The IT help desk, the people who solve our IT glitches, don't usually get a lot of respect. Not from senior management, which usually considers them as little more than a cost item. Nor from the company's other employees, who often are dissatisfied with the performance of what they call the "helpless" desk. It shouldn't be that way. An effective help desk can improve the productivity of any organization by significant margins. But making it effective means adopting a different management strategy.
In virtually every organization, help desk people are essentially order-takers. Their internal customers call up with a problem and the help desk does its best to fix it. But it would be much better if the help desk served its customers the way the best salespeople serve their external customers; not as order takers, but by assess their needs, working with them to create innovative solutions and establishing trusting relationships.
Working this way, help desk staff can move away from putting out fires and start preventing them occurring in the first place. They'll help their customers use their IT more productively and, in the process, contribute to improved company-wide employee performance.
Here are three keys to creating a more customer-focused help desk. But you can adapt the same process to improve the productivity of other support staff units, such as HR, administration, accounting, the travel desk or engineering.
Let's Get Together
Encourage the help desk staff to meet with their customers proactively so they can explore ways to be more useful to them. Staff should learn their customers' goals, the ways they operate, their priorities, their problems.
In selling, this process is called probing. Successful salespeople keep on probing – seeking to clarify their customers' perceptions of their needs and to question assumptions that might be counterproductive. They schedule ongoing discovery conversations to learn what's happening in their customer's operations. And they ask customers to appraise their service even if they'll likely hear complaints.
If your help desk people do this they might learn that dissatisfied customers can be satisfied with just a little fine-tuning of their service. Similarly, they might also find that some of their services aren't particularly useful and need to be reconfigured to make them more productive.
Businesses everywhere are trying to improve communications in the workforce. So they should pay more attention to building partnerships between the help desk and the rest of the organization.
Let's Get Creative
Working collaboratively with their customers, help desk staff can help them use IT more effectively, both preventing problems before they arise and capitalizing more fully on IT's potential for improving productivity. And, let's face it, in most organizations, only the most tech-savvy use IT systems to their maximum advantage.
It won't be easy for help desk employees who've have been functioning simply as order-takers to work in this new way. Some of them may lack interpersonal and communication skills and may need help in this area. Another principle that successful salespeople use can help here. In any interaction with the customer, talk less and listen more. Don't jump to conclusions about what's needed until the customer has fully explained the situation. Make the customer feel good about the interaction's outcome.
You Can Count on Me
Trust is essential for successful relations between help desk staff and their customers. Without it, customers who don't understand the technology as well as they should might not feel confident about revealing this. Without trust they also might lack confidence in the value of the help desk's recommendations.
You can make the help desk staff develop the trust that's needed for them to become valued advisors and respected colleagues of their customers: Give them a better understanding of their customers' functions and the company's goals. Let line people understand the help desk's role and processes and how it can make them more productive.
The help desk staff should retain ownership of the relationship with the customer even when the problem is resolved by another unit in the business; they should follow up to insure the customer is satisfied. Evaluate the help desk staff with metrics that focus on customer satisfaction rather than cruder factors like the number of tickets handled. Use qualitative as well as quantitative measures.
Support Staff Want More Respect
In many organizations, support staff (not just in IT) often feel underused and misunderstood. When management examines their role, the focus is often on cost-cutting. Rarely is it acknowledged that their capabilities can be developed as a competitive advantage. This can result in support staff becoming bureaucratic and obstacles to change rather than enablers, which only perpetuates their backwater status.
So change the dynamic by celebrating their wins as well as those of other employees. Recognize them as an asset rather than an overhead. Give them a seat at the table.
The personalities of support staff may well be different from those of line employees. Many line managers chose their field because they want to manage, while many staff people chose to develop a particular skill to serve others. Help the staff people serve those others.
Joseph M. Juran, the productivity improvement pioneer who popularized the term 'internal customer' some 30 years ago, has said line managers can perform far better than they usually do if they're given better support. Business leaders can make this happen by making their help desks customer-focused.