Secret CIO: Superior IT Service? Get Help-Desk Superstars - InformationWeek
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03:09 PM

Secret CIO: Superior IT Service? Get Help-Desk Superstars

For happy clients, put best problem-solvers on the front lines.

There are good reasons to get together periodically with people who work in the same field as you. Not only is there the emotional benefit of having a sympathetic audience when you share your war stories, there's also the possibility that you just might learn something that can help in your job. Most of all, it's fun to kick back and relax with a group of folks who can regale each other with stuff to which you can easily relate.

It was the end of a typical workweek, and I was unwinding with some local CIOs at a popular watering hole. We were discussing whether the people who use our services are internal customers, clients, or users. After a while, we got bored with this metaphysical equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and focused on the subject of keeping these people, whatever we call them, happy. Each of us gave our pet theory on what was required--business alignment, operational excellence, strategic portfolio management, or whatever.

When it came my turn, I said succinctly, "Superstars on the help desk," and took another sip of my Bombay Sapphire. "Look," I continued, "we agree we're only as good as our last project or, to put it another way, our last interaction with a client. It seems to me that since the help desk has the most contacts with people, we should make sure that the folks who answer the phones and resolve the problems get a lot of respect and are paid accordingly."

That comment enlivened the conversation. I heard: a) I was crazy because the applications analysts were the most important members of the staff; b) everyone was outsourcing help desks because they weren't core activities; and c) no self-respecting HR person would approve salaries aimed at attracting and keeping competent help-desk employees.

I said they had some good points, but I was sticking with my opinion. I related my own experience: Even though I increased our outsourcing last year in response to our CEO's latest call for budget cuts, I kept the help desk inside and fought for job-grade increases because I felt, and still feel, that the help desk is the front line of service and, done right, provides real value to the company. I allowed that the biggest obstacle to what I wanted to do came from Human Resources.

"When I went to the VP of Human Resources for higher help-desk job grades, she looked at me as if I were nuts. I was told we were in a cutback mode, and no other company had done what I proposed. It was a tough negotiation, but finally she agreed to support my position if I could show an overall budget reduction in keeping with the CEO's goals and could validate service improvements. Even after overcoming that hurdle, we had a lot to do. For starters, there were issues of whether incumbents could meet the new job qualifications and questions about whether talented people would transfer to the help desk."

I stopped talking and took another sip of my drink. One of my friends spoke: "What you did was risky. You wouldn't be telling the story if it didn't work. Just how did you measure the service improvement you had promised?"

I said, "That's exactly the major problem I faced. It's getting late. How about if I save the answer for next time?"

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty). Send him E-mail at

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Herbert Lovelace's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Herbert Lovelace, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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