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Help Desk Procedures Topic: Tasks of the Help Desk Operator

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1 Help Desk Procedures Topic: Tasks of the Help Desk Operator
Written by Greg Webb while at Information Technology, Sydney Institute of Technology. Current address Information Technology, OTEN, 51 Wentworth Road, Strathfield NSW 2135, Australia. Phone Fax

2 1. Introduction The principle task of the help desk operator (HDO) is to answer the help desk phone and assist customers. The procedure followed by the HDO while performing this task is called call processing. Other tasks performed by the help desk operator include: Call or job tracking Call closure Reporting Staying up-to-date Interaction with the user community This learning resource describes these tasks in detail.

3 Figure 1: Call Processing flow diagram
As previously stated, call processing is the procedure followed when a help desk operator takes a call on the help desk telephone line. A flow diagram of the procedure is shown in Figure 1. Take a moment to familiarise yourself with the diagram and the overall procedure before proceeding. Figure 1: Call Processing flow diagram

4 2.1 Customer's Contact Details
When the operator takes the call, the first thing he or she does is asks for the customer's contact details and records them along with the date and time of the call. Why do you think the customer's contact details are collected before the problem description? ...after all, the customer may have come to the wrong help desk! PAUSE - Think about this before reading on.

5 2.1 Customer's Contact Details
Some would answer that it is more friendly if you can use the customer's name during the conversation and others may answer that it's in case the telephone connection is lost in which case the help desk operator can get back to the customer. Both answers are correct but if you had to choose one which answer would you choose? I would choose the second answer because in terms of customer service it would be a catastrophe to 'lose' a customer.

6 2.2 Recording the Problem Description
The next step is to find out what is wrong. The help desk operator listens to the customer's problem and tries to understand the problem. Some are very simple while others are much more complex. The customer may not use the correct terminology to describe the problem, and worse, may mis-use standard terminology. The customer may describe aspects of t he problem that are nothing to do with the real cause. The HDO must translate what is being said into an accurate description of the problem. In section 3.2, we look at listening skills that assist with understanding customer's problems.

7 2.2 Recording the Problem Description
All problems are recorded, even when the help desk operator is able to give an immediate solution. There are a number of reasons for this. First, a vital role of the help desk is to record statistics about customer problems with a view to reducing the incidence of common and costly problems. If the HDO is not recording calls then management may not be aware of the magnitude of some problems even though they are easy to fix.

8 2.2 Recording the Problem Description
Second, in many help desk systems, solutions and their problems are compiled into a knowledge base. A knowledge base is a database of solutions which can be used by help desk staff and in some systems, directly by the customer. Third, the solution provided may not solve the problem. If the customer calls again and the HDO who took the original call is no longer on duty, it is vital that the on duty HDO is able to see what the first HDO thought the problem was and what solution was recommended. With this information the second HDO will have more evidence to help solve the problem.

9 2.2 Recording the Problem Description
The customer's contact details and problem description are formally recorded. With a professional IT help desk this is done with help desk software but help desk software isn't required to run a help desk. In fact many help desks start off using paper based records.

10 2.2 Recording the Problem Description
The essence of the help desk software is two databases: one is a client database consisting of client contact details and the second is a transaction database holding all the reported problems. In a paper based system the customer details and the transaction would be recorded on one piece of paper.

11 2.2 Recording the Problem Description
Help desk software by its nature is capable of holding much more information than a client database and transaction records and therefore offers many advanced features. A knowledge base has already been mentioned. Other features include an asset register, a configuration database, billing for help desk operator time and much more. Professional help desk systems are described in a separate learning resource.

12 Activity 1 To record a customer's problem accurately, it is useful to have a set of questions ready to ask. Imagine you are a help desk operator supporting PC and Macintosh hardware and software in a networked environment. Design a set of questions to ensure you gather all the required information about the problem for recording in the help desk system. You should have about 10 questions.

13 Activity 1 - Answers A typical set of questions would include:
General: Are you using a PC or a Macintosh? What model is it? How much memory do you have? What is the size of your hard disk? Which operating system are you using (DOS, Win 98, Windows XP, Windows NT, Zenix, Mac OS, Linux)? Which version of the operating system are you using? Who installed it? Problem with application program: What application software are you having trouble with? What version is it?

14 Activity 1 - Answers Problem with printer: What model printer is it?
When did you buy it? (ascertain if it is still in warranty) Is it connected to the network or directly to your computer? Problem with network: Where are you? Description of problem: What are you trying to do? What is happening? What were you doing prior to the problem occurring? Is anyone else having a problem?

