8 min read

Help Desks Think Bigger

Technology support is shifting from troubleshooting simple questions to supporting companies' business strategy
The help desk used to be the lowliest job in the IT department, and for good reason-help-desk employees spent all day answering simple, repetitive, unchallenging questions. That's changing. Users' questions are getting more sophisticated, and in response, the role of the help desk is evolving from one of troubleshooting to one of understanding and supporting business strategy. "The skill of the help-desk person needs to evolve to a business-unit support role," says Rick Mapes, IT department division manager for the city of Aurora, Colo.

Part of the reason is that more companies, and more employees within companies, are using sophisticated business applications such as enterprise resource planning and customer-relationship management systems. Rather than just worrying about problems on their desktops, IT users are more likely to be affected by issues of application use and business process that are outside the traditional purview of the help desk.

Gartner estimates that during the past five years, the average number of applications supported by help desks has ballooned from 25 per help desk to more than 200. Some of that increase comes from help-desk consolidation, but the change has started to transform technical support from a group of people who have to know how to reboot a PC to those who have to know how to pull up payment history from an SAP financial system and move that data to another application. Gartner estimates that 45% of calls are devoted to complex issues such as application-process questions.

All of this requires support personnel who can talk business, not just technology. "They can't just know the technology. They have to know the customers. They have to know the environment in which the technology works," says Bob Riazzi, VP of marketing for Dell Computer's enterprise services group, which provides technical support to businesses and their users.

The most obvious reason for smarter questions is smarter users. While a printer jam might have cowed users five years ago, they're much more likely to tackle such a problem themselves now, simply because of more exposure to the technology. Users also are better versed in operating systems and basic applications, and they're more likely to know how to work around an issue. "We've digested the how-to issues pretty well, and we're moving on," Gartner analyst Kris Brittain says.

Younger business users, who have grown up around computers, can be particularly savvy and not as likely to ask obvious questions. That makes the help-desk job less routine, but it also can make tech support trickier. For instance, younger customers calling into Dell's Enterprise Service desk don't have patience with Dell's diagnostics tool, preferring to skip the basic questions and start 10 steps ahead of other customers. They also tend to expect more. "We have had a challenge staying a step ahead of those customers," says Kristie Gobeli, Dell's senior manager for enterprise technical support.

But help-desk managers say that knowledgeable users aren't the only factor at work here. Hardware and operating systems are becoming more stable, so problems with them occur less frequently. Windows, the desktop operating system for most of the business world, has become more intuitive and familiar, so users don't need to ask as many how-to questions.

Calls to Aurora, Colo.'s help desk now focus mainly on business processes and application issues, says Mapes.
If hardware and operating systems are getting simpler, then why are the questions facing help-desk personnel becoming more complex? The desire to share information is making for increasingly complex interaction among business applications, meaning that a problem with one application is more likely to affect others.

Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., recently rolled out PeopleSoft Inc. human-resources applications along with a number of internally developed applications. "There are anomalies in those applications that we have to deal with," says Craig Moore, systems engineer at Stanford. In addition to resolving technical problems, Stanford's 500-person distributed help desk faces questions about how best to use new applications. To handle those in-depth questions, the university developed specialized groups of help-desk personnel. For example, one of these groups supports PeopleSoft and issues related to the software; another focuses on a proprietary financial application used by Stanford's graduate business school.

There's also a push to have help-desk staff better understand the customer, whether it's an internal IT user or a paying customer. As Peder Malchow, technology manager for Wells Fargo Services, a support unit of Wells Fargo Bank, looks into the future, he says help desks will need to bring all the power of CRM concepts and technology to bear on serving internal users.

The idea is that if a user calls the help desk, the staff would be able to pull up details about that user's business unit, position, and repair history. "If I know who you are and what you do, and have similar cases of people in your position, you're going to have a higher level of quality and a reduced time to come up with the solution," Malchow says. If a bank teller from Montana calls in, the help desk would first pull up issues common to that person's position and geographical area.

Wells Fargo Services, which handles technical support and how-to questions for Wells Fargo Bank's 100,000 employees, isn't there yet, but Malchow is investigating what technology is needed to make that happen. In the meantime, his group is developing relationships with the bank's business units and IT development groups, looking to tie the help desk into a feedback loop that can alert the company to potential user and technology problems.

Spotting trends and not just treating individual problems is another growing responsibility for the help desk. The Regional Medical Center at Memphis collects user requests and complaints, then uses its Magic Solutions' Magic Service Desk software to locate patterns and alert the right IT and businesspeople to make changes.

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last month, complaints started piling up at the hosptial's help desk about poor performance on the intranet and in network-based applications. The help desk investigated and discovered the network was faltering because of unprecedented Web traffic as employees checked news sites to keep up-to-date. With that information, hospital executives decided the slow performance wasn't enough to jeopardize operations and chose not to take any action to limit Web access to news.

The Regional Medical Center, like other organizations that are mindful of the need for the help desk to be tied into the rest of the business, is trying to take the help-desk staff out of isolated phone rooms. The Tennessee hospital recently did away with the role of the full-time help-desk technician who takes phone calls all day. Instead, support people spend a day or two a week at a desk answering phone calls. The rest of the week, they work on projects around the hospital, such as application or server deployments with the IT deployment teams.

That creates a lot of benefits, says Wes Boston, the Regional Medical Center's director of technical services. Support technicians work on the applications and systems they support so they can better understand how they work and how they help administrators, nurses, and doctors do their jobs. "A lot of times, you have a person on the phone who's great at solving problems, but they have no idea of the big picture," Boston says. Changing tasks gives them that picture. It also helps them interact with people in the business units they're supposed to be serving, which helps when support issues come up in those groups. "They become a person to the people they help," he says.

As good as these help-desk changes and challenges are for the company, they may be even better news to the technicians themselves. The help desk is typically seen as a dead-end area in IT, which makes it a tough place for businesses to attract talent. Boston says his program of rotating staff helps him recruit and keep better people. "It's going to help morale, because they know they're not the low person on the totem pole," he says. Technicians don't feel chained to a desk, because they're more a part of the IT and business units.

Even businesses whose help desks follow more conventional practices have seen the help-desk position rise in status and opportunity. Dell, which needs increasingly skilled employees as its help desk responds to enterprise applications and massive networks, has seen the caliber of its help-desk personnel improve. "The resumes are richer," Riazzi says. Because Dell's help-desk staff spends so much time getting to know customers and applications, the help desk also becomes a career path to other positions in IT.

The city of Aurora's Mapes says the changing role of the help desk has let his staffers get more experience and technical skills in areas such as networking, operating systems, and Microsoft certification. But even though help-desk issues are growing more complex, Mapes is shying away from hiring pure technology hotshots. He did that when he started at Aurora three years ago-and had nearly 200% turnover the first year. Culturally, those people weren't a good fit. Instead, Mapes says, he needs tech-smart people who understand the business user.

Says Mapes, "I've got to hire people who can understand what I mean by customer service and then be willing to admit when they're over their heads technically and ask for help."