Back to the floor: Bigwig survives helpdesk shift

When Graham Salmons learned that he was to spend a morning on his company's helpdesk, he went into shock. "I was terrified beyond the capacity for rational...

When Graham Salmons learned that he was to spend a morning on his company's helpdesk, he went into shock. "I was terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought," he says.

Salmons, former marketing director of Lexmark International, was the winner of IT industry charity event the Byte Night Helpdesk Challenge. Not that Salmons saw it as winning, "It is more like losing really," he says. "In fact, I thought it would never be me. Then they rang to say the contest was neck-and-neck and I thought 'oh no'.

"Fortunately, it was quite a quiet day on the desk and that gave me the chance to ask some questions. If it had been hectic, I'm not sure I would have survived."

Byte Night is a sponsored sleepout event, when top IT professionals spend a night sleeping rough for charity. On 22 September, 116 senior IT figures slept out in central London to raise money for NCH Action for Children, a charity that helps homeless youngsters.

Eight of the high-profile IT executives also volunteered for the Helpdesk Challenge, in which IT professionals voted for the bigwig who they most wanted to see work a shift on a helpdesk.

Computer Weekly editor Karl Schneider was one of volunteers for the Helpdesk Challenge. "Although it would have been interesting to spend the morning on our helpdesk, I have to admit that I was quite relieved not to have won," he says. "I think it is a fantastic event and it is good for the IT industry to be doing its bit for charity."

Like Schneider, Salmons says he took part in Byte Night because he wanted to put something back into the community. And he found spending a night on the streets a real eye-opener.

"The sleeping out wasn't 'rough' rough, but at about 1.30am we were sitting around chatting in our sleeping bags, when two drunk guys jumped over the fence and started talking to us. It was fine, but it made me think that when you're on the streets you really are at the mercy of other people and the elements," he says.

However, Salmons says the real tester for him was when D-day arrived and he joined the helpdesk team.

He spent the morning with the 70-strong technical team at Lexmark's new call centre in Buckinghamshire. Salmons used a Compaq Deskpro, working with Lexmark's bespoke Unix-based service management system Unimaint.

Even though his area of expertise is marketing, Salmons has worked in technical support before, so he had an idea of what he was in for and how to respond to callers.

"Last time I was on a helpdesk must have been at least 10 years ago when I was looking after problems on Inkjet printers,"he says. "I did run a technical support team for a while, but the last time I answered calls myself was when I travelled 100 miles to turn up the brightness on someone's screen."

According to Salmons, many of the skills needed to work on a helpdesk are the same as those required to work in marketing. "Obviously, a lot of the skills are transferable. You have to resolve problems and deal with people who are really frustrated. Being able to remain calm and reassure the customer is clearly very important."

Edward Moore, a second-level hardware specialist on the Lexmark helpdesk, agrees that people skills are vital, "When someone has bought a £5,000 printer and can't get it to work, you need to be able to empathise. You also have to be able to visualise their problem and what they are doing."

When it came to the end of his shift on the helpdesk, Salmons found that he had enjoyed it much more than he had expected. He has since left Lexmark to become the director of end-user marketing for 3Com Europe. "But it had nothing to do with having to do the helpdesk," he says.

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