Some of you will read the title of this post and think to yourselves, “Ha! We don’t have the funds we need to hire enough ‘regular’ help desk personnel. There’s no way we can afford to hire a bunch of Microsoft Office experts to sit around waiting for people to call the help desk.” But hear me out.

Let’s follow the money

I think we can all agree that time is money, right? Then why do so many companies sit by doing nothing when they know their employees are wasting precious time and money during work hours?

And I’m not talking about wasting time surfing the ‘net.  I submit that the amount of time wasted on browsing Web pages pales compared to the amount time and money wasted by people who stare at screens for minutes and hours at a time trying to figure out how to complete mundane tasks using word processing, spreadsheet, database, or slide-show software.

Instead of ignoring the epidemic of under-trained Office Suite users in our workforces, we should aggressively and proactively do something about it.  I recommend either establishing a help desk team dedicated to supporting Office users, or adding “support Office applications” to the job descriptions of your existing help desk team.

The problem with training

Here’s the problem with Office application training: We don’t do it well, if we do it at all.  

  • In small companies, we can’t afford to send key players out of the office for training because the work won’t get done.
  • In large companies, we pay huge sums of money to send people to training, and the employees come back complaining that they didn’t learn anything, or that what they learned doesn’t apply to what they do in their jobs on a daily basis.
  • Sometimes on the feedback forms employees say they learned a lot in the training, but if they don’t or can’t immediately apply those skills in their work, they’ll forget what they learned.

The lack of training or inadequate training leaves our employees frustrated.  Frustrated employees are more likely to rely on their tired, old, inefficient ways of doing things instead of digging in and making themselves learn new, better, more efficient ways of getting things done.  “We managed to run this business for 20 years using pen and paper,” you’ll hear people say.  It’s a shame, because business isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago.  It’s not exactly survival of the fittest, but survival of the most efficient.

The expectation of competency 

Here’s something I hear a lot of business managers say:  “People are expected to know how to use Office when we hire them.  If they don’t know how to use a spreadsheet or format a document, they can buy a book and figure it out on their own time.”  I also hear managers say, “I don’t care whether my employees use a spreadsheet or a chisel and stone tablet, as long as I get the results I need.”  I sometimes laugh in the faces of the people who make such comments, as they must be living in a dream world. 

When we hire people, we train them how to use the phone system (“Dial 9 first to get an outside line.”) We teach them how to park calls, forward calls, and put calls on hold.  Imagine what would happen if we didn’t train them in phone basics: They’d stop and interrupt their coworkers to ask for help every time they needed to transfer a call. 

The same thing is happening with Office applications.  When people don’t know how to do something, they either interrupt someone else to ask for help (doubling the amount of time being wasted), or they lollygag around clicking here and typing there, trying to figure out what to do on their own.

Help desk to the rescue?

Here’s my question.  Why not give our employees the option of calling an “Office Help Desk” — or calling the Help Desk and asking for an Office Guru — so the employees don’t waste their time or a coworker’s time scrounging around for answers on their own?  If the Office analyst can’t walk the user through the process by phone, then remote-in to the machine and give the employee a demonstration while the problem is fresh on the employee’s mind.  Talk about targeted, focused, timely training and support! 

If the employee requires face-to-face contact, then let the Office Gurus go out to the employee’s desk and provide help and training.  That’s what we do when we troubleshoot and resolve “other” (non-Office) help desk issues, isn’t it?

Allow me to present a few examples

I will briefly explain why this is a hot topic for me right now.  I’m a “hallway Office guru.”  That is, my coworkers and the folks who are officially Help Desk employees where I work frequently call me to help answer questions or solve problems with Office applications.  Several times a year I teach Office suite classes to adult learners, people who work for non-profit companies in the roles of chief financial officers, directors, administrators, office assistants, and all positions in between. 

Here are some of the recent entries from my personal Help Desk log and questions from the classes.

  • A marketing director wanted to do a mail-merge. The source data was a spreadsheet of addresses exported out of an application with a SQL Server back end.  The problem was that the data wasn’t stored in a consistent case.  Some of it was ALL CAPS and some of it was Mixed Caps. (For those of you who care, there was no enforcement of “case” rules when the data was entered, because it came from people all over the country keying data in Web forms and Windows applications.)  “Is there a way to convert it all to mixed case?” the customer asked.  When I explained it would be easier to convert it all to uppercase with the UPPER() function, I got a blank stare. So I inserted a column and  copied the formula =UPPER(B2) down all the rows of data. The customer gleefully said “Oh I don’t need this any more!” and deleted the column with the source data, which of course yielded a column of #REF! errors.”  We un-did the deletion and I explained how to copy the formulas and convert them to literal values with Edit | Paste Special | Values.  “Now you can delete the old column,” I sighed.
  • I got a call about trying to recover a damaged Access database. What happened? Well, one of the report objects wouldn’t open, so I thought I’d fix it by converting it from Access 2000 format to Access 2003. “Holy hat rack, Batman,” I thought to myself.  What kind of lame “solution” was that?  (They ended up restoring a weeks-old backup copy and re-keying data. If they had called me first…well let’s just say converting the database to a different format would not have been my first solution.)
  • I was having lunch in a Chinese restaurant when I overheard someone complaining about a problem he was having formatting a Word document.  From what I could tell, he was tabbing to indent items in a numbered/outlined list, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out how to “go back” to the left margin. “I called the Help Desk,” he said, “but they didn’t have any idea what I was talking about.” Unable to resist the temptation to stick my nose in — I mean, to help a poor soul in need — I stopped by his table and said “Shift-Tab.”  “Huh?” I said “you’re probably pressing [Backspace] to go back to the left margin. Try [Shift-Tab] instead.” 

I’ve taught “advanced” Excel classes for executives in finance, people who use Excel on a daily basis, and been shocked to find out they don’t know how to convert calculated values to literals.  I teach the Format Painter in Word and Excel classes, and people fall out of their chairs.  They can’t believe how many YEARS they’ve been using the software and didn’t know about that handy little feature, and I can’t believe it, either.

One way or another, we have to do a better job of teaching our employees how to use Office applications.

How much do you support Office applications?

If your company already provides Office-specific help desk services, please post and tell us how you do it. What obstacles did you face, from company management or help desk analysts themselves? Have you been able to measure the success or failure of such services in lowering the incidence of Office-related calls and increasing Office skills in your work force?