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The Toughest Job In IT.

June, 2011

Help It's the one phone call every one of us has dreaded to make: The HelpDesk. Also known as "The No-HelpDesk" or "The Helpless Desk" one needn't be a hater to label the first level of IT support unappreciated; it is often despised. But as IT Leaders, we need to recognize that this is the toughest job in IT, and perhaps the most important.

Why is the lowest-paid position in your organization the most difficult and least appreciated? If you've been in this business for any length of time, you know that IT people tend to be highly-specialized: Network Engineers, .NET Programmers, or UNIX Admins. That's a privilege that the HelpDesk Agent doesn't have. They have to know a little bit about EVERYTHING. And not just the technologies and their associated architectures, but they have to understand their specific business applications. Accurate triage is perhaps the largest contributor to speed of resolution and a key activity of the problem management process. Triage is essentially an educated guess; what the agent thinks is the source of your problem. Guess right, dispatch the problem to right specialist, and service is restored quickly. Guess wrong, and the problem persists, the Customer (user) gets more frustrated, and perhaps most important, the cost of the problem increases. That's the bottom line (pun intended).

You see, the primary purpose of the problem management process is to reduce cost. There will always be problems (you've seen the bumper sticker), and problems cost money. Beyond the cost of resolving the problem, the productivity loss while a business process is idled due to a technology outage affects the operation of the business and perhaps its ability to generate revenue. Not good. So it's in your best interest to keep these costs to a minimum, and that's what makes the HelpDesk so important. To do it right, we need to understand the ingredients: people, tools, and process.

Let's start with the people. Of all the recruiting you do, I would encourage you to spend the most time and effort getting the right people for your HelpDesk. The HelpDesk can be a great incubator where you can grow your future Network Engineers, Server Admins, and Programmers, etc. What better place for them to learn your business broadly and foster loyalty? You promote from within and everybody wins. So what should you be looking for?

Make sure they have a broad and fundamental understanding of contemporary technologies. Fundamental, as in basic. They should understand that hard disks are magnetic, but they needn't understand the intricacies of NTFS. When you ask them, "What is the Internet?" they should tell you it's a network. They should be able to describe how a basic computer works, reading in instructions from program storage and executing them, servicing interrupts, etc. Find people that have a pleasing telephone presence. I am not normally sanguine to phone interviews, but here's a case where it's useful. Find people with infinite patience (nearly every person to whom they talk is likely to already be somewhat irritated), who smile constantly for no reason, and who aspire to grow into more specialized positions in your organization. Bring them in as eager college interns and retain them after graduation. Teach them your business by embedding them into its processes; from marketing to sales to accounts payable to Customer service.

Arm them with the tools they need to be effective. Effectiveness is measured by their ability to solve problems quickly. Remote Desktop, chat, etc. are all very cool tools. Don't handcuff them; make 'em all domain admins. YodaSarbanes-Oxley will allow it, so long as you document it and have a log or similar audit trail. Give them access to everything, including higher tiers of support personnel (don't allow your tier 2 and 3 people to hide from the HelpDesk). Knowledge management tools. An easy to use problem management system with histories. Train them to use them. There are things in life on which you just don't skimp (shoes, underwear, your mattress) and this is one of them. Someone wise once said, "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

Make it easy for your users to cooperate with the HelpDesk. After all, they're part of the problem management process. Every problem management process flowchart I've ever written starts with "User Detects Problem". Document your processes for call receipt, triage, dispatch, escalation, etc., and leverage statistical process control methods to continuously improve them. Make sure you have a process to detect and resolve "defects" in the environment, which are different from problems. Don't ask them to type their userID into the IVR and then ask them for it again when you answer the phone. Keep your ASA (average speed to answer) low (learn about Erlang), and your first-call resolution rate high. Put a second tier in the call center and make them roam the floor, assisting the front-liners on the phone. Remember that the only true measure of Customer delight comes directly from the Customer, so make sure you're asking them how you're doing. Remember the HelpDesk doesn't really fix problems, it fixes people. Big difference.

A world-class HelpDesk is one that is recognized by its Customers as providing exceptional service. Your Customers will recognize yours if you do one thing: get them back to work quickly. Focus on that, and you'll win the game.