UK: When the chips are down.

UK: When the chips are down. - Companies invest huge amounts of time and money in information technology. But IT support desks - and their organisation - have only just started being taken seriously by senior managers.

by Sue Beenstock.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Companies invest huge amounts of time and money in information technology. But IT support desks - and their organisation - have only just started being taken seriously by senior managers.

The woman at the other end of the line is calm and patient. 'Is it plugged in?' she asks. 'Yes,' says her colleague, through gritted teeth.

He's the steward at British Airways' Heathrow-Edinburgh check-in. It's Monday morning and his computer is playing up. A line of anxious customers stand in front of his desk as the minutes to take-off disappear. 'Now try switching it off and then on,' the help-desk woman says. Miracle of miracles, the screen flickers into life. He thanks her brusquely, puts the phone down and gets on with his job, feeling slightly stupid. Back at the call centre, the heroine of the moment pats herself on the back, having solved one of the 1,500 calls a day the 20-strong BA help desk receives.

Consider the last time you rang your company's IT support desk: Did they pick up the phone promptly? Did they listen to the problem sympathetically?

And most important of all, was the complaint dealt with efficiently? According to the Journal of Information Technology, British companies will spend over £40 billion on IT this year, and in the past three years spent an average of £3,500 on IT per employee. That's a lot of expensive equipment with the potential to misbehave. To get the most out of their IT, staff need plenty of support if, and when, things go wrong.

It's only in the past four or five years that companies have taken help-desk organisation seriously, says the Helpdesk User Group (HUG), an association which promotes best practice in the UK. The spread of technology across all forms of company activity has meant that bewildered staff with an IT problem have often been faced with a confusing directory of numbers to call - depending on whether their query was hardware, software, mainframe, PC, teleprocessing or network related. There is now a trend to consolidate these different forms of IT support. While this makes life easier for the distressed steward at check-in, it also helps companies analyse trends in IT problems.

The centralised help desk is already a reality for many companies, but the system introduced has to be carefully thought through to get the best out of the staff running them. One way of doing this is to encourage IT staff to have a wider overview of the workings of the business. During the month-long formal training programme for IT staff at BA, for example, new recruits visit the customer areas they will be dealing with. The impact of seeing a packed terminal and knowing that an unsolved technical hitch can create a minor disaster, has an impact on the speed and efficiency with which staff subsequently deal with calls. To experience the pressures of customer service brings home the realities to IT staff. Janet Hilton, IT call-centre manager at BA, says that this approach forces staff to address questions such as: 'What will be the impact on the business if I don't solve this problem in two minutes?'

In today's environment, the success of an internal help desk is essential to the smooth running of every element of a business. But Alan Neilson, managing director of help-desk software company Royal Blue, is still shocked at the low priority some companies put on their internal IT support staff.

'It's easy to overlook in a customer-focused business. But if your front-line staff can't do their job, then you might as well pack up and go home,' he says. Internal IT staff need to be just as customer-focused as those going out to meet clients. IT management consultancy Druid Online has undertaken projects for many big corporate players, including Cadbury-Schweppes in Russia. Manager John Pyle agrees with Neilson's attitude - that internal and external help desks are equally important - and has taken the issue one step further and merged the two operations. 'We expect the same degree of professionalism, so why not operate from the same desk?' asks Pyle. 'If your help desk is dealing with clients as well as internal staff, you get a much more positive attitude.'

The first step to achieving this is to set up service level agreements (SLAs) 'and that means writing things down, just as you would with an external customer', says Neilson. It helps to list core categories of support and agree on the departments or services that take precedence, as well as completion times. Andrew Dawson is spokesman for Remedy Corporation, an American company which covers all aspects of internal help-desk management, including investment, technical support, consulting and training. Like Neilson, he believes a help desk needs SLAs to work professionally. They can help avoid contentious priority issues, he says, such as if the chief executive rings in with a print problem at the same time as a member of the sales staff who cannot get his weekly forecast out on time because of a glitch. 'If everyone knows the SLA, your chief executive will not feel peeved that their problem has been put on hold while the salesman's problem is dealt with. And just as importantly, your help-desk staff don't feel torn and under pressure,' claims Dawson.

Sudden pressure is a big problem on the IT help desk. No steady flow of work is possible, given the sudden oscillations between calm and crisis.

When an IT system is running relatively smoothly, those on the IT help desk can be left twiddling their thumbs, but if a company-wide problem (such as a rapidly spreading virus) develops, the phone will be ringing constantly. Even in these difficult situations it is vital that staff feel that their calls are being dealt with promptly. For example, Neilson aims to answer 60% of queries at the first point of contact with IT support staff. This target has only recently been achieved, he says, through putting a checklist online to encourage customers to sort out their own problems. 'It's not rocket science stuff,' he admits, but a self-help facility eases the burden on those on the help desk.

If the volume of work gets too great, good IT staff will not hang around.

The rapid growth in the use of new technology and the Year 2000 problem means that those who work in IT are in great demand and are enjoying annual pay hikes averaging five or six times the rate of inflation. If a company cannot pay top rates to its IT staff it will find that it has to be creative in order to stop staff from moving on. Frank Lewis, Hewlett-Packard's user support centre manager, has found that flexibility is at the heart of keeping staff interested in the job. People with good technical knowledge don't necessarily like to be on the phone all of the time. Says Lewis: 'Our customers ... don't want to be a ping-pong ball sent between a front-line telephonist and a back-desk expert, they want instant resolution.' The answer, he says, has been to rotate staff between front and back desk on a daily or weekly basis. The rate of staff departure has consequently slowed.

