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How to Help Your Help Desk

Almost all IT organizations have a Help Desk, and yet it always amazes me how many of those organizations think that the Help Desk has only one purpose: to help system users with problems. In fact the Help Desk also serves a second critical purpose: to tell you what your problems are so that you can adjust your training and buying accordingly.

Working in a help desk is very frustrating. It’s always hectic, everything is an emergency to the people who are calling you, and it seems like the same kinds of people ask the same questions over and over. Then to make matters worse, your managers make you waste time tracking your calls. How annoying!

Why Call Tracking is Important
But call tracking is key, even if you just use a low-cost paper system. That’s because the Pareto Principle – also called the 80-20 Rule – applies to Help Desk calls, and you have to track your calls to see your data. According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of the calls will be made by 20% of the people, and 80% of the calls (not the same 80%) will be about 20% of the problems. Focus on the 20% and solve the associated problems, and 80% of your volume will go away!

Call tracking is important because what you really want to do is to not just handle Help Desk calls but to reduce them, and the only way to reduce calls is to reduce or eliminate the problems that people are calling about. So if you track your calls and learn who is making the most calls and what people are calling about, then you can make improvements in your processes and systems to eliminate the need for those calls.

Let’s take an example. Maybe you find that most of your calls are about a confusing aspect of a new version of an application that you just started rolling out. Since you’re rolling out the new version over a period of months (please tell me you aren’t using a “big bang” approach and doing it for everyone at once), you can get in touch with the people doing the training for the new version (you are doing training, aren’t you?) and have them revise their training to cover the problem area. Or if it’s your own application then you can talk to the developers and get them to incorporate a cleaner way to handle the problem in their next software release.

In another example, let’s say that you find from your statistics that it’s a few people who are new to your company who are making the most calls. You might want to get in touch with them (and maybe their managers) to suggest additional training to make them feel more comfortable with what they’re doing. This will also help them cope with their problems without creating a dependency on the Help Desk.

Tips for Small IT Organizations
If you have a small IT organization then you may not have a separate group of people who work full-time at a Help Desk. That’s even more frustrating because every time you get a call, it takes someone away from project work. If you’re not careful then the Help Desk calls will overwhelm you and you’ll never have any effective time for making improvements in your IT.

Here are some suggestions for small IT organizations trying to cope with Help Desk problems:

  1. Try to keep your Help Desk resource separate from your project and maintenance resource. Even if the same people do both, you can maintain the separation by having an “On Call” person designated to take Help Desk calls at certain points in time. This helps the project people concentrate on projects and minimizes their disruption.
  2. Rotate people through the On Call slot so that the effort and pain are shared. This also gives the project and maintenance people some perspective on the problems that their customers have, and so it provides a better incentive for them to do projects and training that meet customer needs.
  3. Have the On Call person pull in project and maintenance people as needed, but try to do so only in an emergency. Otherwise the Help Desk will turn into a black hole, sucking in all of your IT resource.
  4. Track all your calls, even if you can’t afford fancy Help Desk problem-tracking software (a list of problems with tick marks beside them is better than nothing). It’s the only way that you’ll be able to do an 80-20 analysis and spot problem areas that you can address.

It’s tempting to outsource your Help Desk. But if you do, make sure that your outsourcing contract requires the outsourcing vendor to give you regular statistical reports on who’s making the calls and what the calls are about. Your goal should still be to reduce or eliminate the need for calls, and you can only do that by fixing the problems that cause people to call. You need Help Desk statistics to understand those problems.

The “Hidden Help Desk”
Watch out for the “Hidden Help Desk” that intercepts a lot of the calls before they reach the Help Desk. People with system problems often ask someone else in their office before making a call to the Help Desk. That takes some of the load off the Help Desk but it conceals a lot of problems that ought to be fixed. Find out who the office “Wizards” are who are doing informal duty as a Hidden Help Desk. Get to know these people and encourage them to tell you about problems that they hear again and again. By fixing the problems you’ll make these people your friends and you’ll probably reduce the need for calls to the official Help Desk.

A Help Desk isn’t just a necessary expense – it’s a valuable source of information about your systems and the way that people are using them. Take advantage of the information and you’ll have happier users, a better reputation for your IT organization and ultimately lower Help Desk cost. Be kind to the people working on your Help Desk; they’re fighting on the front lines in the battle for better IT. And they’re likely to know whether you’re winning or losing the battle long before you do.

Related Postings and Articles:

And here’s a book on the 80/20 rule that I recommend:

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