There is a growing debate on the nature and definition of a helpdesk within an organisation. What is it there for? What does it do? What is it called? Who does it support? Why?
Typically, the role of the helpdesk is seen as an internal function, usually part of the IT division, set up to provide first level support to users of the organisation's computer systems. Today however, the role of the helpdesk has expanded into a whole new area - customer service.
A TV station taking complaints from disgruntled viewers, a local council recording residents requests for refuse removal - these may be seen as being far removed from a user reporting a broken keyboard or having problems with the latest version of software but are, in essence, the same thing.
Whether an internal user or an external customer, the caller has a need and/or desire to be looked after and provided with good service. When they call the desk, they should feel confident that their query or problem is dealt with promptly and in an efficient manner. If answers cannot be given immediately, they should be happy that procedures are in place to ensure a rapid resolution.
A number of helpdesks start life as one person, often the office's technical guru, writing down faults and problems on scraps of paper or Post-It notes and attending to them when they get around to it.
In today's business environment of customer service and satisfaction, this is no longer acceptable to most corporate organisations. As a result, the helpdesk and support centre have evolved into mission-critical operations, vital to the ongoing prosperity of the organisation and an essential tool in developing loyalty and satisfaction from users and customers.
Today, helpdesks can have a major impact on productivity and profitability.
This is particularly relevant to commercial operations; retaining a customer is more cost effective than attracting a new one. This rise in prominence also leads to a rise in pressure on the helpdesk from three key areas; customers, management and support analysts. Customers expect answers quickly, management continually query effectiveness and efficiency and as a result analysts demand better tools to help them do their job. Through the implementation of automated support systems, this pressure can be relieved.
There are currently two schools of thought on what an automated support system should offer. Firstly, some vendors believe that a solution should be totally integrated, providing managers with a complete range of tools to cope with every possible situation. As well as call logging and problem management, these solutions also claim to offer complete asset management, anti-virus, network security and configuration, environmental control and change management functionality. However, this philosophy contains some fundamental flaws. To be addressed properly, problem management needs to be recognised as a specialist, independent area and treated as such.
The processes involved in handling customers and dealing with calls and complaints is very different from that of checking security or monitoring your operating environment.
The alternative to an integrated solution is a best-of-breed implementation.
Products developed by specialist vendors with years of experience in a particular market are always going to provide better functionality. With the benefit of an in-depth knowledge of the processes and dynamics of a helpdesk, a best-of-breed vendor can provide a solution that matches exact requirements and situations rather than trading this suitability for added peripheral tools. Of course, these products should provide open interfaces and compatibility with external applications to allow the building of a best-of-breed solution but their core purpose should be in the provision of dedicated support.
Whichever selection is made, the sooner the solution is implemented, the better. Customer service is an inherent part of the business operation and organisations should now begin to prepare for the biggest focus history has seen on helpdesks - year 2000.
So much has been stated and written about the year 2000 problem that a lot of people have now become bored with the subject. Millions of pounds have been spent by organisations hiring advisory consultants, putting procedures in place to make systems Y2K compliant and upgrading hardware and software. On the other hand, some organisations have, through a corporate decision or ignorance, taken no action in the belief that they will not be affected.
Whatever the case, one thing is for certain. Come Monday 3 January 2000 when most people return to work, a number of organisations are going to have problems. Who will the users and customers call when their software doesn't work, when their PC won't boot up, when they can't set the time on their video recorder? The helpdesk.
Therefore, now is the time to prepare helpdesks so that they are able to cope come the day of reckoning. While avoiding Y2K problems may be difficult, handling associated issues is a lot simpler through the definition of service levels, escalation procedures and remedial actions. With procedures in place and the automated system designed to handle the situations, problem management becomes easier. A caller will react more favourably if their problem is handled calmly and professionally rather than a haphazard panic.
Does your helpdesk know what are the most important systems in the organisation?
Who are the key customers? Which calls take priority? If the answers to these questions are known before problems arise, it is easier to deal with them when they do. Should you attend to the company's chairman who is having problems with his wordprocessor or the accounts assistant who is unable to pay cheques through the automated system? Each may seem important but which one has the most effect on the company?
There is little point in using technology for technology's sake and investing in a support system if it doesn't do the job required. Implementing an automated solution to support your customers and users may at first appear to be complicated but the process can be broken down into some simple key areas. No two helpdesks are alike. Each one will have a different way of handling calls and solving queries and therefore it is important that the system is designed to meet individual requirements. Before implementation, it is imperative that the support processes have been clearly defined and documented. By doing this, the system can be customised so that the automated workflow can match the business process, ensuring ease of use and accurate handling of data.
In reality, it doesn't matter if it is called a helpdesk, a support centre or a customer hotline. What is important is that your organisation recognises the value of a quality automated support operation and uses it to provide the best possible levels of service now, in year 2000 and beyond.
Martyn Riddle is marketing manager of Bendata Europe.
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