15 2.3 Problem Classification
The next step is to classify the problem. Classification is used to generate reports on the types of problem being received at the help desk. Classifications are determined by the organisation and will be chosen to give the details it is interested in. For example, one organisation may have the following broad classifications: hardware software networking and communications. Help desk management reports will show percentage of problems associated with each classification.

16 2.3 Problem Classification
Another organisation may be product-oriented and choose the following classifications: Word processing Spreadsheet DOS/Windows . Management reports will highlight which products customers are having most problems with. The HDO uses his or her own judgement based on technical skill to classify the problem. Another use of classifications is to choose a skill group to refer problems to. For example, if it is word processing or spreadsheet send it to skill group A, if DOS/Windows send it to skill group B and if it is send it to skill group C. Some help desk systems will automatically route problems to skill groups based on the classification assigned by the HDO.

17 Nature of Organisation
The choice of categories can tell you something about the focus of the organisation or the structure of its IT department. For example, the set of categories, used in the second example above, indicate a fairly small organisation with fairly modest computing requirements using nothing but desktop computers

18 Activity 2 What do the following categories suggest about the organisation? Desktop problems Networking and communications Mainframe systems External

19 Activity 2 - Answers The value of this activity is the range of discussion it might promote. There is no single right answer. All answers that fit the facts are right. Sample answer: Looks like a large organisation because it has mainframe applications. It has both internal and external customers. Management is more interested in seeing classes of problems occurring within the organisation than it is seeing classes of problems being experienced by external customers. This suggests that the number of external customers is small by comparison with internal customers. It also suggests that it is focused on internal issues rather than external customer issues.

20 2.4 Setting the Status Code
A status code is a code that indicates the current status of a problem. A typical set of status codes is shown in Figure 2. Figure 2: Typical set of status codes Open  The problem has been reported but it is not yet solved.  Completed  The problem has been solved or fixed and the customer has been informed.  Closed  Several days after the customer was informed of the solution or fix, the customer is called again to check that the solution or fix is satisfactory. 

21 2.4 Setting the Status Code
Some organisations have more codes. For instance, in an organisation where equipment is repaired, they might have a Pending code with the meaning shown in Figure 3. Figure 3: Example of other status codes Pending  Solution to problem is known but waiting on an external supplier for spare parts.  On Hold  Similar to Pending. 

22 2.4 Setting the Status Code
The actual names used as codes vary from site to site. For instance, they may use codes '1', '2' and '3', or 'new', 'solved' and 'finished'. Whatever the names of the codes, they will all have similar meanings to 'open', 'completed' and 'closed'. Assigning a status code of Closed is the final step of call closure

23 Providing an Immediate Solution
After recording the customer's personal details and a description of the problem and setting the job status to Open, the question is, can the HDO provide the solution immediately? In other words, can it be solved at the first point of contact? The possible answers are 'yes', 'no' and 'maybe'. Let's look at what happens if the help desk operator can solve the problem.

24 Providing an Immediate Solution
In Figure 1, follow the 'yes' branch from the decision box labelled 6. The help desk operator gives the solution to the customer, records the solution, sets the call status to Completed and signs off. The operator is now ready to accept the next call. Sometimes the help desk operator doesn't have the solution but believes that with further time they can solve the problem. This is the 'maybe' branch on the same decision box (number 6). The operator proceeds with probing questions such as, 'Try doing X and tell me what happens then'. The question is, how long should the help desk operator spend trying to solve the problem before deciding they can't do it? What do you think?

25 Providing an Immediate Solution
Did you consider what is happening while the help desk operator is on the phone trying to solve that one problem? Unless there are a large number of help desk operators, which is extremely rare, there are probably other customers waiting to get through! Time spent on calls is likely to affect service levels which management will be very sensitive to. Hence, the maximum amount of time to spend on each call is more likely to be set by management as a policy than it is to be left to the discretion of the HDO.

26 Providing an Immediate Solution
At the end of the maximum time allowed for a call the help desk operator will have either solved the problem or acknowledged that it must be passed on. If the problem has been solved then the operator will take the 'yes' branch from decision box 8. If the problem has not been solved then the operator will take the 'no' branch which is what he or she would have taken had they decided that they couldn't solve the problem in the first place.

