by Ade McCormack

IT helpdesks could learn lessons from the medical profession

Mar 23, 2010
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMobile

Great strides have been made with respect to the service most IT functions offer. Users no longer have to ask for something and wait 24 hours for a printout. Today they get the service in colour and on a variety of increasingly convenient devices. We even have books, groups and frameworks that include the word ‘service’.

My sense though is that when we talk about service we are essentially saying ‘if it works be grateful’ or, in boardroom terms, ‘if you have not been sent to prison, be grateful’. Both of these are genuine measures of service, given the complexities of technology and its role in corporate governance.

That said, I believe that as an industry we still have some work to do on the service front. A quick trawl of Amazon did not reveal any IT books on ‘How to Wow the Users’ or ‘The Five Star IT Function’. Possibly we find this a little too touchy-feely or we are concerned that this is the first step down the slippery slope to customer hugs. In any case I believe we need to get our service act together as this is a key element of building trust with our users and a plank in moving IT’s importance from operational detail to strategic necessity. Let’s take a lesson from the medical profession. A technically good doctor with a bad bedside manner is a bad doctor in the eyes of the patient but a technically average doctor with a good bedside manner is the equivalent of a great doctor. In fact, the latter is much less likely to be sued if his/her advice leads to customer problems. This is a big lesson for us.

IT functions across the planet are investing heavily (where they can) in operational efficiencies within the IT function yet continue to under invest in the user touch points. In many respects we are building upmarket hotels with downmarket receptions… and then getting irritated when the users don’t appreciate the work we have done behind the scenes.

Why is it that we hide behind service desks that mark one end of a demilitarised zone, with users at the other end? We need to get personal and we need to focus less on operational efficiency. Your IT function will only be trusted as much as the users trust your staff. If the users cannot see your staff because they are based on another floor, building or continent, they are unlikely to give your people the benefit of the doubt when there are problems. “Why aren’t they answering the phone? I bet they are probably just playing cards or watching Star Trek DVDs.” The fact is your people are run off their feet. However, people tend to jump to unfair or inaccurate conclusions when trust levels are low.

Looking at operational efficiency, the most important KPI appears to be incident resolution velocity. And if your service desk operative can get through the transaction without calling the user an idiot because they forgot to turn on their monitor, then that is surely the Premier League of help. Again, let us look towards the medical industry for inspiration. Imagine a doctor in the local surgery using the same metrics. On entering the doctor’s office, he skips the pleasantries and simply rams the thermometer into the closest orifice as the patient is about to sit down. This is followed by a routine set of diagnostic tests that are always the starting point for any condition.

On another occasion the doctor can tell by the way that the patient is clattering along the marble hall that he has a late-stage neurological condition. So on this occasion he insists that the patient does not need to sit down. Standing in the doorway the patient receives a perfunctory description of their condition and how it is incurable. But in an attempt to exude some empathy the doctor suggests the patient picks up a relevant information leaflet at reception on the way out. Such an approach is efficient and even possibly effective.

However, it is just not right. So why do we do it to our users?

Now if we are to address this we need to start from the front of house and not the back. We need to invest in the customer touch points so the service desk needs to be staffed by highly skilled practitioners trained in conflict resolution and coaching techniques. And not by technologists needing to improve their interpersonal skills, whose managers see the help desk as a boot camp for low EQ (emotional quotient) staff.

This of course takes investment. Chances are that budget cuts have led to your service desk working under siege conditions as more and more plates stop spinning. So the sooner you can win the trust of the users, the sooner you will be perceived as being on the same team.

Good service or bad service, you still of course have to deliver. However a small investment in service will give you the necessary breathing space to do what is necessary. It will also make you and your staff feel more valued by the organisation.