Negative stereotypes are bad for business. Especially harmful are the perceptions that all IT people are snobby technophiles and that all end users are technically challenged whiners.

I’d like to suggest a sure-fire way to improve the relationship between your company’s IT department and the rest of the company: Put on an annual call center open house.

I can already hear the first objection, as some of you adamantly declare, “We don’t have time to put on an open house. We’re too busy answering calls and solving problems.” To that I say, “Balderdash!”

This week, I’ll tell you exactly how to put on your open house. I promise it won’t be difficult or costly, and the people in your company will be raving about how much fun they had attending it.

When to schedule the open house
The idea of a departmental open house isn’t new. Business units have been doing it for years. A new department gets created or an old department gets reorganized, and that event provides an excuse to “come have punch and cookies and meet the team.”

What I’m suggesting is that you make your call center open house an annual event. I’ve seen help desk teams conduct open houses on a more frequent basis. However, if you hold an open house any more often than once or twice a year, the event loses its novelty.

How long should the open house last? I suggest four hours, from 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. If you schedule the open house to overlap with lunch hours, more people will be inclined to stop on by on their way to or from their normal lunch break.

What to do during the open house
You don’t want to send out an e-mail that simply says, “Hey, we’re having an open house in the call center; stop by and watch us work.” That’s boring. Instead, your invitation should sell the opportunity for other employees to become acquainted with the technical support staff and to learn a few things while they’re at it. Here are my suggestions for a successful open house:

  • Wear nametags. Unless your company already requires employees to wear an ID badge, everyone in the call center should wear a nametag during the open house. Your internal customers will enjoy putting faces to the voices they’ve heard when calling for help or to the names they’ve read in e-mails from the tech support staff.
  • Set up a job-share telephone station. Give visitors to the open house the chance to listen in on a live call for help or even answer a call or two (with a regular call center staff person standing by, of course). By giving fellow employees a taste of the phone-support action, they may have a little more respect and empathy for help desk analysts who spend 80 or 90 percent of their time answering calls.
  • Take a friend on a tech support visit. In addition to letting your coworkers listen in on a tech support call, considering letting a visitor to the call center become a “Techie for a Day” and accompany a technician during an on-site support call.
  • Set up a “Name that component” table. In the call center, set up a desktop or tower PC without its cover. Then, challenge visitors to identify individual components, such as memory chips, modem, video card, and hard drive. Take a digital picture of the open machine and print a key that shows the correct answers to your little hardware quiz. For end users who have never seen the insides of a PC, this simple lesson will be extremely valuable.
  • Dissect a disk. This is a trick I’ve used many times when speaking at career days at the local middle and high schools. I hold up a disk and ask, “Did you ever wonder what’s inside?” Then, to gasps from some in the crowd, I rip it open and pull out the “cookie” inside. One of the exhibits in your open house can simply be a disk splayed open for visitors to see and handle. It’s gimmicky, I know, but it’s a guaranteed conversation starter between techies and nontechies.
  • Tour the NOC. Does your company have a formal network operations center (NOC)? If so, schedule tours of the NOC that start and end in the call center. To those of us who work in a NOC every day, the site of rows and rows of racks of servers is old hat. For less-technical folk, though, the NOC is a brand-new world.
  • Give a demonstration on servicing printers. Do your end users know how to change the toner cartridges in the printers they use most often? If not—and if you want your end users to be self-sufficient when it comes to printer basics—set up a printer in the call center. Schedule demonstrations of the proper way to open the printer, remove the old cartridge, and replace a new one. This is the only bona fide training I suggest you try during the open house because it’s visual and hands-on—no onscreen reading required. You may want to expand this lesson to include how to refill paper or load special forms such as legal-size paper, envelopes, or labels.
  • Give away something. Everyone who makes the effort to attend your open house should receive something they can take back to their desks and show off to coworkers who didn’t attend. Even if it’s just a mouse pad with the company logo, find something you can give away to commemorate the open house. As an alternative to giving something to everyone, you can have a drawing and give away one grand prize and a few consolation prizes. In that case, ask all employees who attend the open house to put their name in a hat. Then, make a big deal out of announcing the lucky winners via global e-mail. A gift certificate for a free lunch makes a good grand prize.
  • Put out a suggestion box. Set up a suggestion box in your call center and ask visitors to the open house to provide any suggestions they have for improving the quality of technical support in the organization. Some of your visitors may surprise you with the insight and quality of suggestions they offer.

The cyber-seeds you sow
Having an open house in your call center is a great way to foster good relationships between the technical staff and the rest of the company. If you do it right, the folks who attend will talk it up so much that you’ll be expected to put on an open house every year.

Reaching out to IT customers

To comment on this Help Desk Advisor column or to share your tips for hosting call center open houses post a comment or write to Jeff.