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Best practices to run a successful (and useful) IT help desk
Your company’s IT helpdesk is the critical link between your users and the various teams that develop and support the IT systems they use every day. Helpdesks can take different forms, from physical locations that employees go to for in-person support, to telephone call centers, to virtual support capabilities. While the method of engagement may be different, the way your company manages each of these helpdesk operations – the processes they follow and systems they use – are similar.
Your company has an IT helpdesk to provide support services to assist your employees in addressing questions, issues and provisioning needs related to the technology devices and services that support day-to-day business operations. In modern business environments, technology plays an important role in enabling productivity, managing company, and customer data, and facilitating business processes. When the technology breaks, the customer needs access to something new, or if something changes in the technology environment, it can have a big impact on your employees’ ability to do their jobs effectively. The goal of your IT helpdesk is to provide information, resources and knowledgeable staff to help your employees resolve their technical issues and get back to their normal work activities quickly.
The IT helpdesk is a customer service function and the right attitude and mindset is required both by helpdesk agents and management. Cost management and efficiency may be important, but your main focus needs to be on user productivity. Your employees’ time is valuable and any time they spend engaging with the helpdesk is time they aren’t spending creating value for your company. Everyone involved in your helpdesk needs to have a user-centric mindset and apply it to both interactions and business processes.
Your helpdesk should provide a single point of contact for the life of the ticket or support issue. Many companies have complex organizational structures which include multiple tiers of support, specialized teams and may even include a network of suppliers and support vendors. Your users shouldn’t need to see or know about how your organization is structured – they should see that when they engage the helpdesk, they have one point of contact that they work with throughout the life of their issue and that contact manages everything that takes place behind the scenes. It is tempting for companies to hand off cases from one team to another. This creates a frustrating and fragmented experience for users wherein they may not know who to talk to if they have questions or need status updates.
Don’t expose client to internal issues. No operation runs smoothly all the time, but IT helpdesks are an area within the company where internal issues such as business processes, staffing issues, coordination challenges and vendor contract issues are often projected to end-users. Examples of this include:
"We’ve assigned a 48-hour response time to this ticket and we’re still within our SLA" – 48 hours is your own internal performance benchmark, not the customer expectation. They called you with a problem and want the issue solved as quickly as possible.
"We’re waiting for a response from our vendor for that item and they only provide support M-F during business hours." – Your helpdesk is responsible for the overall service provided to the end user. Supplier issues are your internal concern. From the customer perspective, the helpdesk is unable to provide them the support they require when they need it.
"We’re required to go through all of the activities on the troubleshooting script before escalating the ticket to tier-2 support." – This situation is really frustrating for users. If you know you can’t solve their problem, they expect you to engage someone who can and not waste their time going through a checklist.
Each of these statements is an example of internal helpdesk issues impacting the support experience for your users. Your helpdesk should mask users from these internal issues and take ownership of the end-to end support experience. You are the face of IT to the user and challenges that occur behind the scenes are your helpdesk’s responsibility to manage so the user doesn’t have to.
Beware of over-doing self-service. Your user’s time is valuable and while self-service capabilities may be a great way to provide operational efficiencies and enable users to address simple and common issues quickly without the delays of waiting to talk to a helpdesk agent, remember that your helpdesk is there to provide help and assistance in the form of tools, knowledge and experience. Self-service capabilities are there to enhance the user’s support experience, not replace it. You don’t want to inadvertently outsource your IT support to your end-users and diminish the value of your helpdesk function. Self-service support is often seen as a tempting strategy for “ticket avoidance” and a way to drive down IT helpdesk costs. IT helpdesk best practices suggest that you should focus on the total cost of the disruption to your business and not just the direct cost of helpdesk operations. Your IT helpdesk mindset should be focused on resolving and avoiding user issues, not avoiding tickets.
Your IT helpdesk provides an essential role of facilitating and orchestrating your end-to-end support workflows. As the primary point of contact for the user, the helpdesk agent is responsible for capturing and assessing user needs, engaging the right support resources, and ensuring issues are resolved as quickly as possible. Your effectiveness in orchestrating the support workflow will impact both user satisfaction and the duration of productivity impact to business processes. Some IT helpdesk best practices for workflow management include:
Be efficient about what information you collect, how you store it, and how you share information with others taking part in supporting the user. Most duplicate data entry takes place when helpdesk management systems are not properly integrated with other tools and vendor platforms. Investing in data integration and workflow interfaces will improve the quality and timeliness of support.
IT support issues can be complex and handing them off among team members can be both time consuming and a source of miscommunication. Your helpdesk management or ITSM system includes workflow management capabilities that can help facilitate handoffs, both with other support teams and with other agents within the helpdesk. Leverage these system capabilities to ensure handoffs happen smoothly and essential information is not lost in the transition.
in a consistent way. Helpdesk processes are workflows and they work well in a sequence, but situations where they go in loops can be problematic. The key is to have a consistent policy and process for how to handle resolved tickets that need to be re-opened to ensure effective and accurate SLA reporting. Some options include opening a new ticket (with a new SLA) and linking it to an original, changing the status of the original ticket to “work in progress” (continuing the current SLA clocks), or creating a sub-task of the parent ticket (this is a more complex option). The approach you decide on isn’t as important as handling this situation consistently.
