It is regrettable but true that the helpdesk might be the most influential contact your customers and partners have with your business. This means that your brand, image and brand values are diminished or reinforced according to how one person handles incoming e-mails and telephone calls. If they are dismissive, rude or arrogant, your entire marketing and communications budget might just as well be thrown down the drain.
The potential for casual but devastating damage is huge, yet helpdesk operatives are often given scant training or preparation. What's more, helpdesk staff also have the opportunity to develop more sales, switch-sell and promote, and enhance the firm's image. Yet few take a proactive tack, dealing only with enquiries without taking any initiative.
The reason is partly that the helpdesk is rarely given the prestige it deserves, and this often results in second-rate people being recruited to do the job.
Sarah Hooker, lecturer consultant specialising in relationship management skills with Pink Elephant, says often technical skills are given priority in recruitment, when communications and people management skills are more important.
"You need operatives with customer service focus. Technical skills can be learned but it can be difficult to instill interpersonal skills in people to whom it doesn't come naturally," she says.
Helpdesk workers are often low-paid, which does not help create their professionalism or improve the general standard of recruits.
Few helpdesk operatives are taught to take responsibility for the customer's problem. Nicky Doherty services enterprise accounts at Remedy Corporation, says helpdesk workers too often have an "it's not my fault but I'll do what I can" approach. "The attitude should be one of customer advocacy, of taking the problem away from the customer and resolving it thoroughly and fast," she says. "Customers should feel part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Helpdesk workers should expect callers to be irate, irrational and wanting to blame others for their troubles. "Operatives should be trained in how to deal with difficult customers before they start. No one is phoning a helpdesk in a good mood for a chat. All the calls are from people who are frustrated and angry, and particular techniques should be used to calm and de-stress," says Hooker.
"The operatives' training should include listening and questioning techniques, and body language, even if there is no face-to-face contact," she adds. Even on the telephone a smile can come across because it changes the sound of the voice.
The smile on the telephone also has a psychological effect on the operatives, although they should not become too effusive in case this communicates a lack of respect for the seriousness of the situation. "There is a way to communicate which is sympathetic, earnest and upbeat without losing a sense of being professional," says Darrell Riddell, marketing manager with Synstar, which offers a helpdesk to its customers.
"Agents should treat each fault or problem with empathy. The problem should be clearly identified as quickly as possible and the client must not be fobbed off with an ineffective response or platitudes," he adds.
Sometimes the caller understands the problem better than the agent, and the agent needs only to record the details, not tell the caller what they think the resolution should be. "Customers should always be kept informed of progress, which may mean the operative calling back several times, even if it is to say that there is no news to report. Customers appreciate being kept in touch," says Riddell.
He advocates the use of electronic automated help whenever possible. "A Web site with frequently asked questions can help relieve the helpdesk of the pressure of problems which don't really need their intervention," he says. "This frees them up for higher-level work and gives them greater job satisfaction."
The challenge for helpdesk operatives is to stay calm in the face of great provocation. An irate customer, particularly at the end of a bad day, can provoke an unprofessional response.
"A helpdesk should not be expected to endure outright abuse," says Riddell. "But quick escalation up the hierarchy to more senior support staff will usually calm the worst callers."
It is easy to advise support staff to remain calm, especially when callers are being unreasonable and offensive, but not rising to the bait is the best way to get to a conclusion and be able to end the call to everyone's satisfaction.
"When a difficult call is over, it is helpful if the agent is allowed to talk it through, partly so that they are reassured and counselled, and partly to establish whether there was something that could have been done better," says Riddell.
Continual (and continuous if possible) effectiveness checks should be maintained. At Synstar they use mystery shoppers or incognito testers. Riddell says, "The operative should receive regular training and retraining, guided by the mystery shopper calls and the trainer listening in to live calls to see how they could be improved." Synstar's agents are measured against basic response criteria.
nDid the agent open the call correctly, respond appropriately and identify who the caller was and what the problem was with courtesy and efficiency?
Riddell says, "Over and above those points we also measure the pronunciation, volume and pauses used by the agent, their manners and overall attitude to the client. And we constantly reiterate to the agents that they represent the company, that any casualness can damage the whole enterprise, and that this is a sales as well as a support opportunity.
By making the helpdesk agents aware of the importance of their role, they take it more seriously and responsibly."
Riddell agrees that new technologies should be integrated into the helpdesk whenever possible, but says that a human being will always want to talk to another human being.
"The day that stops being the case the Samaritans will be replaced by Web-enabled, CTI-monitored robots - heaven help us."
Colm Maguire of Irish call centre Stream International says the effectiveness of any helpdesk lies in the effectiveness of the training. "Technical training is straightforward but interaction skills are more subtle. We provide people with cue cards to help them open the call and encourage agents to use customers' names as this helps build relationships.
"We encourage them to question, listen and paraphrase. We give them the scripts and verbal devices to put people at their ease and get to the root of the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible. We give negotiation and instruction skills, aiming to ensure that customers receive clear information and are left happy with the helpdesk service.
"We train people in how to close a call with charm, tact and efficiency. We give them the skills to handle troublesome and difficult callers. They learn how to respond to certain classic angry remarks. Stream uses psychological judo, in which a caller's aggression is redirected back towards them in subtle ways. Stream's agents are also made aware that they are part of a team, which has a big impact on their morale."
A well-trained agent is a good investment, says Maguire. "Agents continue to receive ongoing coaching, and they know that they are vital to the success of the organisation."
Re-motivating helpdesk operators
Helpdesks are traditionally telephone-based, but increasing emphasis is being placed on electronic support, underpinned with telephone contact. Bruno Teuber, managing director Europe of Motive Communications, which seeks to ensure companies develop effective helpdesks, says that a recent Datamonitor study showed e-tailers lost more than $6.1bn (£4.1bn) in online sales last year by failing to provide adequate online customer service and support. Teuber adds, "We specialise in providing inband support so that online customers don't have to leave the application or pick up the phone to obtain help. This reduces the rate of transaction abandonment, with obvious consequences for online buying levels."
Motive was recently called in by US giant KMart to make its helpdesk more effective and efficient. "KMart's helpdesk was stretched across more than 300 applications and more than 7,000 end-users. The helpdesk team was discouraged and demoralised; recruitment was difficult; end-users were frequently on hold and unhappy with the service they were receiving; and the director of KMart's computer services department felt that she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. In less than six weeks we developed a tailored Web portal deployed to all 7,000 users and 24 analysts. In the first two weeks after implementation, 2,200 users used the self-service facility and 400 used the assisted-service facility," explains Teuber.
"I believe that the best way to help the helpdesk is to restructure the way the operatives work in line with the new economy and technology, to meet today's expectations. Why can't the operatives reply using an automated response to the most common problems, reducing pressure on them and leaving them to get on with the more serious failures. For tricky problems, they should be able to access the caller's system remotely. A helpdesk should enable the callers to solve their own problems automatically and not inflict long, frustrating and unnecessary holding delays on customers or operatives."
Teuber sees the telephone as possibly the worst link in the helpdesk chain. "It makes the interaction between caller and operative strained even before they've begun to discuss the problem. If the caller is able to link up electronically and resolve their own problem, the benefits are immediate, enormous and obvious," he says.
Hints and tips for helpdesk staff
What helpdesk bosses say