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Support! Support! My Kingdom for Support!

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (18-Jan-2006)

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For some computer users, contacting a technical support help desk is an exercise in frustration. Despite the complete lack of any formal martial arts training, these experiences usually end up with them putting their heads through the monitor of their PC. And the gravity of the situation is punctuated not by the focused and disciplined cry of a karate "hai-ya!," but rather with a loud expletive about someone's mother.

We hear and read a lot about the need for post-purchase customer service and support for retail IT products, but we rarely stop to consider the need for quality internal, corporate end-user support. Unlike software packages with a central focus—anti-virus solutions, office productivity suites, graphic design tools—multi-discipline and multi-module corporate systems such as ERPs and intranets involve so many different groups that it becomes difficult for a centralized help desk to provide all the necessary answers to users' problems.

The diversity of these types of corporate-wide solutions adds an extra layer of complexity to running an internal help desk because it forces the help desk personnel to be Jack-of-all-trades troubleshooters. Although users are supported by their immediate intranet sub-site representatives when it comes to issues of system functionality, bug fixes, and feature additions, who do they call for immediate technical assistance? And how does IT provide support for multi-disciplinary systems like corporate intranets?


Getting to Know You

I've dealt with many technical support personnel over the years; sometimes on behalf of clients, sometimes for myself, and sometimes to satisfy my journalistic curiosity. One thing I've noticed, to the surprise of no one, is that there's a wide divergence in the quality of this support, which ranges from amazingly impressive to downright comical. Unfortunately, to the frustration of technology users, the trend seems to be gravitating towards the latter.

If users actually manage to survive the 30-minute on-hold Muzak montage of '80s easy listening tunes and reach a live technician, they're either told to take a scorched-earth approach or are transferred to someone else—and eventually disconnected by "accident." Taking examples from my own experience, many of my clients who contacted their PC manufacturer with problems were often told to completely reformat their PC when a simple rollback to a system restore point would have solved the problem.

The majority of front-line support is not meant to solve complex problems. Front-line help desk technicians are often only able to address basic issues such as software installation problems or answering functionality questions. Their troubleshooting procedures involve little more than looking up their company's knowledge base. If users have more complicated problems requiring some real digging they will have to pay big time for it. But this is the reality of technical support. Companies can't afford to keep specialized technicians as front-line support.

Internal, corporate help desks operate in much the same manner but, unlike commercial customer service, a relationship often forms between users and technicians because of proximity; both parties work in the same organization and the help desk's active roster is usually the same few technicians. This can prove to be both beneficial and impractical.

It definitely helps ease user anxiety—especially in those who are not too technically inclined—when they deal with a technician with whom they're familiar and have a positive history. But this might result in users bypassing official help desk procedures in order to directly contact a particular technician, creating an unbalanced workload for some. The answer to this is to provide multiple avenues of support, and to create a more structured approach to corporate help desks.


End-User Support Methods

Most small organizations don't have much need for a formal internal help desk; they probably can't afford to staff a full-time help desk anyway. Support is usually obtained directly from software makers (in the case of commercial software) or from developers (in the case of in-house software). Large organizations with employees in the thousands, however, need to maintain a technical support help desk to handle user-side problems with:

Corporate end-user support and resources come in many different forms. The effectiveness of each depends on users' own technical expertise and self-sufficiency, their state of mind and ability to focus during a problem, and their access to troubleshooting resources. Technology experts with a high level of self-reliance such as engineers, for example, will most likely be able to analyze a problem and determine what needs to be done to fix it by relying on their own expertise or reading through documentation. They're perfectly comfortable handling technology related problems on their own and are only limited in their ability to troubleshoot by the access restrictions imposed by IT (IT administrators need to restrict which users, regardless of their technical proficiency, are able to do in order to prevent trial-and-error problem solving that can worsening the problem).

Since technology is a source of stress for many users, those who are less technically inclined or are easily flustered with technology often prefer live support. In these cases, a user's state of mind can prevent them from thinking clearly, diminishing their problem solving abilities. Trying to focus on lengthy written troubleshooting documentation will be next to impossible. They need interaction with a live and objective person to take them out of their current situation.

