Most helpdesks were dragged into existence reactively, in order to deal with problems. The reactive culture permeates their very being: they spend most of their time fire-fighting; they hire new staff only after the existing headcount has ceased to be able to cope with the workload - after the damage to user productivity has already been done.
The helpdesk needs to take control of the workload and the mechanisms for dealing with it.
- Examine your resources to find out what you are capable of delivering. Many desks are staffed to deal with a number of incoming user problems - but fixing computers is only part of it.
- Helpdesks typically have a range of services - call handling and problem solving are only two - don't forget configurations; installations; procurement; management reporting; user training; and self-training. All these draw on resources that must be measured otherwise the manager cannot judge if sufficient resource is committed to each service to be effective, and calculate the headcount necessary to keep the helpdesk properly staffed. Counting calls is not enough.
- The helpdesk must know its market. Identify your customers. Keep a database of who and where they are, what IT they use and why.
- Users measure you on whether their expectations were met, so tell them what to expect. Establish a service level agreement - publish your services and set client expectations.
- Have effective workflow management - an end-to-end process for anything the helpdesk does. Include call handling; prioritisation - what to do next, not just simplistic categories; problem escalation - managerial as well as technical; and job allocation. Know what goes where, why, when and who should be dealing with it.
- Don't just solve the technical problem. The true end is restoring the user to full productivity when it has been impeded by a failure in IT or its use. The helpdesk fixes productivity, not just broken computing.
- Find out where you can best deploy your resources to balance supply with demand. Reporting needs to be not just the traditional "What happened?" of period-end management reports, but also the "What is happening?" of decision support.
- Waiting for the phone to ring is no way to run a factory. Look for opportunities for proactivity. Don't let your life be ruled by what user enquiries drop out of the phone. Don't let the workload control you - as the service provider you should control the workload.
- Take charge of the communication channels between the helpdesk and its customers. The users call the helpdesk to report a problem with the computer that has been foisted on them by the IT department the helpdesk represents, so the default state of the helpdesk-user relationship is negative. Make it a positive one by communicating proactively. Helpdesk managers should not be invisible - get out there and mix. Add newsletters, a Web site, workshops, reports, and preventive support.
- Service measurement needs four interrelated metrics. Quantity shows how much of what we did; performance compares that to a target; quality assesses whether the customers liked what we did; and value calculates whether it made business sense to do it.
- So what if the performance targets say all calls should be fixed in four hours - without the value metric, we cannot know if that should be four days or four minutes.
- Never rest on your laurels. The world is always changing. New users with new business enterprises mean new needs and new expectations. The helpdesk must review itself and adapt regularly just to keep synchronised with its clientele.
Noel Bruton is a UK-based independent consultant to corporations on improving their IT support services. Practising since 1991, he has a global reputation for his knowledge about helpdesk improvement. The second edition of How to Manage the IT Helpdesk - A Guide for User Support and Call Centre Managers is published by Butterworth Heinemann, ISBN 07506 4901, price £29.99. www.bh.com/