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Please take a ticket!

We have all been in the position where we have needed to call a help desk and once we have managed to traverse the automated call handler, we should hopefully get to speak to someone about our problem. Subject to the type of service that you are calling and the contract that you operate within, you should get either a call logging service that uses a script or get to speak with someone who can actually help you. You may find that your help desk hides behind a web based support portal or operates an automated email monitor but the result should be the same. In every support case you should fall into a support process that formally logs the incident and you should get an incident reference number. You will note the word ‘should’ is being used a lot in the opening and that is because many help desks do not operate this way, which is the topic of this article from my From the Trenches series.

If you operate a help desk and are one of the many that do not operate with a tool that tracks user requests, please invest in one and ensure that your customers can access it to report and receive updates. The help desk tool will allow you to create a clear support process and react in a managed manner to an ever changing workload. Your customers will be grateful as you will not forget things and if you give them access to it, it will reduce the number of calls you will have to deal with as they can get/provide feedback through the system. There are help desk systems for pretty much any sector and start from free to £10s of £1000s so you can find one that will work for you.

If you are a user who uses a help desk that do not provide you with access to a system that allows you to manage your own requests, request that one is provided for you or change to a supplier that offers one if you can. Whilst we do not want to be treated like a number, the simple fact is that structure in incident management allows for a reliable and consistent service delivery so do not fight it whether you are the customer or the supplier.

Why I am a number?

Beyond the basic process of ensuring that the incident gets resolved, logging support incidents allows both sides of the service to determine the effectiveness of the service. If the system is used properly it can help in service improvement by allowing trend analysis of incidents. Trending the data can find support hot spots from people, applications and devices through recurring problems for instance. The service improvement can put in place training for staff, replacement or rebuilding of recurring faulty equipment or instruct a wider review of the same incident across multiple devices or users.

When you receive a number for your incident, you can find out about the progress and update the help desk with any additional information that you have to help.

Many help desk systems now integrate with customer feedback systems and knowing the incident number allows you to provide positive and negative feedback to the help desk on their performance. The positive feedback is invaluable as the help desk usually only gets negative feedback, we all like to receive feedback so please provide it when it is due. I always remember this scene from the IT Crowd in the IT department being undervalued.

Follow the process

An important aspect of support for the end user is that whilst they want their problem fixed as quickly as possible, they would also like it fixed permanently. The help desk wants to be able to identify the root cause of the problem, this requires time to fix it and it should also require them to follow a change management process. This is one area where the two user groups are at conflict, whilst they both want the problem fixed, the issue of resource allocation and speed of response is the common complaint.

 As customers we need to appreciate that whilst our incident is the most important fault for us, the help desk will be dealing with many such incidents.  If the help desk is outsourced, they could be operating under different Service Level Agreements (SLA) but as a customer you should get the service that is being offered under that SLA. If you are the company operating the help desk, you need to appreciate that customers are waiting for a response from you so keep them updated in a timely manner and not just in order to meet the SLA.

The support process can add time in being able to respond to requests but does it really need to take the 10 days to create a new user account as it is defined in the service contract? The flip side of the coin is could the help desk have been told about the new user account earlier? While it can happen that someone starts right away it is more common for there to be a lead time of a week or more. In the way that the help desk can look at service improvement, what can we do as users to help ourselves?

By operating with a structured process that focuses resource whilst not allowing the support process to be broken it can deliver a faster response service. I would suggest that this is definitely a case of slowing down to go quicker by looking at the work in the queue, allocating resource to the incidents in order of priority, reducing the queue and get happier users in both customer and help desk.

Log everything

I regularly need to assess the performance of outsourced IT services and therefore ask for reports from the suppliers of work logged for my clients. Whilst my clients will typically look at the invoices for support as the cost, the ticket system provides an indication of value for money and quality of the service when compared to the invoiced amount.

I find some interesting indicators in that password resets take effort of between 0 minutes and 2 hours and troubleshooting of backups taking 0 minutes. This indicates to me that the help desk does not accurately log their time on the support incidents and potentially operate with a poorly structured or managed support process. In the case of the two hour password reset, one can assume that another issue was looked at during that time but it can’t be determined what that was as it is hidden behind a password reset. The lack of information logged by help desks prevents the supplier from being able to assess the performance of their service and gives customers an incomplete view of the service that they have received.

This lack of visibility into the help desk service delivery can be seen as being good for the customer and bad for the supplier but I would suggest that it is bad for both parties. I see that neither party has a true picture of what is going on with the help desk process not operating at optimum performance.

What next?

The long and short of my experience of looking at help desks for clients is that the process is generally poorly structured and managed with neither side being happy with the outcome. In summary, I would suggest that the following are done:

  1. Help desks implement a tool and process that allows them and customers to track incidents.
  2. Customers always get incident numbers and so the support process is not broken.
  3. Help desk always logs timely updates against unique incident numbers.
  4. Customers provide feedback on their incidents with this being positive or negative as appropriate.
  5. Performance of the help desk incident management process is reviewed regularly with the aim of improving service performance.

The output of this should result in the support process improving for both customer and help desk alike as it should perform reliability

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