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Three Keys for a Successful Help Desk

Level 10

A successful help desk seeks to solve incidents quickly, find resolutions to persistent problems, and keep end-users happy. The help desk is the first line of defense triaging tickets and working with end-users directly to fix their technical problems, and this is no easy task.

In order to keep ticket queues low and morale high, help desk managers should consider these three key principles:

1)     Dedicated People

2)     Established Processes

3)     Centralized Information

Dedicated people is the first key principle.

A help desk doesn’t necessarily need senior level engineers with advanced degrees and 10 years’ experience. Instead, a solid first line of defense requires a solid team of hard workers who know how to locate information on internal information repositories and how to Google solutions to weird Windows and printer issues. The key here is hard work and dedication. I don’t mean dedication to showing up on time, necessarily, though that’s certainly important. What I mean is a dedication to getting the issue-at-hand resolved.

For example, during my first year in IT, I worked on a help desk serving a large government agency. We had hundreds of new tickets in the queue every day. My co-worker, Don, made it his simple goal to close as many tickets per week as he could. Don was already in his 30s and had changed careers from restaurant management, so he didn’t have decades of experience along with advanced computer science degrees and industry certifications. What he did have was a sheer determination to figure out an issue and get the problem fixed. Our end-users loved him and often asked for him specifically. He browsed through our internal wikis and Googled his life away looking for a way to fix an issue, and nearly every time he eventually figured it out.

This is what a good help desk needs: people who know how to do basic online research and are dedicated to sticking with an issue until it’s resolved.

Having clear, established processes is the second key principle.

My friend Don would have had a much more difficult time resolving tickets without the processes in place to enable him to get the job done. For example, a service desk manager must determine how tickets will be logged and organized, how they will be triaged, how they will be escalated, and how to provide quick information to help desk technicians to solve new tickets as they come in.

In my experience this means first finding the right ticket management system. Whether it’s in the cloud or on local servers, a solid ticket management system will make it easy for end-users to submit tickets and for the service desk to organize, triage, and resolve them. I personally prefer a single source of truth in which the ticketing system is not only a way to organize tickets but also an information repository and a method to communicate with end-users. In this way technicians can log into one system and find everything they need to get the job done. Navigating multiple systems and many windows is a sure-fire way to forget (or ignore) tickets and spend way too much time looking up simple information such as license keys or asset locations.

Another important part of clear and established help desk processes is accountability. This must be built in to the help desk processes and not just assumed. Tickets get lost, and sometimes they’re ignored. This may be because the help desk is dealing with a huge number of tickets with too few people, but I’ve seen many tickets ignored because they were difficult, long-winded, or because the end-user was a well-known jerk.

Rather than have tickets come in from end-users into a general queue, consider having them all go first to a help desk manager or team lead to very quickly triage and be assigned to the appropriate technician. I have seen struggling service desks go from zero to hero implementing just this one simple process.

A decent ticketing system will have escalation timers, auto-responders, and many other built-in tools to automate workflow, but don’t rely on the software alone to maintain some semblance of order. This is a top-down process beginning with help desk managers and team leads.

Maintaining a centralized, updated information repository is the last key principle.

Let’s face it, most companies use Windows computers for their end-users. Yes, I know there are exceptions, but even Apple devices and various flavors of Linux are not custom-built operating systems that no one has ever heard of. That means many end-user issues are not unique to any one company. What is unique is the company-specific knowledge.

What are the IP addresses of the domain controllers? Where is the installation file for the billing software kept? Does the new branch office use a Windows DHCP server or is it running off their core switch?

Having a centralized repository of information is priceless to a helpdesk technician. Better yet is when the repository is also the ticket management system, and even better yet is when it also contains documentation for how to solve recurring issues or how to install weird company software.

In my first job as a network engineer I worked near the service desk who sat in the next cubicle area. As the number of customers grew, so did the number of technicians, and so did the amount of information needed to resolve tickets. We used a great ticket management system and kept as much information as possible in it. We also used an internal wiki page, but in order to get to it you had to follow a link embedded in the ticketing system.

They were able to support several thousand end-users with a help desk of only three technicians and one service desk manager. So important were these principles that if it anyone discovered that information wasn’t in the database that should have been, whoever was responsible to get it in there had to bring in donuts for the entire office. Yes, I brought donuts in a couple times, and so did our service desk manager and even the owner of the company.

There are volumes that can be written on how to provide successful end-user support. These three principles may be broad, and I’ve seen them implemented in very different ways. However, so long as you have dedicated people, clear processes, and an updated information repository, the help desk will be the successful first line of defense every CIO and Director of IT dreams of. 

19 Comments
MVP
MVP

Couldn't agree more.

IT Service Management is more than just purchasing a package to record all this stuff - it must be backed up by solid processes and meaningful process.

My user base is often at odds with the WHD solution because they would rather email me, little to they know i can resend their emails as them to the Helpdesk and then the team attacks it from there.   Smaller companies get used to the face to face contact and nothing will ever replace in person support, but its not as productive that way and things get lost.   A good Helpdesk also give justifications to needs, trends of issues, and the first measure of IT efficiency. 