Stephan van Reisen, a technology expert at Andersen Worldwide, has an alternative view. 'One wouldn't have to rotate staff if adequate training was in place,' he says. It is three months before his raw IT recruits are allowed anywhere near the help desk. This represents an unusually long training period but van Reisen believes that the investment reaps its rewards. 'Why should (staff) need to swap jobs?' he demands. 'Answering the phone is part of the job, and if you train them properly that's what staff will grow to enjoy.' Far more serious, he says, is the potential burn-out that most people experience when constantly dealing with other people's crises. Creating a career path which sees most help-desk operators stepping up the corporate ladder after two years helps to keep the more talented IT staff on board.

Helping IT staff cope with stress is an obvious requirement. A key strand to ensuring that problems are kept in perspective is the system of mentoring, whereby experienced members of staff are assigned between six and eight newer recruits. 'Your mentor would never be your boss, that's vital,' Pyle says. 'It's someone you can talk to in confidence about every aspect of your professional life, from training to promotion, and we find it's a good stress reliever, too. Someone else knows what you're going through and can give reassurance and advice.'

The most innovative players in the help-desk field tend to be those whose business is solving other companies' help-desk problems. Remedy Corporation, for example, has pushed some of the responsibility for prioritisation back to its users. Requests for help are logged from the desktop of the user's computer, providing it is working, of course. The user is asked to prioritise the problem according to certain criteria.

Most people make their request seem more urgent than it is, says Dawson, so the software tells the user what the consequences of this designation will be. For example, a query from an early riser in the UK could involve 'paging a senior US manager - where it's 3am and he or she is in bed'.

Help-desk staff appreciate the filtering system and the extra time that it allows for dealing with the more urgent problems.

Help-desk managers are convinced that their importance is not reflected in the status of their staff. Cassandra Millhouse, lead analyst at IT research firm Ovum, says she is still dismayed at the way IT staff are perceived. Help-desk staff, she says, are highly skilled technicians, but are still seen by some companies as 'phone operators who have little freedom and can't use their initiative'. The next challenge facing help-desk managers, she says, is working on their poor image among the rest of the workforce.

CENTRAL SUPPORT TEAM APPROACH RINGS TRUE SEVEN DAYS A WEEK

WH Smith's help desk is charged with keeping the tills ringing for its 15,000 staff in 500 stores across the country.

Several years ago the retailer followed other industries in taking the IT call-centre approach, recalls system support manager, Paul Bowyer.

The advantages seemed obvious. 'It gave us a single point of contact and immediate response. There seemed no reason why the process wouldn't go smoothly,' he says.

The problems were far bigger than the company had expected. The IT centre received around 9,000 calls a month, of which some 1,500 needed technical action. That meant Bowyer's 12 technicians were becoming telephonists, and felt deskilled and demoralised. Many of the calls were hugely time consuming because they were not directly related to IT - people simply wanting advice or reassurance, or following up an earlier query.

The system could have worked, says Bowyer, if he had had twice as many staff. 'It was a stressful time,' he admits, particularly as there were budgetary constraints.

WH Smith went back to the drawing board. The company decided to merge the entire problem-solving system into one single-site set-up, known as Store Support Services. The system was trialled in 50 stores for one month last year, and was rolled out across the country six weeks later.

'Perhaps the best thing,' says John Sanders, store support services manager, 'is that staff on the front line are no longer batted all over the place.

They can ring us, and one person will take responsibility for their problem.'

Only 5% of calls to Sanders' team are IT related, and for Bowyer at systems that means a manageable number of calls per week. His team now works in shifts, which, when combined, cover the hours of 7am until midnight, seven days a week.

Sanders' central team grades calls according to urgency, with A as priority, B and C less urgent. Service level agreements aim to have 100% of A calls sorted within four hours, and 90% of B and C calls fixed within six.

'I'm relieved to be able to tell you that for four or five months we have consistently achieved 96% of that service level. This is quite a turnaround from a year ago when we were satisfying just 65% to 70%,' says Bowyer.

TOP HELP DESK COMPLAINTS

1. 'THE PRINTER IS BROKEN.'

By far and away the most common complaint - and almost always untrue.

More often than not the printer is merely lacking a little something, usually paper or a toner cartridge. Printers are in themselves relatively reliable machines.

2. 'I CAN'T FIND THE FILE. I'VE LOST EVERYTHING.'

Another perennial, but only true if the user has managed to sleepwalk through a series of challenges to his or her decision to delete a file.

It's very hard to 'lose' a file completely these days. The caller's logic is too often blinded by the panic of an approaching deadline.

3. 'MY KEYBOARD ISN'T WORKING.'

A familiar gripe. Sometimes this is down to elderly equipment, but more often than not it is due to crumbs from the user's lunch. Replacement can take ages; better perhaps to turn the keyboard upside down and shake violently.

4. 'THE SYSTEM'S DOWN. HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE TO FIX?'

Not an unreasonable query in itself, except that all users make the call at the same time. As a result, the harassed staff are prevented from dealing with the problem itself.

An 'all users' e-mail - if it's working - is one solution for the help desk in this situation.

5. 'I HAVEN'T HAD ANY E-MAILS TODAY. IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG?'

All this often reflects is merely the unpopularity of the caller, but it can draw attention to a problem on a mail server provided by an internet service provider, such as Compuserve.

However, there is often little the help desk can do to help on these external problems except report the fault to the ISP.

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