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5 annoying help desk calls -- and how to banish them

The help desk is a hotbed of activity these days.

Despite the average person's growing technical acumen, workers still rely on corporate help when systems crash, applications bewilder and any number of other tech-related mishaps occur.

In fact, reliance on the help desk is actually increasing. HDI, the IT service and technical support association, reported in its 2011 Support Center Practices & Salary Report that 68% of support centers saw an increase in ticket volume in 2011.

What those figures don't show are the number of calls that could be handled better. Help desk managers know what we're talking about -- those calls that just won't go away, the kind of persistent questions that bog down support staff and keep more critical problems at the back of the queue.

"Eliminating irritating calls [completely] is never going to happen, so the goal is how do you stop as much of this from happening as you can, because it costs a lot of money to handle these calls," said HDI managing director Craig Baxter.

To help with that quest, Computerworld checked with the experts to compile a list of the five most persistent types of help desk calls and what organizations can do to get them under control.

Password reset

An HDI survey of 339 respondents showed that one-third of support centers reported that more than 30% of their tickets were related to password resets -- despite the fact that 69% of survey respondents allow customers to reset at least some of their passwords without help from the help desk.

That jibes with the experience of Ken Hayes, director of continual service improvement at Technisource Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., staffing and solutions firm, who says one of his clients had 25% of its calls related to password resets -- even though the firm had a self-service option available.

The problem, as it is in many places, was getting users to actually help themselves, Hayes says. Help desks often don't do enough to educate users that self-help options are available or don't make them easy to use, he says.

"People always look for the path of least resistance," Hayes says. "If a phone call to the help desk is the easiest, quickest way to resolve the problem, that's what they'll do."

To cut down on the volume of password-reset calls, Hayes's team worked with the client company, a financial services firm, to better market its automated password reset function. They actively registered everyone at the company, rather than leaving them to register on their own. And they instructed help desk staff to remind callers -- politely, of course -- that the automated option was a better way to go. As a result, password calls dropped to about 10%, a sizable improvement.

Other help desk supervisors who have successfully cut down these kinds of calls say automated voice systems, which walk callers through the self-service option, can also be effective.

Office suite basics

How do I format my spreadsheet? How do I change the fonts in Word?

Every help desk fields these kinds of questions from users who confuse help with basic application training, says Hayes. Problem is, these mundane app-related questions cause trained technologists to divert time and attention from issues more critical to the mission of the organization, he says.

Hayes worked with an insurance firm's help desk that was seeing about 5% to 10% of its 400 daily calls stemming from these types of questions. He first enlisted line-of-business managers to help them understand why it was a problem, explaining that the tedious questions tie up help desk staff and keep them from reacting more quickly to more critical questions.

Then he deployed an education campaign to give users application basics. Via brown-bag lunches, tip sheets and easy-to-use self-service websites developed by IT, users could find answers quickly on their own. Beyond that, the help desk now compiles and disseminates quarterly "tips and tricks" to address the most persistent questions.

The results of their work: an 80% reduction in those types of calls.

About that trouble ticket...

The help desk for Franciscan Alliance Inc., a Mishawaka, Ind., healthcare organization, runs 24 x 7 with 17 staffers supporting 20,000 users. It handles about 8,000 calls monthly. Dan Lafever, IT service quality manager, says he noticed that more than 700 tickets were some sort of callback question, mostly "What's the status?"

Franciscan Alliance did have a self-service portal that workers could use to see the status of their tickets, but it took 17 keystrokes, four mouse clicks and four screens just to get to an open ticket -- and even more effort to get to the status report. Lafever says he understands why users called the help desk instead.

So Lafever's team developed an easier way for employees to check the status of their tickets. In early February, the team launched a new portal that gives real-time information about every ticket issued by the help desk. Whenever the help desk fields a request, it automatically sends the user an email with a link to the visual ticket, which lists the status, who's handling it and any notes.