Nice Article.

Level 20

We're on our third redo of Remedy right now o.O!  It's very important but sometimes gets taken almost too far!  One things for sure... it all starts with CI and assets being identified, organized, and tracked.

Level 10

Great article!  Loads of good tips.  Shared this with my IT team. 

Level 10

My team just got Remedy to a nice organized polished state... then Corporate tells us we are moving to ServiceNow in a few month.  #ITProbs

MVP
MVP

The thing to remember about any software solution - no software can fix a process problem - and its always a process problem.

The best helpdesk software in the world can't fix poor process

With any ITSM implementation, you start where your strengths and relative maturity levels are greatest.

If that is great asset and CI information, start there. If it is a great change process, start there.

We started with a simplified helpdesk, followed by simplified change, then an expanded "Servicedesk" with Incident, Request and Problem records as well as knowledgebase,  full change is next, with Asset, CI and catalog coming after that.

All based on data quality and process maturity, with each step improving the inbound maturity level of both the process and data so the chances of success improve with each step.

Level 13

I think one other key is job satisfaction and job rotation - nothing worse that having to answer a phone 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month, 12 months a year.

While you're centralizing the data, make sure it's indexed and searchable, and that all parties are aware of all policies and procedures documented there.

Provide complete training for Help Desk staff, including both the technical items for which they'll be called, and also the great personality tips and tricks they'll need to defuse tense situations.

Help Desk staff take the worst of the worst abuse.  They get heck from the end users, they get grief from the I.T. staff and "experts" (who often do NOT have great inter-personal communication skills), and they get headaches from VIPs and bosses who aren't over them.

I think Help Desk staffers are the unsung heroes of the Tech world, bridging the gap between disaster and hope.  My hat's off to them!

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Level 16

I recently sat in with one of our Service Desk Professionals and was amazed at the amount of talent these people have!

MVP
MVP

It helps a great deal when you have established standards for how things are described (keywords, tags, etc.) in searchable fields.  In other words normalized data.  Having 5 ways to refer to the same thing makes reporting and searching a royal pain and your reports are not correct.

Level 14

Totally agree.  We use our help desk to groom for our integration team.  Advance from within as much as possible.

Level 21

Great article and very timely for me considering I am working on replacing our current ticketing system with SolarWinds WebHelpDesk.  This will be the 2nd time we have replaced our system in the 15 years I have been here.

One of the biggest problems I have seen with the implementation and management of such a system is over-complication.  The more complicated you make a system or workflow the more likely it is to fail.

I think that users almost always want to go to a person they trust. If that one time Bob fixed the screen thing, they want to go back straight to them.I have worked in my IT department for over 12 years, and many people remember me when they have issues. In my current job, its almost never the best use of my time, somebody else likely should be working with them.

How we (our IT dept. System Engineers) approach customer service at this point is important. I and others at my level will not force them to call the help desk. We open a ticket on their behalf and try to contact the user. I often do warm transfers, letting them know that I trust the person I hand them to, and waiting for me to get to their issue would likely be an inconvenience to them. I tell them I will follow the incident (which service now lets me do) and that if they have concerns, they should simply speak up and I will swoop in to move assist with any roadblocks if I can. I often find this is an opportunity to give someone with out experience a chance to try a new thing with an open channel to get guidance from me. (Most junior staff are more likely to escalate a ticket to senior staff then they are to ask them for guidance, but when I start a ticket like this, they feel more ownership and know they have a safety net).

So in short, if my users don't use the Ticketing tool, that fine, we will on their behalf. And they don't always care about the good thing ticketing does for a staff, so it seems to me the best solution is to just do it anyway.

Having a career path is key.  For some, the help desk may be an end, but for those looking to expand to other technologies or specialization in one of the many things the help desk is front line to, there has to be a way to move and grow with the company. 

MVP
MVP

yes, they tend to go back to where they had a successful resolution...regardless of whether your are still in that role or not.

I think it is also important for a Help Desk to be able to handle churn. Help Desk is usually a starting point into an IT career. Good people won't stay long. The constant churn has to be deal with and is mitigated by "Established Processes" and "Centralized Information." However, contingencies to have in place include: Temp services, automation, cross-training of Level 2's and SME's, and KB's and FAQ's.

Level 10

Thanks! I'm glad it was helpful to you. Even though I don't work on a helpdesk anymore, it's something I think about frequently because those folks always seem to be the busiest and most discussed in meetings....

Level 10

I think we could probably do an entire series of posts on how to organize data for a helpdesk knowledgebase! I've seen several methods, but I think a good overarching key is to at least have something. You're right about making sure info is properly indexed and searchable though - what good would amazing IT cookbooks be if no one could ever find them?

Level 10

I had a very good experience using SolarWinds WebHelpDesk in a relatively large organization. Our help desk folks used it for ticket management, responding to end-users, and also for accessing the internal knowledgebase. I used it as well for project tickets in order to have a decent project workflow.