Setting Standards in a Support Staff Department

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The support-staff industry, or more specifically the help-desk industry, is such a vague industry that finding a common problem amongst its employees is difficult in itself. Help-desk staff answers questions on everything from forgotten passwords to complicated network administration problems or more specific hardware-specific questions.

“We talk about the support industry and the help-desk industry, but really there is no such thing,” said Robert Last, content manager at the Help Desk Institute. “It’s just a really segmented group. If you’re troubleshooting the software that runs an MRI machine as opposed to troubleshooting Xbox hardware, there is a different type of support there.”

Across the broad range of various types of specific support staffs, there are a few things that do in fact ring true for them all. After all, the common thread here is helping an end-user or customer for all cases.

Where a Staff Can Better Itself
When taking a look at a support staff for any company, it’s important to remember that all employees must keep the customer or end-user in mind at all times. This goes the same for the most eccentric and difficult customers out there.

“The customer who is very emotional, either due to frustration or time pressures and has realized they have made a mistake can be incredibly difficult to deal with,” Last says. “If the software or hardware that the customer is dealing with is especially complicated that can compound the problem and make things even worse.”

It’s important to remember that support-staff members must have incredible inter-personal skills to deal with irate and irrational customers. A keen ear for understanding a customer’s emotions and a mind for what to say to make things better are key. We all know the above characteristics as “soft-skills,” but some in IT still do not get the concept.

“That’s where the help-desk’s social skills come in. They have to know how to handle an angry or upset person over the phone. Even if you know the answer to a problem quickly, until you handle the emotions that are in the way of the caller, you can’t adequately address the concern,” Last said. Irate customers can double or triple the difficulty of any support call, even if the staff member is good with people. The importance of listening skills and empathy cannot be stated enough.

The Organization’s Helping Hand
Although it might be easy to say these things, the hiring practices of companies still seem to disregard much of this advice and guidance. The typical IT employees that get tucked into a support staff in their organization might not have the right personality set to be successful at a help desk.

“Even today, in the year 2006, in the small- or medium-sized firms, employees tend to be hired by technical skills over customer-service skills, even though your level-one help-desk employees are going to use their soft-skills and customer-service skills a great deal,” Last said. “After they’re hired, they’re lucky to get five or 10 day’s worth of training and then they are sent out to the phones.

“People who have been very successful in customer service and other interpersonal backgrounds have done well in a technical support role,” Last added. “I have hired philosophy, history and English majors over the years, and they have all done well. It may be clichéd, but the technical side is not that difficult to teach to a new staff member. The desire and genuine concern for another human being, however, cannot be taught. Some techies just never get it. Soft skills really are just much harder to teach to staff members.”

Last estimates that roughly one-third of general customer support calls are redirected because an employee cannot handle the customer’s demands. Such a low success rate through the various help desks raises a few questions.

There is a definite gap in the perceived importance of technical support in the business world and the actual amount of company resources dedicated toward support staffs. One way this importance is measured is in the decrease of lost user productivity. If end users cannot continue their work because their workstations are broken, not only are they sunk but the people relying on them are also in limbo. Companies have begun to see the importance in limiting this loss, but support managers are still not receiving the staff needed to best support their organizations.

There is no better evidence of upper management’s disregard for technical support than the outsourcing rage that has occurred over the past few years. Although the jury might still be out on whether outsourcing technical support offshore detracts quality from the overall service, the actions of a large company such as Dell, who sent its laptop support offshore to India, bringing its support back to the U.S. does not look promising.

“The average CEO still doesn’t care much about technical support in their company. The IT industry in general has fallen under such a level of scrutiny that everything is not measured in the return on investment,” Last said. “Companies are making IT more cost effective, but they are doing so at a cost in quality. There has to be a happy medium in there somewhere that we just haven’t found yet.”

In establishing a successful help desk, the commitment to the customer or end-user has to come from management. Often, implementation of various support programs or architectures such as ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), Six Sigma or the HDI’s Support Certification Program improve the productivity and overall support provided to customers and end-users. A glimmer of hope is on the horizon as well, as demand for these programs is on the rise, Last said.

But any support architecture or established practice in a support staff is only as effective as the management that is implementing the program. As far as technical support is concerned, in order to have a successful support staff, everyone involved from the C-level executives down must be primarily concerned with the customer’s best interest.

-Patrick Evans,

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