Laymen often assume the job of a help-desk worker is to continuously smile and bear the brunt of irate callers’ wrath when a piece of technology breaks down or refuses to cooperate with the end user. While that scenario may be a stretch, in reality, the help-desk function does exist to serve customers with malfunctioning technical devices.
“A lot of help desks out there [focus on]: ‘If your technology is broken, here’s [the number] you call to fix it,’” said John Ahlberg, president of Waident Technology Solutions, a provider of IT support. Waident takes a slightly different approach.
“For us, it’s, ‘Your end user needs help.’ And that could include, ‘My technology is broken,’ but about 50-60 percent of [the time], it revolves around [situations] like, ‘What’s the most effective way to do a mail merge?’ or ‘How do I open an Office 2007 file when I only have Office 2003?’” Ahlberg said.
If an end user shopping around for a home computer calls the help desk for advice, employees must go above and beyond traditional service norms to help the customer find what will suit their individual needs and e-mail them special deals or useful information they come across.
“For me, help desk is the people part,” Ahlberg said. “It’s the ‘we’re here for you; what can we do?’ part.”
Service: The Fundamental Objective
Responsiveness and communication skills should be engrained in anyone looking to serve in a help-desk function. Most service-level agreements require a company to respond to end users either in real time or within 15 minutes of receiving a request.
Waident offers the “My Time Support” system that enables help-desk employees to work around customers’ schedules. For example, sometimes customers may require immediate assistance, but in less critical situations, they may opt to have the problem fixed while they’re at lunch or in a meeting.
“[At that point we’ll go in], fix whatever’s broken, test it to make sure it works and update our system,” Ahlberg said.
The customer receives a detailed e-mail describing the problem and steps that were taken to resolve it. Many traditional IT help desks send a brief response to the customer notifying them that the problem is solved, and proceed to close the ticket in an attempt to maintain a good closing rate. Ahlberg said his employees are forbidden to close a ticket until they receive confirmation from the end user that the problem is indeed solved.
“We don’t manage any of those metrics because people will want to close [tickets] as quickly as possible,” he said. The goal, instead, should be to fully ensure customer satisfaction.
Even as help-desk requests are addressed and processed, employees are expected to log the information for internal management and reporting. Their responsibilities also extend to clerical tasks such as answering the phone, replying to e-mails — in essence, lending any type of assistance to the end user.
“On the technology side, [they] address Office problems, network printing, Internet connectivity, spyware, virus scan, etc.,” Ahlberg said, adding that they also support BlackBerrys and other personal digital assistants.
Technical Competency Not Enough
“It’s definitely more important to have people skills than technical skills,” Ahlberg explained. “Intuitively, they have to [be able] to communicate, be personable [and possess] a sense of energy.”
They must intrinsically want to be advocates for end users, he said. Technical skills are not unimportant; rather, the prevalence of soft skills, such as business and communication skills, are more important in a help-desk role.
Ahlberg’s ideal help-desk hire isn’t necessarily a technology person, but instead an office administrator or office manager for a small- to medium-size business who has an inherent passion for technology — someone whose job or previous jobs have revolved around supporting people and supporting the business.
“[Maybe] they’ve always wanted to be in technology because they enjoy it, but really were never given the chance. Those are the people we want [in help desk] because if they understand [how to] work with people and support the business, we can bring them on and — via our own internal processes, education or certifications — we can teach them the technologies,” Ahlberg said.
While people skills are critical, it would be unrealistic to expect someone who “is totally off the technology chart” to be a suitable candidate for a help-desk position, Ahlberg said.
“[We look more for] people skills, but there has to be some core technology skills,” he said.
A good help-desk hire at Waident might be, for example, a woman who was a businessperson, but had recently bought a Mac and a BlackBerry because she had a passion for technology and was interested in familiarizing herself with these technologies.
Ahlberg is confident that his approach to recruiting yields optimal returns.
“You can always teach a businessperson the technology if they have a passion for it, but if you’ve got a computer geek, it’s really hard to try to make him a businessperson,” he said.
Ahlberg himself has an academic background rooted in business, but said he chose to enter the IT realm because it was fun and interesting. Similarly, Waident recently had an open help-desk position, and the resume that stood out to Ahlberg was that of an office administrator with no technology background, but who was actively seeking to enroll in Microsoft certification classes.
“[It shows that] she has the people background we’re looking for, and she’s strategically saying, ‘I want to move more toward the technology world. This is how I can learn those technology skills and leverage my experience,’” Ahlberg said.
Sprucing Up a Resume
The majority of help-desk candidates use their resumes to highlight their technical knowledge, but they give little or no thought to enhancing them with other desirable skills.
“Resumes are telling: I usually throw out resumes that are peppered with HTML and Java and all the typical technology acronyms,” he said. “If they’re smart, they’re going to represent themselves for any open position as more of a businessperson who understands technology.”
No resume for the help-desk position would be complete without listing one’s technical competencies and interests. However, Ahlberg cautions applicants against merely including a bulleted list of acronyms that represent certifications or other technical qualifications. Instead, he advises them to play up one or two specific work experiences. A good example would be helping to upgrade the entire company to Office 2007.
Everyday Help-Desk Functions
Though the schedules of help-desk professionals may differ vastly from one day to another, Ahlberg stressed that the common denominator of this job role is that they are at all times required to actively help end users.
“People who do help desk enjoy talking, working with and helping other people — and that’s what they do all day long,” Ahlberg said.
They are expected to log into the help-desk system when they arrive each day and respond to and address all open requests. A large percentage of those requests are linked to customers who don’t respond to e-mails in a timely fashion, so there are inevitably a handful of follow-up messages that need to be sent. Following these rituals, each day could bring an entirely different set of help-desk requests, ranging from network support to audio/video conferencing.
“It’s usually not the exact same, ‘Let me go fix this Windows problem’ 500 times a day,’” Ahlberg said.
One of the primary challenges help-desk professionals face is an overload of tasks. “There are many times when more and more critical requests come in, which [throws off] the pace,” he said.
Ahlberg said he addresses the potential stress that could arise by creating a workplace environment in which asking colleagues for help is perfectly acceptable.
Looking to the Future
In terms of career progression, help-desk professionals tend to move toward either networking or software, Ahlberg said.
“Those interested in networking can move over to our networking group to learn more about VMware, switches, sending out videoconferencing, etc.,” he said. “[On the other hand], the software people can migrate over to either software applications or people support.”
Employees who have served in the help-desk function may also go on to sales and marketing roles, and their help-desk background can provide them an advantage over their colleagues. They are able to make compelling pitches to prospective clients because they are familiar with the intricacies of help desk, Ahlberg said.
– Deanna Hartley, firstname.lastname@example.org