By Ruby Bayan

If you’ve decided to set up a help desk from the ground up in your organization, your major challenge would be how to start off on the right foot.

A well-defined mission, explicit budget allocations, and quantified service targets will serve as your blueprint, but as they say, the devil is in the details. One of the first areas of concern you’ll want to closely scrutinize is the physical aspect of your help desk center—the technologies that your crew and your customers will rely on, and the physical layout that your service levels could hinge on.

Here are some tips we gathered from help desk and contact center experts.

Weigh pros and cons of packaged vs. custom technologies
The size of your help desk and the type of service you provide should give you a hint on what type of technologies will be ideal for your scenario. A call-tracking software package, like HEAT Service and Support, would be the basic canned application to implement. If you expect considerable expansion of your customer base or of the types of products you support in the future, however, you may want to look at full-scale call center applications like an automatic call distributor (ACD).

According to Sarsi R. Pablo, Voice Services Manager at Globalreach eBusiness Networks, Inc., “Call center applications will be useful as a company expands its services, while saving on operational costs.” But whether a company prefers packaged technologies or custom applications, the major consideration should be the benefits to the users. “Implement applications that will complement, and not complicate, your daily operations,” she advised.

Jim Puchbauer, director of marketing at AltiGen, defined his first rule of custom applications: “Customized implementations take at least twice as long to implement as packaged applications and can cost three times as much as originally planned—and that’s conservative.”

Puchbauer, whose company provides small and mid-size businesses with VoIP (Internet telephony) technology, added, “Packaged applications can produce ROI within 12 months… and that’s vital, according to our customers.” If you are looking at custom applications, your ROI timeline can expand to two to three years, he said. So, the question you need to ask yourself is this: What’s your tolerance for when payback must begin?

Ensure efficiency with ergonomic environments
Another major consideration in creating an effective help desk is ergonomics. Job efficiency is largely influenced by the workplace, and this would be most apparent in your help desk center, especially if your crew’s core function is troubleshooting—emphasis on “trouble.”

It may be sufficient to line up your help desk reps in neat rows of cubicles, but sometimes creative floor plans can spell the difference between a helpful and a helpless contact center.

Consider these ergo-tips when designing your help desk layout:

“I preferred a kind of bullpen area,” said Ray Zorz, network administrator for United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona, who was tasked at a previous job to design and manage a corporate help desk. “I thought it was important for my reps to hear each other and easily ask for or offer help. ” With the various levels of expertise in the team, mentoring is a good thing, he said. “Keep your eye on the goal, which is to close the call quickly and satisfactorily.”

Too much or too little space between support personnel could tip the scale between good and bad service. “If the work area is crowded and a rep can hardly hear the customer because he’s disturbed by the other reps’ conversations, this is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Pablo.

Pablo underscored the importance of an overall sense of harmony in the workplace—blended, muted, non-primary colors for the surroundings, open floors with movable partitions that can quickly be rearranged to adapt to the size and workflow of the help desk center, and sufficient, bright lights. “Stress is the leading cause of problems in call handling and staff turnover,” she said. Layout and ergonomics affect the mood of the reps—and stressed reps tend to be grouchy and end up looking for other jobs.

“I’ve set up our workstations with a desk in front and a workbench behind,” according to a help desk manager who requested to be referred to simply as Justin. “This gives us room to troubleshoot and repair errant computers. We have a small KVM switch, and an Ethernet switch on each workbench, so we can work on multiple machines at one time. I also keep spare mice, laptop CD-ROMs, power supplies, and docking stations close at hand.”

We use headsets from Hello Direct that include mute buttons and a volume control,” said Justin. “This allows me to move about, use both hands, and crank up the volume for those quiet talkers out there (or turn it down when they start ranting!). I’ve been drooling over the wireless models that would allow me to move back and forth between server room and desk!” Zorz agreed that some reps work better if allowed a little movement.

Zorz emphasized that an effective and successful help desk workplace needs to be pleasant and comfortable. “Unfortunately, all too often the help desk is considered an expense, and is often relegated to second-class status. They need great working conditions, because this job is tough. It’s often a thankless, immobile job with unhappy people on the other end of the phone. If the job requires workspace, then give it to them. If it’s a lot of phone time, then give them the best headphones. And, by all means, give them great chairs.”