A problem shared: help desk support

The software supplier's support person was quietly handling a system upgrade in the corner when the screaming started. A raised voice became louder and increasingly aggressive until it reached full volume, at which point it was punctuated by the sound of a monitor crashing to the floor.

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The software supplier's support person was quietly handling a system upgrade in the corner when the screaming started. A raised voice became louder and increasingly aggressive until it reached full volume, at which point it was punctuated by the sound of a monitor crashing to the floor.

Such is life for IT support staff in some trading environments, where already aggressive users under intense pressure are driven to extreme actions when their systems fail.

So relates Simon Nugent, general manager of helpdesk software supplier Infra, who says his staff have seen it all. "The support person jumped up and thought 'my god, what is going on here?' but the helpdesk guys were used to it," he says. "Someone had a crash and lost the trade, and that can cost them millions."

Managing an IT helpdesk is never easy. Generally, helpdesk staff must deal with all types of query: from the technology neophyte who doesn't know how to turn on a PC, all the way through to the would-be hacker who thinks he knows it all - until he deletes a registry setting and has to call in a support person to fix it.

Helpdesks facing such challenges can easily gain a bad reputation. If response times dip below a certain threshold or if helpdesk staff find themselves unable to resolve a certain number of problems, the system can easily decay into chaos.

If people lose confidence in the helpdesk, they may try to find their own solutions, or appoint a departmental "expert" who did IT at school. That can lead to inflated IT support and management costs, and can also damage the image of the IT function within the business at a time when management disillusionment and flattened budgets mean that corporate computing departments need all the friends they can get.

One of the most common mistakes that IT departments make when creating helpdesks is not to have a clear understanding of the business, warns Pat Bolger, sales director at helpdesk software supplier Hornbill Systems. "A classic example is an accounts or HR and payroll department. A problem that those guys report at the start of the month may be minor as far as the impact on them is concerned," he says. "But that same problem could have a major effect at the end of the month in the middle of a paycheck run."

This lack of business knowledge can be a particular problem when outsourcing your helpdesk to a third-party provider. It caused headaches for Darren Ward, IS service delivery manager for English, Welsh and Scottish Railways, which operates freight rail services across the three regions. The company had outsourced its helpdesk but was experiencing a very low fix rate. It brought the helpdesk back in-house after deciding that workers within the railway sector experiencing IT problems could be best served by people who understood the industry.

"It is a 24x7 business. There are not many comparable industries," says Ward, adding that the outsourcing provider supplied different tiers of service - specialist staff were available during peak hours, with more general support staff working during out-of-hours periods.

The problem was that there are no out-of-hours periods in rail freight, which meant that employees calling the helpdesk with queries about certain applications at the wrong time would be unlikely to get a quick resolution. "It really necessitates a detailed understanding of how the rail infrastructure is actually run, and the more in tune the IT department can be with that, the better the service will be to the business," he says.

One of the other issues with the outsourced helpdesk service was a lack of formal processes, says Ward. "There was a general feeling of an ad hoc nature. Incidents were fixed, but no one could put their finger on why or how they were fixed," he recalls.

To reverse this trend, EWS Railways used the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a set of documents outlining processes for IT service management developed by the Office of Government Commerce. ITIL, which was extensively revised in 2000, offers eight core titles, including security management, service and support and IT infrastructure management.

The company, which used Unicenter management tools from Computer Associates, also focused heavily on asset management as an underlying tool to help provide helpdesk services.

Understanding the equipment that employees are using is a crucial part of servicing that equipment, and EWS Railways was in the special position of being able to replace its whole IT infrastructure from the servers downwards. It is putting Computer Associates client-side agents into every new system and is using Unicentre's Autodiscovery tools for legacy equipment that is in the process of being replaced.

Another benefit of running the EWS Railways helpdesk in-house is that Ward has better visibility of the numbers and types of incidents arising within the organisation. This is an important step towards refining ongoing service, especially self-service mechanisms.

Self-service support appeals to Paul Copley, team head of the customer information centre at electronics supplier Sharp. He uses Hornbill's Supportworks helpdesk software to manage his customer-facing helpdesk, which includes a knowledge base created using the software.

"We are trying to drive for self-service for the customer. One reason is to make it more cost-effective for Sharp, but the other reason is that if we can provide it immediately for the customer, they are sorted," says Copley, who points out that the company does not staff the phones on a 24x7 basis. Putting a knowledge base in place helped to reduce the helpdesk's incoming e-mail traffic by 45% compared to 2001, when it used its previous helpdesk software, which did not include a knowledge base facility.

On the other hand, self-service has to be treated with care, warns Max Staines, president of Compass Management Consulting's North American operations. "A cynical person could look at it as abdication of responsibility. In a well-functioning corporate IT business relationship, the business owners are part of that decision," he says.

"That does not always happen - the IT group is keenly interested in reducing costs and this can often take a unilateral approach." Taking self-service too far will frustrate users, whereas emphasising the most common, simple problems can make it a helpful problem resolution tool for end-users while taking some of the pressure away from helpdesk staff.

Staff represent a critical point of failure that can be overlooked on many helpdesks. Craig Parry, training officer for the Wales & West Midlands region in the Defence Communications Services Agency, Directorate of Information Services Delivery, focused heavily on improving staff expertise and morale. He wanted to help build a better image for the newly merged helpdesk operations for two agencies - the Defence Procurement Agency and the Warships Support Agency, which is part of the Defence Logistics Organisation.

Training firm QA put together a custom course to train helpdesk staff in the Microsoft certified desktop support technician qualification. The MoD also certified staff in the  supplier-independent A+ IT support qualification.

"Helpdesks have typically had a high turnover. A lot of people come into the helpdesk as a stepping stone and often do not stay for the two years we envisage them staying," says Parry, who adds that the training is making a difference in the stability and capability of the helpdesk workforce. "It has made our people more versatile. So they are able to help out and troubleshoot a bit more in other teams, should the need arise."

Such training is crucial if your helpdesk is to become more than a call centre in which front line staff do little more than log and forward queries.

Integrating your helpdesk software with other tools such as asset registries is therefore only one part of the solution. Getting to the point where you can offer guaranteed response times and increase your problem resolution rate involves a mixture of well- defined processes and well-trained people.

Ideally, using data from the helpdesk to help identify commonly recurring problems can enable a company to create a positive feedback loop allowing it to take preventative action, either by feeding solutions into a knowledge base or FAQ,, or preferably by targeting the problem with user training or by modifying system builds.

Once you get to that stage, you can finally begin branding your helpdesk as a service within the company, perhaps putting its telephone number or URL on items such as coffee cups and mouse mats. If you build it (and run it properly), they will come.

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