6 secrets for supercharging the IT help desk

Stop paying lip service to service when it comes to the IT help desk. These frontline workers have insights into system performance and user experience that can make your business run better.

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The help desk is often considered to be nothing more than an entry point for new and inexperienced employees who all share the goal of getting out and moving on to other areas of IT. But if CIOs are serious about transitioning to a service culture, this needs to change.

And now is the time. New help desk technologies, along with trends such as digital transformation, present an opportunity to make more strategic use of this underutilized touch point for IT customer service and contact.

What can CIOs do to transform IT help desks and create more purposeful roles? Start by understanding the impact of your own perception.

Perception is everything

“The most visionary CIOs see service as a strategic IT direction,” says Steve Stover, VP of product and alliances at Samanage, a cloud-based IT service desk provider. “They see the help desk as part of their IT service strategy and view the service desk as a prime point for meaningful engagement with end users.”

In this context, IT help desks are positioned as front-end interfaces for employees to access the variety of IT services that companies provide.

“Help desks typically serve as the single point of contact for employees when it comes to any requirements, issues, or assistance they need while consuming technology services,” says Prashanth Menon, manager of ManageEngine Service Desk Plus, an IT help desk solution. “In mature organizations, the IT help desk guarantees timely assistance and prompt resolution of issues by defining and publishing its assured service levels.”

How help desks are used — beyond being that single point of contact — is where organizations diverge.

“How an organization leverages its IT help desk largely depends on its size, vertical, specific requirements, corresponding investments, and how well these investments align with business goals,” says Menon. “Some organizations might use their help desk to just make sure basic technology services are available to employees, whereas others could be using their help desk strategically, to bring in technology as a business enabler and differentiator.”

Organizations that choose to maintain their help desks as problem resolution platforms that function the same today as they did 25 years ago also tend to see help desks as cost centers. Other see new roles and opportunities for the help desk.

“Self-service and a total engagement experience for end users are where many companies are transforming their IT help desks today,” says Stover. "The millennial generation grew up with self-service and engagement, so it expects these.”

Changing the “work and flee” culture

However, even as IT help desks are adopting more automation, self-service and artificial intelligence (AI) support offerings, which is transformational for the business, for help desk staff, the urge to leave for better IT opportunities is as great today as it was 25 years ago.

“A major challenge for companies is making IT help desk staff understand the big picture in terms of their contribution towards business goals and why the help desk matters,” says Menon. “The help desk is often seen as a support service and not as a core business function, so IT help desk teams tend to only focus on completing their tasks. Help desk and IT managers don't understand how the help desk needs to closely align with the business as a whole, or how delivering quality IT services has a profound impact on the company's bottom line.”

Imparting strategy significance to the IT help desk is where CIOs need to step in. If CIOs continue to view help desks as deflector screens for user questions and problems so DBAs and top-tier application developers aren’t bothered, the help desk “work and flee” culture isn’t going to change.

Visionary CIOs understand this. They include their help desk managers and personnel in the same critical conference room sessions that their DBAs and application program designers participate in. They want the help desk to tell them the history of certain systems to determine which are experiencing the most problems, or what types of interfaces users have most trouble with. What they learn from the help desk is which designs to avoid when developing applications, and which systems that they need to replace.

“A truly mature help desk can also focus on making sure end users don't face problems in the first place,” says Menon. “Help desk managers and personnel can track their own performance metrics in terms of user experience and satisfaction, allowing these metrics to be utilized for more strategic operations within the company, including transforming the entire organization by leveraging technology.”

In a strategy like this, IT service desk personnel actually lead the way. They mentor other sub-groups within the company (e.g., HR, customer service) on how to use help desk technology to answer user questions and resolve issues. They help to define areas where self-service is a great help desk option.

In contrast, less experienced help desk teams that lack vision and leadership are likely to be firefighting most of the time, as they have done historically. Fighting fires means that they won't have much time for tracking performance metrics.

6 ways to supercharge the help desk

In early 2016, a credit union implemented an IT help desk system to organize its IT support. With the right blend of forms and process automation, they were able to deliver support and measure key metrics like open tickets that violated SLAs, agent load, agent performance in regard to SLA compliance, and department and category-wise breakdown of tickets. Over the course of two years, they extended the concept of service management beyond IT to four other business services departments, including HR. With each new enterprise service management (ESM) initiative, this organization streamlined information collection, process automation, and performance measurement. By implementing ESM, ticket system participation in this credit union went up by 222 percent in one year. Process improvement, among other initiatives, helped the credit union win a Commitment Award from the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence in 2018. 

This is an example of help desk transformation that effected profound performance differences in one organization — because the organization “supercharged” its help desk with process automation, digitalization, metrics and analytics, and an infusion of purposeful activities that the organization valued.  This technology and service approach was then leveraged to other areas of the company.