27 2.6 Referring the Problem There are many reasons why the operator may not be able to solve a problem. It may be too complex or outside the operator's expertise but more commonly it is because it is physically impossible for the operator to deal with. For example, most hardware problems require a site visit to confirm or diagnose a problem and this work is done by technicians or desktop support, not the help desk. In this section I refer to the action of passing the job to a skill group as a 'referral'. It is more commonly called 'escalation' but as there are two types of escalation I use referral here to introduce the concept without ambiguity. Escalation will be dealt with fully in Call Tracking

28 2.7 Setting Priority The first step of referral is to assign a priority to the job (see Box 13 of Figure 1). Priorities are all to do with setting 'target completion dates' which is when the customer can expect to have the problem solved or fixed. Typical priority codes are: As Soon As Possible (ASAP) High Medium Low Each priority code is associated with a time period. This varies from help desk to help desk and is determined by management. Figure 4 shows example time periods assigned to the four priority codes used above.

29 Figure 4: Example of priority codes and associated time periods
ASAP  Within two hours  High  By this time in two working days  Medium  Within five working days  Low  Within 2 weeks. 

30 2.7 Setting Priority Priority codes cause a lot of confusion because the word 'priority' is not used in the normal sense of the word. When you prioritise a list of jobs you put them in the order in which they are to be executed. Skill groups are responsible for prioritising their own jobs. When the help desk assigns a priority to a job they are really specifying a time frame for completing the job. This is how it works. Say the HDO assigns a priority of High to a job and refers it to Desktop Support. What the HDO is telling Desktop Support is that they have to have the job completed within two working days of the time that the call was logged with the help desk. It is still up to the skill group to determine in which order they do their jobs. They just have to aim to meet the target completion dates.

31 2.7 Setting Priority The priority assigned by the HDO enables the HDO to tell the customer when the job should be completed. How? Simply by adding the timeframe of the priority to the current time. All help desk software will automatically compute this.

32 2.7 Setting Priority The priority assigned by the HDO is called the initial priority and this leads to the computation of the initial target completion date. They are called initial because they are set by the HDO. When the skill group receives the job they may find that they cannot meet that initial target completion date because of other competing work. In this instance, the supervisor of the skill group must re-negotiate the priority (really the target completion date) with the customer. It is a fact of life that even with the best intentions in the world, not all jobs can be done on time. The current priority and current target completion date is what they are right now. If they haven't been re-negotiated then they will be the same as the initial priority and target completion date.

33 2.7 Setting Priority It is vital that any changes to priorities and target completion dates be negotiated and agreed with the customer. This re-aligns the customer's expectation. Customers will be much happier if they are informed ahead of time that their job will not be completed when they first thought it would. They may not be totally happy but they will be much happier than if, come the time they expected their job to be finished, discover that it is going to take another week! Successful changes to target completion dates come about through successful negotiations, emphasis on the word 'negotiations'

34 Activity 3 Normally, the supervisor of the Network Support negotiates all changes to his target completion dates. However, he has been called to an important planning meeting and has asked you to re-negotiate the target completion date for a job involving a non-functional network printer in the accounts department. He needs a further two days. How would you negotiate a revised target completion date with the accountant in charge of the accounts department?

35 Activity 3 - Answers Negotiation skills must leave both parties satisfied. First explain the difficulty that Network Support has Ask the accountant if he is still depending on the job being fixed as initially agreed (the problem may be less urgent now) Ask if there are any compromise solutions that will satisfy his section until Network Support can get there? For example, connecting the printer to one computer and doing all the printing from it. How important is it to the accountant. Would he be prepared to pay for an external service to come in? If all fails, go to the Network Support section and find the job that is about to be started and see if it can be delayed while the accounting department's is fixed.

36 2.7 Setting Priority –Target Completion Dates
Target completion dates are recorded in terms of date and time. Time of day is only important for short completion periods such as ASAP and High in the above example. If a problem is recorded at 2:00 pm on Monday, 'by this time in two working days' means: by 2:00 pm on Wednesday If the problem is recorded at 2:00 pm on Thursday and there are five working days in a week, what do you think 'by this time in two working days' means now?

