Attention, all help desk and call center managers! I have a question for you: What have you done lately to recognize the star performers on your teams?

If the best you can come up with is, “I approved their time sheets,” let this Help Desk Advisor column serve as your wake-up call. You need to show some managerial love to the people in your department. If you don’t, they may go work for some other company that will.

So how do you recognize the accomplishments of the people on your tech support staff? This week, I’ll share advice from your fellow TechRepublic members and give you some of my own tips for rewarding quality work.

The high cost of failing to follow through
I decided to write this column after reading the article “Members describe bonus plans that actually work” in TechRepublic’s IT Consultant Republic. It talks about how to use cash bonuses to reward and retain good employees—consulting software developers and project managers in particular.

As I read that article, it occurred to me that I’ve never heard of a company that used cash incentives to reward help desk analysts for a job well done. So I reasoned that smart help desk managers must improvise to find ways to reward outstanding individual and team performances.

In response to the IT Consultant article, TechRepublic member NoraTechRep wrote: “I am in agreement that the bonus does wonders to motivate employees to perform better….I saw the change in performance when the bonus program was implemented. It looked very promising when the rewards were paid on time. However, when the bonus program is not ‘honored’ by employers, albeit delay in payment or skipping for a term or so, it creates more damage to work morale and expected output.”

So, before you even think about announcing a bonus plan or any other formal system for recognizing outstanding help desk analysts, heed this warning: Don’t promise something you can’t deliver.

The downside of rewards
Let me start by acknowledging the potential downside of publicly recognizing team or individual performances. When you give an award, you hope the recipient(s) will feel appreciated and motivated to continue doing outstanding work. And, let’s face it: You also hope the award will motivate other employees to do outstanding work.

Unfortunately, there’s always the chance that those who don’t receive recognition will resent those who do. To minimize resentment and maximize motivation, perhaps the best thing you can do is define unambiguous criteria for determining how to earn recognition. Without clear expectations and a fair chance for all employees to earn rewards and recognition, you could be accused of playing favorites.

Let your customers define “outstanding”
Here’s one way to eliminate any charge of favoritism when you reward outstanding help desk analysts: Let your customers pick the winners.

That’s how it works in a Florida hospital where TechRepublic member AnnaM provides level II support in an IS department of about 75 people. “We have a 24/7 help desk for all hospital employees,” AnnaM wrote.

“There are two exceptional help desk employees who are always being recognized for their assistance. These two ladies do not know any more (or any less) than anybody else at the help desk, but they have wonderful personalities. They are courteous, professional, and friendly at all times. They follow up on help desk calls with the person who reported the problem. They never have to be asked to provide follow-up. They go the extra mile—always.”

I asked AnnaM to explain the process by which these employees are recognized. She explained that the help desk manager has absolutely nothing to do with the selections.

“End users are encouraged to write letters of recognition about exceptional service they receive from any person in tech support. They send those letters to their managers. It’s the managers of the other business units who nominate someone on the help desk for an award.”

The manager passes out the awards at team meetings—small trophies customized with the recipient’s name and the date of the award. I asked AnnaM if she thought the other level I analysts resented the fact that two of their coworkers were singled out so frequently. She said she hoped not and told me which qualities she thought were most important in a successful help desk analyst.

“I don’t expect any help desk person to know all of the answers off the top of his/her head,” she said. “I do expect professionalism and follow-through.”

So if you’re looking for a surefire way to find out which of your help desk analysts are doing the best job of serving your customers, ask your customers.

Tips for rewarding teams and individuals
I proffer the following tried-and-true suggestions, figuring that most help desk managers have budgets that include quarterly or annual allocations for morale- and team-building activities. I hope you’ll find something in this list you can use to show your appreciation for your team.

  • Thank-you notes—I used to work for a company whose CEO would hand-write notes of appreciation for a job well done to employees in all departments. He used a very distinctive card—with his initials on the front—and most people pinned them to their bulletin boards as badges of honor. I know e-mail is easier, but if you have legible handwriting and a way with words, recognize outstanding performance by giving an employee a handwritten note of thanks.
  • Gift certificates—Can you expense an occasional $20 and charge it to miscellaneous costs or team-building activities? If so, a $20 gift certificate to a bookstore, music store, or restaurant makes a great gift when you want to reward a single act of tech-support-related heroism.
  • Go-home-early time—You aren’t going to get in trouble with the human relations department if you occasionally send someone home early with pay and without debiting their paid-time-off, sick time, or vacation hours. This small token of gratitude can mean the world to the help desk analyst who was up all night answering pages, doing remote access support from home, or driving in to the office to put out a cyberfire.
  • Help Desk Employee of the Quarter, Year—Accept nominations from all over the company or just within the help desk, if you prefer. Give the quarterly winners a certificate, a half-day off, and a free lunch at a nice restaurant. One of my wife’s former employers gave its employee of the year the certificate, the lunch, and an extra week’s vacation!
  • Donut daze and pizza panache—I daresay that nine out of 10 help desk teams would be forever grateful to the manager who sprang for a few dozen donuts or a pizza lunch once a month, or once every two weeks, or once a week…
  • Team outings—One of my favorite managers of all time is the one who took the team out to lunch, then to the ice cream shop, and then to the movies, where we got free tickets to any movie we wanted to see. Team trips to the bowling alley are always a hit. Here in the Louisville area, I worked for a manager who took his team to Churchill Downs (home of the Kentucky Derby) for lunch and a “statistical probability workshop.”

So what’s the bottom line here? Don’t be the cynical manager who says, “My people should be grateful they have jobs and paychecks. I’m not going to pamper them just for doing their jobs.” Be the manager who pampers the help desk team by finding clever ways to show appreciation for a job well done.

Give us your feedback

How do you reward your top performers? Share your advice by posting to the discussion below or write to Jeff.