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A Better Helpdesk Wed 19 Aug 09

Emphasize the customer's needs--not IT's--when you design technical support systems.

I've always believed that the quality of helpdesks and support technicians are the most important factors in shaping user perceptions of IT. Not the big application that you just rolled out saving the company big bucks, not the amount of money you've saved by consolidating your data centers and certainly not all of your promises of new systems and hardware yet to come.

Helpdesk_arycogreYour helpdesk and support technicians truly are your Directors of First Impression by which people judge your entire organization. If you can't fix my PC quickly or are rude and provide no status information on my problem, why should I think you can deliver on the expensive new application project?

And yet so often we set up our helpdesk and support technicians for failure. As Jessica Rabbit said, "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way." Likewise, our helpdesk and support technicians are not incompetent or uncaring, but the process we so often make them work with just makes them appear that way.

We so often strive to make our helpdesk efficient by only accepting work tickets by e-mail or through the Web. We want to avoid human contact as that simply bogs things down in our endless quest for efficiency.

Our helpdesk systems allow us to collect data, and sort and assign it by problems, incidents, enhancements and other myriad ways. The software sales people told us of all the wondrous ways we could analyze data to spot recurring problems and trends. We believe this fervently, yet rarely ever get around to doing the analysis.

Although efficiency and systems to track issues are great, they don't mean anything to our customers, who are only looking for a few simple things:

  • Customers want to know someone is working on their problem, or at least where it stands in the queue.
  • Customers want to know when their problem will be fixed,
  • Customers want periodic updates on the status of their issue.
  • Customers want you to live up to your commitments and at least let them know in advance when you cannot.

The best way to succeed is to design your systems and processes to meet these customer needs. After you've figured out how to do that, then add in the feature that IT needs to operate an efficient helpdesk.

If at all possible, let customers relay their problem over the phone to a live IT staffer. If nothing else, customers get the sense that someone is listening and that their problem won't just get lost in the "black hole" of the helpdesk system. If they submit a ticket by e-mail or the Web, you should respond quickly to acknowledge receipt of the issues. Try to avoid a completely canned response. Have someone review every ticket as it comes in (or within a reasonably short period), and then have the reviewers assign it to someone and then add an appropriate comment to the acknowledgment.

For example, the canned portion may say, "Thank you for submitting your trouble ticket. We will review it and get back to you shortly." It would also be great if you can personalize your response. For instance, "Jane, I've assigned your ticket to Roy, he will get back to you with more details within 24 hours. Thanks, Mike." This can go a long way toward customer satisfaction.

Periodic updates are critical, ideally, a weekly e-mail or phone call from the person who is responsible for resolving the issue. If you want to post updates online, make sure the posts are in plain language without all the IT jargon. If you want people to track their submitted tickets online, make it a simple system to use. For instance, don't make customers know whether their their issue is classified as a problem, an incident or a change. Those are distinctions that have no meaning for the user.

Finally, do whatever you can to live up to your commitments. If you can't, let people know as soon as possible. Nothing is more disappointing than to have the due date that the helpdesk committed to pass with no resolution and no word on what happened. People generally will be understanding if you communicate with them.

Once you've determined how to address these basic needs of your customers, then and only then, add in the features you need for efficiency, tracking and analysis. However, the overriding concept is that you cannot sacrifice the processes you've put in place to meet your customer's needs.

The key to operating a successful helpdesk is to keep in mind the needs of your customers and to not let the focus shift to your desires for automation and efficiency.

"helpdesk" photo by arycogre

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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