Help desks manage requests by using some sort of help desk software, or issue tracking system, enabling them to keep track of user requests, find answers to common questions and prioritize the requests being worked on. User contact may be with either internal employees or external customers and include a combination of websites, contact numbers, instant messages, and emails to provide customer support.
Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are an essential tool for managing the performance of your IT helpdesk. They provide both a means of setting expectations with users on the response and resolution times they should anticipate for the support issue as well as an objective measure for management to use in evaluating individual and team performance. The key to SLA management is consistency in measurement. SLAs are typically measured by your helpdesk management or ITSM system for each ticket based on business rules and workflow triggers. SLA best practices center around how to improve SLA performance, so you can provide better support services to your helpdesk users.
Transferring ticket ownership between individuals and support teams is one of the most common causes of missed SLAs. When a ticket is transferred, typically a new response time SLA clock is set for the ticket to be accepted by the receiving team or individual. If the standard response time SLA is 2 hours and a resolution SLA for the ticket of 24 hours, handing the ticket off 4 times (even if every response SLA is met) will consume 1/3 of the time allotted to resolve the issue. If there are other delays, shift changes or business hour considerations, it is very easy for the resolution SLA (the one the user really cares about) to be missed. Reducing the number of handoffs required to get the ticket to the right person for resolution is the best way to improve your SLA compliance.
They care about getting their issue solved. A common trend is for businesses to leverage offshore support in foreign countries as a part of their IT helpdesk operations. If your users are in North America, this can cause challenges if the support staff that are needed to solve their issue are in India or China. Users expect your support SLAs to align to their business hours, not your support team’s.
IT helpdesk agents are presented with a wide variety of technical issues and it is unreasonable to expect everyone on your staff to understand all aspects of your IT environment. Specialized knowledge and skillsets may be required to support some systems and others may require involvement from an outside supplier or support vendor. It is important that you understand what skills and resources are needed and available to support each of your systems, so you can plan effective coverage to support your user’s needs. If you don’t have resources with the needed qualifications available, or don’t know how to contact them, it will be difficult to meet user SLA expectations.
Your IT helpdesk is the hub of communications for your support operations. Agents don’t need to be able to solve every problem on their own, but they do need to know who to call and when they need to communicate. Managing support contacts and communication plans can be a complex task with contacts varying by system, technical domain, business function and time of the day.
To communicate effectively, your IT helpdesk needs two things:
Accurate and complete contact information.
Clear rules and guidelines for determining who to communicate to and when.
Having complete and accurate contact information is essential to effective helpdesk communications. Some of the important contacts to have available are:
Internal support teams & technical resources.
Third party support vendors (you will likely need the support contract numbers).
Helpdesk management and escalation contacts.
Business leaders of users affected by widespread system issues.
Along with basic contact info (name, phone number, email address, etc.), it is helpful to have a description of the support contact, what their skills or areas of focus are and preferred contact methods. For example, a business leader responsible for the sales function may prefer communication via email or text when their team’s productivity is impacted while helpdesk management may prefer a phone call so they can address the issue immediately. These preferences should be integrated in to your helpdesk management system and communication guidelines to ensure the right contacts are engaged for each issue.
Your helpdesk management and ITSM systems provide more than ticketing capabilities to support your IT helpdesk operations. Configuration management data found in your CMDB can provide agents with valuable insight into how your company’s IT environment is constructed. When configuration data is combined with real time monitoring data, agents can see how well the various components and services in your environment are performing and where there are issues that could be impacting users calling the helpdesk for support. Some of the key insights that agents should be looking for include:
The web of relationships between technology components that are used to form systems, construct workflows and move data throughout your company.
Most user issues don’t start spontaneously, they are the result of some action, event or change in the environment. Configuration and monitoring data can help agents diagnose the cause of issues and gain clues on how to resolve them.
An issue reported by one user may not be affecting only that single person. Often system issues impact entire business functions, job roles or processes. Configuration and monitoring data can help agents accurately assess the impact of issues so responses can be planned appropriately.
Monitoring data can also be used as an early alert mechanism to make your IT helpdesk aware of potential issues, so agents can proactively communicate with users, avoid creating duplicate tickets for the same issue, and take steps to mitigate business impact of the incident.
Knowledge management is one of the most important functions within your IT helpdesk. It is what enables your staff to share information with each other and users, and work effectively in solving user requests. Knowledge management starts with the creation of knowledge content – captured from day-to-day support interactions with users and conversations with technical support teams. Knowledge content is organized into knowledge articles – self-contained documents or records on a specific topic that are then categorized and used by others. The usefulness of knowledge articles depends heavily on how they are written and what they include. Here are some best practices for creating effective and useful knowledge articles:
IT environments, business processes and the situations that generate user questions and issues can be complex and nuanced. It is important to describe scenarios thoroughly so that readers of the article can make an effective assessment about whether the content of the knowledge article is applicable to the issues they are encountering.
