Senior company executives aren’t your typical technology end users. They don’t use their computers in the same way or have the same needs that most staffers do. That, combined with their inherent influence on finances, such as the IT budget, clearly places senior execs in a special user class for any organization’s tech support team.

Tech support for such a special user group requires both special attention and, most likely, a unique manpower approach. We’ll talk about the special needs of this group, and we’ll share some advice from TechRepublic members that could help smooth the way for your support staff.

Things are different at the top
Executives, due to their level of responsibility and hectic schedules, have little time or patience when it comes to failing computers, conflicting software, and login hurdles. They’re also not particularly eager to work with support staff to analyze and resolve computer problems.

But there are several things that executives and their office assistants can do that will help to thwart desktop glitches, avoid network problems, and generally make things easier for the help desk, according to TechRepublic members.

Educate VPs and their office staffs
Merel R. O’Rourke, a CIO who has built, staffed, and managed support organizations at several companies in the past decade, said the trick is to model support methods on how executives actually work—not on common perceptions of how they work.

For the most part, executives delegate less important and functionary chores to executive assistants, explained O’Rourke. Therefore, to best help the executives, IT support staffs need to help the assistants.

When executives do use a computer, it’s usually a laptop, O’Rourke said. Proper laptop use and a good dose of common sense can help VPs avoid computer problems. A good first step for your support staff is to explain to executives why they need to be cautious about e-mail attachments and potential virus dangers.

“In my last two direct-employment situations, every single serious virus introduced into our system came directly from a vice president’s—or [from someone] above [that level]—laptop,” O’Rourke said.

TechRepublic member Charlie Spencer put it bluntly: “To make the support job easier, the best thing senior executives can do is nothing!” He added,  “As in:

  • Don’t install unauthorized software.
  • Don’t screw up the network, dial-up, or VPN configurations by installing the software from your personal ISP or attempting to connect to another company’s network.
  • Don’t try loading those old Windows 9x games on your new Windows 2000 box.
  • Don’t load the system tray full of stock tickers, weather updates, radio stations, Web wallpaper loaders, etc.; if you do, don’t wonder why the machine runs slower.
  • Don’t open every attachment that shows up in your mailbox.
  • Don’t let the kids or spouse use it for their personal business.

Another no-no for executives is offering the use of their laptop to anyone else, like a vendor who wants to use it to demo his company’s software. Make [the vendor] load it onto their machine,” Spencer said.

CIOs can help support staff aid executives
A big hurdle in supporting executives is that the support staff has to walk a fine line between being informative and being bossy with the boss. Members suggested several options for handling this delicate but critical relationship that must develop between support staff and upper management.

It may be in the best interest of CIOs and their support staffs to dedicate one person to handle all executive support.

This scenario worked for a New Zealand IT manager, according to Yvonne Blanch, who works for the IT department of a state agency. Blanch said her IT manager had trouble getting expenditures approved because executives didn’t have a very good impression of the IT group and did not have a good working relationship with them.

Blanch was then chosen to support all of the agency’s executives. She worked on the executive floor to be close by for emergencies, to prevent problems, and provide just-in-time training. “Because [the executives] dealt with the same person each time they had a problem or needed some advice or training, a good level of communication developed,” Blanch said. “I understood their environment and what they had to achieve, and they became confident in my ability to help them. Their IT experience was more positive as a result.”

Sure enough, that goodwill created a much more receptive atmosphere for projects the agency’s IT manager wanted to pursue.

Member Tom Emerson shared a similar experience. As his company’s leadership realized the importance of technology, it also realized how critical IT support was to the enterprise. As a result, his IT support department gained approval to commit a full-time desktop administrator to the management team and their assistants.

“This position was at their disposal and responsible [for] quick resolution to any problems this important customer base was experiencing,” Emerson explained. “The position was quite broad, including supporting PCs, productivity software, peripheral devices, printers, scanners, PDAs, and [providing] conference room support. It also included some pretty sophisticated audio-visual equipment, etc.,” he said. “Our approach initially was focused on quick resolution to problems but over time has evolved into mentoring this customer base to be more self-sufficient—primarily focused on the administrative assistants.”

A little training would help
One surefire way to better support executives, and in effect, help the support team, is through proper training.

TechRepublic member Philip Rizzo noted that many executives have learned computer skills piecemeal over a number of years, one by one as they needed to do specific things. Regular, but brief, training sessions could cut down “false alarm” support calls by half or more, he said.

The briefings could include:

  • An orientation on the features of the computer by an IT professional.
  • Lost-file prevention through training on how and where to store information.
  • A review of any applications, like e-mail, the executives use on a regular basis.
  • How to create a logical file-naming system so executives can find what they need quickly and easily.

Training top executives to use computers properly can be empowering, even to those who already have the greatest amount of power at their organizations, according to Jan Waters, who conducts on-site computer training.

“What I teach are the basics of computer usage and maintenance, including file saving and retrieving, computer/network file structures, and how to do a screen capture (of an error message) and save it to a Word or WordPad doc,” Waters said.

“I explain scan disk and defrag—the why and how. I also review the basics of e-mail and Web browsing/searching. And I do this work at their own desks, using their software and their network information so they know what every screen will look like.”

No matter whether an organization dedicates a specific support staffer for the executive team or just institutes training for them, helping upper management understand how to use their computers properly benefits everyone from the VP offices to the IT unit.

How do you think support staff can help top management?

We’ve relayed what support professionals think executives can do to make the support staff’s job easier and more productive. Now we’d like to know what IT executives think support professionals can do to make executives more productive and satisfied with their IT experiences. Send us a note or post a comment in the discussion below.