On-the-Job Training or Bust?

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Perhaps this sounds familiar: You arrive to work on your first day as a help desk professional. It’s early, but you don’t need your morning coffee to feel awake and nervy. You’re eager to be a source of information and answers for confused and frustrated end users — after you get a bit of training, of course.

Unfortunately, before you even remove your coat, your new boss grabs your arm, leads you to your cubicle and plunks you down in your chair. Before you can say, “Good morning,” you’re donning a headset, through which someone is screaming about a malfunctioning computer program.

As you sputter, trying to assess the situation, your boss mouths “Good luck!” and strides away, without even looking back. After you finally assuage that caller, you listen to your fellow help desk professionals, hoping to glean some hints for how to handle future calls.

With any luck, this situation does not ring a bell for you, although it might contain a shade of the truth. Help desk professionals tend to get very little training — most are just thrown on the phones, said Ivy Meadors, CEO of High Tech High Touch Solutions, a company whose goal is to “create high-performance help desk and call center organizations.”

“Basically, they’re brought in and they’re given two or three days of training on, maybe, their telephone system and call-tracking system, and they do a lot of side-by-side training where they just plug in with another agent,” Meadors said. “But, they’re usually put on the phones very quickly, with the exception of some of the bigger companies, such as Microsoft.”

Further, she said people on external tech-support help desks tend to get even less training than individuals who work on internal help desks.

“An internal help desk is going to have you know a lot about their internal applications, so they try to hire people with at least some technical background,” Meadors said. “What you really need the training in, that they don’t get, is customer-service skills.”

And although on-the-job training is rarely the best approach for any help desk training, it’s especially ineffective for soft-skills training, Meadors said.

“The customer-service skills are not something you can get on the job — you really need to go to a training class, which could be an internal training class in the company, but you don’t see that very often anymore,” she said. “What works really well (and I’m not just focusing on customer service, but a lot of different types of soft-skill training, whether it’s co-handling skills, how to deal with different behaviors of different callers, etc.) is to go outside and get that kind of training. It is valuable for the people at help desks.”

In fact, Meadors said it is rare that on-the-job training is the best kind of training for help desk professionals.

“[If] the person has come in from another help desk or tech-support environment, so they already have those skills, and they have good customer-service skills, on-the-job training probably is going to work — if you don’t have any really complicated applications or things of that nature,” she said. “But I don’t very often see them being able to walk in, sit side by side and be able to rock ‘n’ roll.”

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