Other organizations can also supercharge their help desk assets by considering these six best practices:

1. Define a strategic help desk direction and believe in it

“Within the IT department, a lack of leadership is a common reason for help desk frustration,” says Menon. “If the leadership doesn't clearly establish the value the help desk offers to business, and instead focuses more on transactional operations, IT help desk personnel may not really know why they have to do what they're doing. IT leadership must explain the difference between just laying bricks versus building a cathedral.”

Menon is right. Many CIOs continue to primarily use the help desk to deflect questions away from IT functions that they consider to be more valuable, even while paying lip service to the value of the service role.

How do you change this?

By defining a service initiative that delivers tangible value to the company and by making the IT help desk an integral part of that strategy.

“In one case, an IT department implemented AI assistance for its help desk and reduced average help desk agent time by two hours per week,” says Stover. “The company implemented a rules-based system that the AI used for reference when it queried historical help desk data and it had a 96 percent hit rate when agents used it to assist them in their jobs.”

2. Secure support and adoption for your help desk initiative

Companies that are still mired in old-school help desk approaches and perceptions must overcome cultural resistance points in the company as well as the investment and technological hurdles.

Transforming the help desk and securing adoption begins at the help desk itself.

“People at the help desk don’t really understand their role and how best they can contribute to what their company wants to achieve,” says Menon. “When there's a lack of understanding about the help desk's purpose among executive management, departmental leadership, and IT leadership, performance hits rock bottom.”

To prevent this, CIOs and help desk managers can set service goals and metrics, feedback channels for internal IT systems and other target improvement areas, and customer satisfaction SLAs. They can seat help desk personnel alongside personnel from historically more revered IT disciplines such as database or applications. They can sign off on more robust budgets for help desk investments.

The second line of help desk adoption is within the business.

In 2017, American Express published its Customer Service Barometer, and found that more than half of American consumers have scrapped a planned purchase or transaction because of bad service.

Service is a defining customer loyalty issue that impacts the bottom line. It’s an area where help desk expertise and technology can be leveraged across the company for competitive advantage. It’s also a great opportunity for CIOs to showcase IT help desk technology and approaches, and how valuable they are when it comes to leveraging them to improve service performance in other areas of the company.

3. Focus on continuous process improvement

“In one case, a company started a chatbox function,” says Stover. “Its purpose was to deflect level one requests away from the help desk. The company ended up redesigning its help desk service portal so the portal could integrate chat with other help desk communications for a more holistic experience for end users and a more complete context for the help desk service personnel to evaluate.”

With digitalization, there is a host of tools that can be integrated into the fabric of a help desk and that can elevate help desk performance. However, the focus should clearly be on whether these solutions improve end user and help desk staff member service experience. If a help desk technology fails to do this, it won't be adopted.

“The IT help desk team can deploy AI bots to respond to user requests and resolve issues very quickly, giving staff time to take care of other high-value activities,” said Menon. “These bots can understand and respond to voice as well as text interfaces, even when help desk personnel are unavailable or busy with other tasks. Machine language (ML) capabilities can offload tasks like manually sifting through huge volumes of data, looking for patterns, and identifying corresponding actions.”

IT help desks can also benefit from employing popular communication and collaboration applications.

“If the help desk team can invest in integrating their tools with the applications their users already use and are well-versed in, that's a win-win for both parties in terms of the value they get out of each other,” says Menon. “An example would be to allow users to raise requests through WhatsApp, rather than forcing them to go through a set of complex forms.”

4. Focus on the end user experience

Your help desk won't succeed if your users aren’t happy.

User feedback on help desk performance should be continuously collected and evaluated. If there are areas where improvements are needed, those improvements should be acted upon without delay.

Second, users should be able to access help desk resources through methods they are comfortable with. This could be chat, or self-service guides, or popup alerts, or collaboration tools, etc.

Finally, invest in skills training for help desk staff. This training should cover communication and interpersonal skills as well as systems knowledge. A well-trained staff is knowledgeable, confident and better suited to offer world-class support to users.

5. Hire the right people

“The most fundamental traits that any help desk employee should possess are empathy and patience,” says Menon. “This willingness to listen and resolve others' problems — coupled with great knowledge of the domain, an eye for seeing problems the right way, and the expertise to find and implement the right solution — make a help desk employee a champion for their users. Moving forward, help desk staff will be even more successful if their experience and expertise allow them to be proactive and build systems that not only handle day-to-day issues, but also forecast the best possible way to solve future problems.”

6. Create a help desk career path

Finally, career advancement opportunities and ladders need to be established for help desk professionals. These individuals need to know they have a future at the help desk if they want to stay there.

Career path development in QA, the help desk area and other unsung IT disciplines is still a pipe dream for many IT departments. Is it any wonder then that individuals — even those who really enjoy the help desk — are reluctant to make a career commitment?

It doesn't have to be this way. “By ensuring raises and promotions and providing professional development, you can offer a great career path,” says Menon.

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