Some of the best support insights come from experience gained from trial and error. Diagnosing technical issues often includes the agent making assumptions, inferences and guesses about what is really going on. Sometimes these hunches turn out to be correct, other times they are invalidated, but it is important to note them in knowledge articles to provide readers greater insight into the thought process that goes into issue diagnosis.
The cause of many support issues is not clear, and it is common for multiple steps of diagnosis and troubleshooting to be required to fully understand a situation and formulate an effective response. Knowledge articles should include complete diagnostic steps to aid in future troubleshooting.
This is the most common piece of information included in knowledge articles, but there are a few pieces of key information that are frequently omitted. Resolution actions should include information on who needs to perform the step (certain access permissions may be required), and how to determine if the resolution actions are effective in resolving the issue.
Many recurring technical issues happen over and over because the issue isn’t fully resolved the first (or second) time. If the support issue is suspected to be a recurring issue and the agent doesn’t feel like they have addressed the true root cause, it is important for the knowledge articles to include the agent’s thoughts about additional diagnostic steps or resolution actions that could be considered should the issue recur.
Well written and informative knowledge articles are the lifeblood of your IT helpdesk operations. Capturing knowledge is equally (if not more) important to resolving the immediate user issues; this forms the basis of a collective knowledge base that all your IT helpdesk agents can share.
It is great that your IT helpdesk staff are collecting knowledge content and publishing knowledge articles with best practices, troubleshooting steps and instructions on how to solve common issues. Unfortunately, simply possessing knowledge doesn’t generate value for your users and your company. The knowledge needs to be consumed and used for resolving end-user requests. Here are some of the best practices for using your IT helpdesk’s knowledge management content for providing support to users:
Unless an IT system is new or is being used in a new way, chances are the issues that users report to the IT helpdesk won’t be new. They will be things that someone else has seen and addressed before. Once an agent has developed an understanding of the user’s issue, they should consult the knowledge base to see if guidance already exists on how to address the issue. This helps to accelerate diagnosis and can also lead to more successful issue resolution (by leveraging solutions that have already been tested before).
The best way to find content in your IT helpdesk’s knowledge management database (KMDB) is using search functions. Most helpdesk management and ITSM systems include robust keyword search capabilities that can match your search terms against the full text of knowledge articles. This is especially helpful when an agent is having trouble finding an exact match for a user’s issue. Often they can find knowledge articles on similar topics that can be used as a starting point for troubleshooting.
Articles created by other helpdesk agents aren’t the only source of knowledge content available to your helpdesk agents. Most software and system releases include release notes, known issue lists and bug reports from the development team along with results from pre-release testing activities. These release artifacts should be included in your knowledge database and made accessible to agents providing end-user support.
There are an endless number of measurements that companies use to evaluate IT helpdesk effectiveness. IT helpdesk best practices have shown that there are 6 KPIs that every helpdesk should track
This is an indicator of how often normal business activity is being disrupted as a result of IT issues.
This is not the same as create to close time for the ticket. User impact started sometime before the ticket was opened and may have been alleviated before the ticket is set to resolved status. Impact time is typically measured based on the causing and resolving events related to the issue.
Your helpdesk should seek to resolve user issues correctly and completely the first time without the user having to call back in, re-open a ticket, or wait for support engagement.
This is a measure of your process efficiency, and can be used to help improve first call resolution rate.
SLAs for response and resolution times are essential management tools for evaluating helpdesk performance. Measuring them consistently and evaluating compliance regularly is critical for ensuring effective helpdesk operations.
(waiting in line, for agent, for support resources): Also referred to as passive time, this is the time when users are idle and unproductive, waiting on your helpdesk agents to respond. Minimizing wait time should be an ambition of every IT helpdesk.
Each of the IT helpdesk best practices discussed address individual facets of your IT helpdesk operations: Culture, workflow, SLAs, knowledge management, communications, use of data and measuring helpdesk performance with KPIs. Every company’s helpdesk operations are unique and achieving peak performance requires taking the best practices and evaluating them in the context of your teams’ strengths and weaknesses to find the best combination that will give you the greatest impact. Most modern IT helpdesk operations depend heavily on a helpdesk management or ITSM system to provide a core set of technical capabilities to support the activities of helpdesk staff. Leveraging the capabilities provided in these platforms can help your team implement best practices in ways that are both scalable and sustainable over time. As your helpdesk matures, self-service support capabilities can be an effective tool for resolving simple and common user issues, but self-service should not be a replacement for the knowledge and experience of a professional IT helpdesk staff. Every ticket is a work stoppage for someone in your company. The goal of your IT helpdesk is to help users resolve their technical issues quickly so they can get back to their normal activities of creating value for your company.
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