Help Desks…so why can’t we get help?

So why it is that today the helpdesk is derided almost universally, by the people they are there to help? Why that is the help desk has been renamed in many organizations as the ‘helpless desk’. Is the culprit the design of the help desk, the management, the tools deployed or is just that the users are beyond any form of help? To answer these questions we first need to review and understand the function, design, and management that are elements of any help desk.

According to PCMag a help desk is defined as “A source of technical support for hardware or software. Help desks are staffed by people who can either solve the problem directly or forward the problem to someone else. Help desk software provides the means to log in problems and track them until solved. It also provides the management information regarding support activities.” That sounds simple enough, but as with most things the devil is in the details. Users in most organizations will have 25 or more different software applications on their desktop, other software on their laptop and others yet on their pda. These applications include both company provided and user provided applications. IN addition to the software, they may have a desktop, laptop, pda, printer, scanner and network connections, wired and wireless. As you can see it very quickly becomes a very complicated mash of files, applications, hardware and network elements. Keep the users running is the role of the helpdesk.

IT is the owner of all company sponsored applications, as well as the provider of the network connectivity and hardware, so it is left to IT to manage the help desk and make it as efficient as possible. Of course to the uninitiated this sound fairly straight forward; IT knows the applications, hardware, software and networks after all they selected, purchased, configured and installed each of these elements. In addition the IT group has developed a process to manage help desk inquiries that generally runs as illustrated in the graphic below.

(insert link diagram)

A nice linear process. This is way a help desk is intended to work. Make a request, send it to dispatch, it is assigned a case or ticket number, entered in the queue, dispatch assigns a rep to investigate and respond (fix) the problem and once fixed the case (or ticket) is closed.

Of course few things in life actually work as they were originally designed to. This is certainly true of help desks. Even with the experts who know the technology, its configuration and who are equipped with a logical and straightforward management process, help desks are often hopelessly doomed. Why you may ask? Well with the focus on technology; hardware/software, networks and process one critical element has been omitted, People.

Remember to old adage “to err is human, to really mess things up requires a computer”? We I would suggest that today the inverse is closer to the truth…internet viruses notwithstanding. People and specifically the users tend to be the single largest cause of issues requiring help desk support. Now let me be clear people cause most problems, but they do so often in such ways that we do not see ourselves as the culprit when we have a problem. Let me give you an example, Bob contacts the help desk because one of his Microsoft programs crashed and now will not boot up. He has tried rebooting his pc and has closed all other windows. Bob is in a panic, he needs to get a report done and that can’t happen if he can’t get the software to load. The help desk responds and even they are stumped at first and need to research the problem. The map all of the programs and applications on Bob’s pc. They review all of the files within those applications and finally the ah ha moment. There are two programs that employ a file called “abcd.dll” one in his Microsoft application and one in that new golf game software Bob recently installed to provide some entertainment on those long flights he is required to take. Bob in his haste to install his new game, did what we all do when going through a similar process we click ‘yes’ to any and all ‘replace file x with newer file x’ queries and in doing so Bob replaced the file that was needed to boot his MS file with a snazzy new that works great for golf,, but so good with Word.

We are all Bobs’, we all have software application, instant messaging, media players, sound players, games and other goodies on our machines that IT not only doesn’t know about, but that they have experience troubleshooting. The result is longer time to research and repair a help desk request. But besides the software we have installed we can create other problems…the virus the came when we opened that joke, the synchronization software for the pda we got for our birthday, the new business card scanner we purchased as an efficiency tool (not knowing we could actually crash the mail server). Face it people are the problem, not intentionally, but we are just the same. People do not view a pc as tool to just do spreadsheet, report writing and presentation preparation and to access the company CRM database, but rather we view computers as tools that can do thousands of wonderful and entertaining thing to inform and entertain us besides doing all of those functions and tasks that IT has designed and equipped them to do. In developing specifications and configurations for our pcs and networks etc. the IT group will ensure that we have compatibility and that the systems will function as designed…but they can’t even imaging all of the other things we will try to do with our machines.

So all the havoc wreaked by you and I and Bob has an impact on the help desk. They receive more cases and tickets needing attention than forecast, with more requiring research in order to fix. All the while the user is popping blood vessels wondering how they will get the report to the VP by 2pm. The net result of this becomes longer delays in the help desk queue and a general feeling amongst users that the help desk isn’t very helpful. So faced with a 2 pm deadline and the belief that the help desk isn’t very helpful, what is a manager to do? What we always do in times of challenge and crisis, we innovate. Remember that neat and tidy linear process we reviewed above? The one that sets out the process of managing a help desk case? Well enterprising users can turn that on its ear very quickly. Have a look at the graphic below which is actually far more accurate of most help desks.

(insert Quick Fix link diagram)

Being innovative we all understand the concept of work-arounds, but in relation to our help desks many of us have become masters of this. We have cultivated relationships with the helpdesk reps individually just so we can by pass the dispatch and queue steps to speed our fix. We discover the secret queue email address and naming convention and try to jam a bogus case into the queue, we butter up the folks who dispatch to seek preferential treatment, we call our buddy asking for 5 minutes on the phone to see if we can get a quick fix and bypass the whole ugly process. This whole process is often greased by glad-handing, feigned friendship and doughnuts for the Help desk staff. Of course some help desk staff will try against all logic to actually follow the process they have been instructed to do and forward a work-around request back to dispatch where it gets entered into the queue much later than it originally would have ( I guess we know who didn’t get the doughnuts). While much of the above is ‘tongue in cheek’, the activities and work arounds are not.

Now try designing an effective help desk with people who are always and with little if any consideration of the consequences adding ‘stuff’ onto their computers and a process that often doomed to work-arounds. A daunting task isn’t it? Daunting yes, impossible no. To get a handle on your help desk operation you need to get a handle on the primary cause of help desk cases…people. In practice it makes little sense to try to get people to stop adding stuff, because it is unlikely to work. A better approach is to look at what people do add and determine which ones (there is a multitude of choice for most of the add ons we install) and determine the ones that are least likely to cause problems and share this with the users. This sharing process is one of education, there likely will be applications that you will forbid text chat and Voip are two of the most common banned applications, but tell them why; security, hackers, viruses etc. Train your people to ask before they install and not to mindlessly click yes to everything. This should be part of your staff induction training and part of the process whenever anyone gets a new or upgraded machine. This will reduce demand for the help desk are reduce the average time to repair, thereby reducing the queue.

Once you have you people and their pc’s under control, or as much control as we can reasonably expect next we need to turn our eye to our help desk staff. Doughnuts aren’t good for us anyway so work with your staff to follow the process and be rigorous about it. Set up measures and reports on each of the staff: track mean time to repair, review their tickets/cases and determine what percentage followed the process and call them on it. Of course the senior VP may still get preferred treatment from time to time, but the overall incidence and use of work-arounds and back doors will diminish. This will of course further improve the through put of the help desk and improve their responsiveness both actual and perceived.

The truth of the matter is that most help desk challenges and those that lead us to label the help desk, the helpless desk have much, much less to do with technology and much more to do with people, both within and outside of the help desk.

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