37 2.7 Setting Priority –Target Completion Dates
The answer is 2:00 pm Monday because there is no-one at work on Saturday or Sunday and therefore these days cannot be counted in response times. The help desk will have advertised hours of operation. For example, Monday to Friday, 8:00 am to 7:00 pm. Hours of operation are chosen to cover the times when customers are most likely to need the help desk. There are numerous short-hand terms used to describe the availability of a help desk. For example, 'five-day week' means Monday to Friday. 'Six days' means Monday to Saturday. '7x24' means 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

38 2.7 Setting Priority –Target Completion Dates
We have said that the HDO assigns the job a priority prior to referring the job to a skill group. The big question here is, how is the priority assigned? Should the HDO ask the customer what priority they want? In most cases I would suggest that the customer would request nothing less than High priority! While the customer must be consulted it is the help desk operator that must decide. Fortunately it is not a subjective decision.

39 2.7 Setting Priority –Target Completion Dates
The guidelines for determining priority are usually based on two factors: who the customer is and impact of problem. These factors are best applied by the help desk operator asking themself the following questions, What is the status of the customer? If the customer is the managing director, don't think twice just assign a priority of ASAP. If the customer is somewhat less in status than a senior manager then the impact factor must be applied. (The term commonly used for important people is 'VIP' - very important person.) What is the impact on the operation of the organisation of not fixing this problem? If the answer is 'not much' then Medium or Low priority may be most appropriate. If the answer is 'catastrophic' then High or ASAP priority would seem most appropriate.

40 2.7 Setting Priority –Target Completion Dates
Figure 5 summaries the assignment of priorities based on the factors of who the customer is and impact of not fixing the problem. Figure 5: Assignment of Priority

41 Activity 4 Help desk priorities cause a lot of confusion. Do this quiz to check your understanding. The initial priority is the system default. (T/F) The priority is operationally equivalent to the target completion date. (T/F) The target completion date is the date everyone would like the job completed by but it can be re-negotiated if it isn't completed on time. (T/F) The HDO schedules the skill group's jobs by setting the priorities. (T/F) The help desk operator sets the priority requested by the customer. (T/F) The help desk operator takes into consideration the work load of the skill groups. (T/F)

42 Activity 4 - Answers F T

43 2.8 Recording the Referral Details
To complete the referral, the HDO records the initial priority, the date and time of the referral and the name of the skill group the job is being referred to. The skill group is notified by phone or by that there is a new job for them on the help desk system. The job status is left at Open. Do you think this is the right thing to do? Surely the status should be changed to Referred. PAUSE - Think about this…

44 2.8 Recording the Referral Details
Yes, it is the right thing to do. If we had a status code of Referred then it would imply that status tracks job ownership. That is, Referred would mean it's not our problem any more. In fact, status tracks whether the problem is fixed or not fixed regardless of who owns the problem.

45 2.9 Signing-Off the Call Calls that have been solved at the first point of contact can be signed-off with normal telephone farewells. Telling the customer that if they have any further problems to please call back makes the customer feel valued and welcome. When a job has been referred, the HDO gives the customer a reference number for the job and lets them know when the problem will be solved or fixed based on initial priority. This lets the customer know what to expect next. It also gives the customer confidence that their problem is receiving attention and that someone is looking after them. This introduces the concept of problem ownership. The owner of a problem is responsible for getting it solved. A major role of the help desk is problem ownership. The help desk relieves the customer of the responsibility for a problem. They adopt the view that, the customer's problem is the help desk's problem.

46 Activity 5 Imagine you are a help desk operator supporting PC and Macintosh hardware and software in a networked environment (the same as in Activity 1). Design a paper-based form for recording all the essential information required by the help desk. Two examples of items that go on the form are 'customer name' and 'type of computer'. You should have at least twenty items. You will need to do this on a separate piece of paper. If possible, do this with a fellow student as it makes the task much easier. (Two or more people can bounce ideas of each other and spark new ideas.)

47 Activity 5 - Answers Items found on a paper-based sheet for recording calls include: Transaction number (may also be called a call number, reference number, job number, etcetera) Date and time Name of HDO Customer's name Customer's location (address of external), contact phone number(s), fax number, address Description of computer (Mac or PC, model, CPU, memory size, hard disk size, etcetera) Operating system (Mac OS, DOS, Windows 3.x, Windows 95, Linux, Zenix, other) Version of operating system and who installed it Application software being used when problem arose Version of application software and who installed it

48 Activity 5 - Answers Description of problem
Context of problem (what was the customer doing just before the problem arose) Classification of problem Solution Current status Initial priority Current priority, date and time last changed Initial target completion date Current target completion date and date and time last changed Details of first referral (Name of skill group, date and time of referral, skill group's comments, conclusion) Call closed (Name of HDO closing call, date and time)

49 Conclusion This topic will be completed next lecture ….

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