Lafever, who in March was readying a marketing campaign aimed at getting workers to use the new portal, says it's too early to track statistically how well the new portal is working to deflect calls to the help desk, but that responses from users have been positive.

Enterprise app woes

Margie Meyers, the support services manager at Hubbell Inc., an electrical and electronics manufacturer in Shelton, Conn., says she used to see a flood of calls whenever IT rolled out new applications.

She anticipated a high call volume -- well over 300 -- as the company got ready a few years ago to implement a proprietary appropriations-request application for 500 of its workers. Based on past experience, she figured it would be the calls that typically came in following a rollout: I don't know what I'm doing. I can't attach documents. I can't log in.

Meyers knew there had to be a better way. So she spearheaded a move toward more aggressive user education before the fact, spending 10 hours of her own time to map out a training session and then recommending -- though stopping short of requiring -- attendance at the hour-long event.

"I knew if we got them properly trained there would be fewer calls going to my team," she says, noting that the training material can be also used to onboard new workers and refresh the skills of existing workers, other ways to reduce help desk call volume.

Her investment was well worth her time: Instead of getting 300-plus calls in the weeks following the rollout, her help desk got around 25.

Michael Little, IT support center supervisor at Columbus State Community College in Ohio, says he faced a similar situation. He found that new hires as well as workers switching jobs or adding responsibilities were frequently calling with requests to access or learn new applications.

"It seemed we were repeating ourselves a lot," he says. To stop that situation, he worked with an IT team to build a website where workers could sign up for access and training on their own. As a result, those calls dropped from 50 a week to nearly none. "And if the calls do come in, the time it takes to respond to the calls is a lot less because we can direct them to the website," Little says.

Outage reporting

The help desk at Columbus State Community College supports 34,000 students, staff and faculty members, so when something goes wrong, the help desk hears about it -- multiple times over.

Little says users would bombard the help desk with calls when unexpected, unplanned outages occurred. The same response happened whenever IT took a system down for planned work as well.

"Stuff breaks, and it's always going to break, and people feel responsible to call," he says. "We would get bogged down with the 'I-can't-use-this-or-that' type of calls." Problem was, IT was already aware of the problem and didn't need to waste resources fielding hundreds of redundant calls.

The college's IT team tackled the problem using a few different strategies, Little says.

It implemented a strict policy that IT wouldn't take a system down without sending notices to users and the help desk in advance. IT also must post notices at the top of the college's website home page when systems go down.

And the help desk now sets up an automated message during outages so users calling to report it know right away that IT's already on the case, a move that's dropped calls from upwards of a few hundred a week to a just few stray callers.

Run your best help desk

Running an efficient help desk is key to spotting persistent problems that unnecessarily zap energy and time from support personnel.

Yet consultants and trainers say many help desks still don't have in place many of the basic practices and tools required to run a lean organization capable of identifying and addressing such requests.

Some key requirements for an effective help desk include:

The right people. Even if the calls are basic and repetitive, your staff needs to remain courteous and helpful, says HDI managing director Craig Baxter. After all, the help desk is the only interaction many workers have with IT, so you want to make sure it's always positive.

Good incident management practices. Effective help desks follow a consistent and disciplined procedure to resolve requests that come in, so staff, typically with the aid of software, know how to collect relevant information, fix what they can, escalate problems they can't fix and set expectations with users so they're not left frustrated, Baxter says.

A way to identify most frequent problems. "Even if you have lousy software, even if it's a help desk person making hash marks in categories, it's critical for you to have this to identify [problem areas]," says Donna Earl, owner of Help Desk Coach, a consultancy and training service based in San Francisco and London.

Someone to analyze reports. It's no good to simply track problem frequency; you need a staff member to be able to identify the most common types of calls and track repeat callers, how long calls take to resolve and the cost the business incurs because of the initial problem, says Ken Hayes, director of continual service improvement in technology support services at Technisource Inc. The next step is to solve recurring problems through software upgrades or procedural changes or by offering personalized training to repeat callers.


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