Examples of Common End-User Support Types
Live - Synchronous Live - Asynchronous Canned

Telephone

Online Chat/IM

Remote access

In person

E-mail

Discussion groups

Web site

FAQs

Documentation


Taking a Structured Approach

The size of a help desk varies depending on the size of the organization, its IT infrastructure and systems, and its user base. Large organizations typically have multiple levels of support: first-level support staff to run the help desk phones (or chat/IM lines) and to solve basic problems; and a specialized second-level support staff to handle field calls and more complicated problems. Help desk managers might assign specific systems and disciplines to these level-two specialists so no single technician will be overtaxed

This is an ideal solution for multi-departmental systems such as intranets, since the help desk acts as a buffer between the users and all the various intranet team members. Rather than forcing users to call different people for different problems (sometimes they won't even know who the right person to call is), a centralized help desk can act as a triage station and direct all incoming requests to the appropriate people.

The help desk can be trained to handle the most common intranet problems so that intranet developers aren't bogged down by numerous minor problems. If the help desk is unable to handle the request, they can contact one of the intranet team members and follow-through with the user, or the intranet team member can contact the user directly.

Below is an example of an internal, corporate help desk structure:

Example Help Desk Flow
  1. A user has a problem with a system and calls the the help desk (staffed with first-level support technicians).
  2. The first-level support technician generates a service ticket containing details of the user making the request and the problem they're experiencing using help desk software such as HelpSTAR, Remedy, or ServiceCenter (these tools are used to manage user requests, prioritize service calls, coordinate personnel assignments, and generate service tickets).
  3. The first-level support technician will try to solve the problem with the user over the phone (or chat/IM line). This can be done by having the technician walk the user through several troubleshooting procedures or by taking control of the user's PC with remote-control software. The latter is very useful for organizations who need to support employees in satellite locations that don't have on-site support.
  4. If the first-level support technician is able to solve to problem on the spot, the service ticket is updated with the details of what was done. The service ticket is then closed; no more action is required.
  5. If the first-level support technician is unable to solve the problem or requires a technician to be dispatched to the user's location, the ticket is escalated to second-level support staff. At this point—depending on the structure and software employed by the help desk—a triage or queue manager usually assigns service tickets (based on priority and severity of the problem) to specialized second-level technicians who are more familiar with the system in question.
  6. The second-level technician will try to solve the problem with the user over the telephone, by making a field call, or by using remote-control software.
  7. If the problem is solved, the ticket is updated and closed. If not, the second-level technician will either see it through to completion or send it back to the queue for reassignment to another technician.
Cardinal Help Desk Rules

Be natural: Too many technical support personnel try to act like they're air traffic controllers landing a fleet of airplanes. They do this most likely to sound more official, but users respond much better to friendliness than formality. Dealing with users on a casual, yet still professional, manner will get a much better response.

Be prompt and efficient: Try to solve all problems in an expeditious manner. If users have to wait a long time to have a problem solved, they will think they're being ignored and lose faith in the help desk. If there's a high volume of requests, inform users of their position in the queue so that they will know approximately how long they have to wait.

Follow through: Whenever possible, the same technician should see a problem through to resolution. If the original technician assigned to a problem needs to ask for help from another technician, they should do so behind-the-scenes so that users will always be in contact with the same technician.


Closing Thoughts

Regardless of the support structure and technology used to manage calls and requests, it's still basically one person trying to help out another. Help desk managers need to make sure that a high-tech help desk isn't marred by technicians with poor interpersonal skills and unpleasant demeanors. While poor commercial customer service reflects negatively on the product (since support is increasingly seen as part of the product), poor system support in a corporate environment reflects on the quality of the staff providing that support.

Inadequate user support can end up becoming a catalyst for system failure, affecting the longevity of the systems the help desk is meant to support. When a help desk becomes a millstone for users, they will eventually stop calling (based on their own negative experiences or word-of-mouth from other users). Minor system problems will then accumulate and snowball. When this happens, the system will no longer be in the hands of the help desk to fix; it will need to be sent back to the developers—and then it won't be the users who are putting their heads through a monitor.


Copyright © 2006 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.