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Helping The Help Desk Gain Respect

Better pay and recognition will make job more attractive
People call the help desk for the strangest things: They can't find paper for the photocopier; they're denied access to a particular URL; or the fax number they're dialing is busy. Then there are the middle-of-the-night calls by insomniac marketing staffers who've forgotten their passwords.

But for all its efforts, the help desk remains the Rodney Dangerfield of IT jobs. Says Chris Martins, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group, "It's not seen as a cool place to work."

Not cool is just the beginning. Help-desk staffers generally are paid less than other IT professionals although they're under a lot of pressure to perform critical, around-the-clock operational support. Median total compensation (including salary and cash bonuses) of help-desk and IT support staff is $51,000, according to InformationWeek Research's recent National IT Salary Survey of nearly 20,000 professionals. Help-desk and IT-support managers earn about $71,000 in median total compensation compared with $97,000 for all IT managers. This is despite the fact that most managers cite faster response time, better support, and financial savings as a result of in-house tech support operations. To borrow the Dangerfield cliche: These workers get no respect.

"Calls to the help desk mean people have a problem-usually work they can't get done," says Janice Zuckerman, client-services manager at Polaroid Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. "They don't want to describe it, and they don't want to have a discussion around it." They're frustrated, aggravated, and, in some cases, believe they're entitled to special treatment.

Zuckerman manages eight staffers who handle 3,500 calls a month. She recalls one case where an employee wanted to circumvent the company's random call-ticket system to talk to a particular help-desk specialist. Unsuccessful, he called company security and had the person publicly paged, getting the attention of several levels of management, including Zuckerman. The employee spared her no wrath; nothing she said would mollify him. Wielding some clout in response, Zuckerman told the caller he is now seen as someone to be avoided by the help-desk staff. "If someone has 20 calls, they'll take every other call first," she told the employee. He hasn't been a problem since.

Ron Baron, an IT support contractor with ePeople Inc., handles what he calls third-tier support: network administration and systems for ePeople's client companies. "I don't get the front-line stuff. Thank God for that."

But others, like Lou Rivero, take it all in stride. For him, each problem presents a new opportunity to help someone, and he loves being in the thick of things. Rivero's help desk is right on the trading floor of Bank of America's Chicago stock exchange-within shouting distance of 300 traders, marketers, and back-office users. They can, and do, yell for help when needed: A second's worth of computer problems can mean millions of dollars gained or lost in a trade.

"We're always in firefighter mode," says Rivero, who manages a desk of seven that gets about 100 calls a day. If a problem can't be resolved at Rivero's help desk, it's sent to more sophisticated technicians. The work is around-the-clock, and people even communicate by two-way radios for calls during off-hours.

There's a lot of responsibility and "you go home mentally exhausted at night," he says. Rivero works 40 hours a week, but he's on call at all times. The five-year veteran says he loves the work and is fairly compensated.

Rivero isn't burned out, but he may be the exception. Steve Amero, senior support specialist at PictureTel Corp. in Chelmsford, Mass., rotates his staff of six to avoid burnout as they support about 600 company users. His help-desk workers may be on the desk a day or two, and then they may do paperwork, or build a PC, or perform other support functions such as fixing a notebook computer or issuing triage tickets, he says. "This keeps it interesting."

The pressure and lower pay associated with help-desk work aren't for everyone. "People who are motivated mostly by money won't feel like they're fairly compensated in this sort of work," Rivero says. "Some people in IT shun this work. But it can be a great stepping stone. It can be very gratifying."

Historically, the help desk often has been a good entry point into an IT career. Josh Balcomb, an IT operations analyst at Polaroid, started with a business degree but no IT experience. After an internship at SAP in 1999, he was hooked on IT. So when Polaroid needed to fill a slot on the help desk doing SAP support, Balcomb applied. After six months, he's on the day shift and, as he puts it, "trying to see what niche I fit into." He's taken on a role as project manager, but he's also taking Web-design classes.

Salary and attitudes about the job are improving, too, says Carolyn Healy, director of Supportindustry.com, a 7,000-member industry association that lobbies for better recognition. As companies realize how much of their overall productivity is linked to the effectiveness of the help desk, Healy says, they're "training help-desk people better technically and also on issues like 'how to defuse a hothead.'"

One trend that may help overloaded help desks is the use of technologies that automate the help desk to handle redundant calls such as password problems. E-support is helpful in preventing burnout because it eliminates boring calls, giving staff a chance to focus on more complex and interesting problems. However, some companies that have these tools don't promote their use enough, so users still tend to call the help desk for basic problems.

Aberdeen Group's Martins contends that the help desk would gain even greater stature if it were helping "the company succeed, rather than fixing IT woes"-for example, being proactive in system-deployment and training issues. The help desk has responsibility to make its own value more visible, Martins says.

Some IT groups working on critical efforts do seek greater collaboration with the help desk. Polaroid's SAP team wrote up the documentation for a large project it wanted the help desk to support. "My battle is to make people realize that the quality of their applications is dependent on the help desk," says Mary Kay Rauseo, an IT executive in SAP at Polaroid.

When companies understand that a strong help desk means a stronger operation, respect should follow. Managers who promote the visibility and professionalism of their staff do a lot to transform the help desk's Rodney Dangerfield image.