about the way she expected the help desk to be managed:

“We only want to keep A and B analysts. You need to get rid of the C analysts, and the B analysts had better be interested in becoming A analysts!”

Luck of the draw or intuition?

When it comes to hiring help desk analysts, do you trust your intuition or do you have a formula? To share your tips for identifying good help desk analysts, post a comment or write to Jeff.