Tips for Staffing a Help Desk (Help Desk, Part 4)

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (13-Nov-2006)

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If you want a cat, get a cat. Don't buy an iguana and try to force it to meow.

It's not easy getting people to change their negative habits and instincts—especially if they're unwilling, or unable, to do so. Potential help desk agents (HDAs) without basic customer service skills—emotional intelligence, communication skills, patience, flexibility, and empathy—are not always the best candidates to work in a front line service department even if they have strong technical abilities.

There's a wealth of technical ability on the job market, but when it comes to staffing a help desk, candidates must be equally adept at both the technical skills and customer relations. In much the same way that HDAs need to look beyond technology when dealing with users, help desk managers need to look beyond the technical qualifications on a resume when interviewing candidates.

Staffing a Help Desk

The success of a help desk must be measured by more than the number of completed service tickets. While that's the easiest to quantify, it's not the only factor at play. User satisfaction, although much harder to measure, deserves equal weight.

HDAs could fix a technical problem but leave users perplexed, frustrated, or angered. Even though the technical problem was fixed, would you really consider this a successful interaction?

The best way to ensure a high level of user satisfaction is to hire the right people, with the right attitude and temperament, to work in the help desk. Users expect technical problems to be solved by HDAs as a matter of fact, but they will appreciate the conscientious and friendly manner in which they do it. This will help create a positive relationship between the help desk and the workers.

Sometimes it's better to hire a novice or intermediate IT person with outstanding people skills—and then providing advanced technical training --than to hire an expert IT person with a surly disposition who can't be bothered to take the time to explain things to users. Teaching technical skills is much easier than "re-socializing" those who aren't naturally people people. Donna Earl, whom I interviewed in the first part of this series, put it best in her article Hire the Best for Your Help Desk: "Hire the behavior you want, train the skill."

Effects of An Ill-Staffed Help Desk

The performance—in terms of technical problem resolution and customer service—of a corporate help desk is directly related to how users perceive the help desk. An unsatisfied user-base will have negative opinions of the help desk if HDAs don't take time to interact with users in any meaningful way—even if most problems are solved at the technical level.

Hiring the wrong people can end up ruining the reputation of the entire help desk. A single ill-tempered HDA will have a negative impact on the rest of the team. This will end up being a case of a minority undoing the hard-fought efforts of a majority.

Encounters with a difficult help desk possessing poor customer service skills may eventually cause users to become reluctant to report their problems, believing that it's better to live with the problem than to have to deal with the hassle of calling the desk. These problems can slow users down and result in lost productivity. This will lead to a decrease in the number of calls to the help desk, or worse, an angry mob protesting its ineffectiveness. Senior management—those who write HDAs' paychecks—might view the help desk as an unnecessary financial millstone and eventually decide to outsource the technical support operation entirely.

Tips for Interviewers

Hiring for a help desk is a fine art. While a resume will list candidates' ability to bend bytes and tinker with the nuts and bolts, it tells managers little about their ability to interact with users.

Managers need to get an impression of candidates' people skills by the way they speak and carry themselves in an interview—which isn't always indicative of a candidate's true personality since most people put on their "game face" during interviews.

Here are a few things managers can do to protect the integrity of their help desk when hiring, and working with, new HDAs:

Closing Thoughts

Technical skills can be bought; the ability to interact with users in a human way can't. Hire the people with the right temperament for the job, and train for the rest. Help desk training must include both technical skills and customer service skills. It's vital that we shift the focus from technical support to user support. After all it's not technology we're supporting, it's the people using the technology.

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.