Helping the helpdesk

Twenty years ago there were few jobs which required the use of computers and, as a result, those who did use them tended to be self-professed techno-geeks. Today, there are few jobs, especially in the developed world, that do not require some computer knowledge. The net result is millions of relative neophytes making life hell for IT support men and women the world over.

Some of the best stories may only have a slight hint of truth to them but they are unquestionably entertaining: The person who calls support when the foot pedal won’t work. The problematic coffee holder which seems to keep going back into the computer. The super-moron who calls support when a computer crashes during a blackout.

During a session at the recent Comdex 2001 in Toronto three professional geeks, in a room full of them, dissected some of the basic problems that are pervasive in the helpdesk world.

And though there was much blame and ridicule heaped on those neophytes, much of the discussion placed the wrath on the industry as a whole.

We have had computers for 55 years, and they still don’t work, said Mark Minasi, IT author and columnist based in Virginia Beach, Va.

The problems arise because new programs are dumped upon old long before the first set of bugs are exterminated.

“[Let’s] squeeze the bugs out one at a time until we have no (support) jobs left,” he added.

George Spalding, chief technology consultant with Mind Sharp Learning Centers, in Bloomington, Minn., was even harsher with his ire. “[We are] basically in the business of supporting new technical crap,” he said.

But crap or not, the end user is often to blame. Much of the time because companies often don’t spend the time or money to properly train them.

“The vast majority is people who don’t know how to use technology,” said Essex, England-based Malcolm Fry, co-chairman of Pink Elephant Inc.

The average call to a help desk is usually not a specific problem (such as an IRQ conflict) but rather due to end-user ignorance, he said. The IT department is becoming, in addition to a help desk, the training and security department of the company.

Minasi agreed, saying that one way to help reduce helpdesk costs is to have compulsory employee training. And for those too incompetent to learn, he introduced the concept of corporate Darwinism. Forget your password? “I guess that means you are going to have to leave the company,” he joked.

Fry joked that having a corporate slapper, who smacks employees upside the head if they forget a password, was the more efficient way to go.

But the trio did bring up some serious issues such as the fact few companies spend the time or money to do root cause analysis. If your helpdesk is good at solving a problem then no one senior bothers to fix it.

Spalding brought up the most hated metric in the helpdesk world-first call resolution. It represents the percentage of problems a helpdesk fixes on the first try. Though intuitively one would think this to be a good metric, the truth is if you can solve a problem on the first call you have probably seen it many times before. In other words the same problems keep popping up with no effort made to fix the cause.

Many companies are trying to move a great deal of their internal and external support to the Web. Your company may or may not care how much time customers waste surfing confusing FAQs for an answer but they had better pay attention of the time wasted internally using the same methods, the three said.

“We waste a tremendous amount of time on the Web,” Minasi said.

His idea if for larger companies to have the equivalent of a support librarian who can help you find information and answers quickly on the Web.

Fry said CEOs are not involved enough in support issues and that the corporate cost is dramatically higher than often thought. One call to the help desk often represents one lost hour of productivity. If you get 40 a day (hardly an unusual number for a mid-sized company) it is like being short five employees the entire year.

Until CEOs recognize this issue, and it is put in terms they can understand, they won’t react to it, Fry said. The end result could be a lot of people out of a job a few years down the line.