Wednesday, January 26, 2005

How Not to Run a Help Desk, Part 1

I have been doing computer help desk work for nearly 10 years. During that time I have worked for several different companies and supported half-dozen different corporate clients. I have also provided consumer support for new computers. I have worked as 1st level support, 2nd level support and supervisor throughout my career. This experience has taught me a few lessons and I will share them with you.

A common theme in any business is the desire to control expenses to maximize profit and in the help desk world the largest expense is people. To control expenses in this environment a help desk manager or director aspires to hire the best possible person for the lowest wage - much like other industries. Of course, truly talented people command a high wage and every help desk needs a few people who are very experienced. The rest of the staff can be filled with cheaper - lower skill employees. Again this is not too much different than other industries. Naturally the lower skill people are not going to be able to solve as many issues as the more experienced employees and will have a lower productivity.

Since help desk managers typically have no technical skills themselves they will frequently fail to appreciate how their less skilled employees impact over-all productivity. This lower than expected productivity will cause managers to attempt to find ways to rectify the problem - just like any good manager in any field. Some of the ideas that they come up with to increase productivity can be mind-numbingly stupid. Ideas that would actually positively impact productivity are ignored - especially if those ideas are presented from members of their team.

One popular idea that every help desk uses is the quarterly bonus. In this system a technician’s job performance is run through complicated mathematical formulas to determine how much bonus money they are entitled too. These programs will be advertised to the employees as paying very respectable rates and will inspire a short-term increase in productivity. Over time the department head will see that this program cuts into the profitability of the department and changes will be made. Usually it will be a small reduction in the total bonus amount or a rework of the program. In extreme case the bonus will be “suspended.” These kinds of changes in a bonus program will quickly become a negative influence on productivity as employees begin to feel that they are being cheated.

Another common program is the ‘company bucks’ program. In this scheme employees are given co bucks for meeting or exceeding performance goals. Usually these bucks can be redeemed for promotional items given to the company by various venders. You know, the stuff that major companies GIVE AWAY as part of their advertising budgets. We can buy them with our hard earned bucks! Sometimes you might be able to buy an extended lunch or maybe a ½ day-off, but these generally cost so much that no one will ever afford it. Two common down sides these programs are; 1. Nothing but crap that no one wants offered in the ‘store,’ and 2. Awarding of the bucks falls through the cracks and no one has any to spend. The second problem is the most common. I personally have seen years go by with no meaningful awarding of bucks due to lack of management attention. After a while the program dies due to lack of interest.

My personal favorite kooky idea is the team building outing. In this idea the entire team goes somewhere not work-related and attempts to have fun build trust. There will be fun games like blind goofy golf or falling backwards while someone catches you. If the company has money you might get to go to a conference were you can learn about personality types and how to work with ass-holes. If your company doesn’t have money you might get to go bowling, but it will be paid for by an office fundraiser. Needless to say most of these team building exercises are a complete waste of time and money. The fact that in a help desk operation this type of activity has to happen on the weekend or after business hours does not help. Who wants to spend even more time with people from work?

Many of these programs cost the company money (unless your company is broke then it is paid for by the employees) and that impacts the other important aspect of the help desk - profitability. The more money that is spent on useless programs to increase productivity the more this cuts into the profits. How much does all of this cost? Who knows, the boss is not likely to tell the employees how much money is being wasted trying to make them more productive. If they did the employees might say something dumb like “why don’t you just pay people what they are worth rather than waste money on silly games?” The employees might also say something like; “why don’t you ask us how we can do our jobs better?” Of course, if a manager actually asked this question it would be expected that they listen and act on the ideas presented, but this is highly unlikely.

Eventually, all of these productivity ideas are just band-aids. Most of them will not accomplish the desired effect of increasing productivity. The real issue that I have seen is that the managers treat the employees like fools and do not show any respect for what they do. Managers forget that they DO NOT DO THE WORK. The product that is sold to the customer is the help desk not the management. The job of the manager is to ensure that the product is able to get the job done that the customer is paying for. This cannot be done by treating the help desk technicians like furniture or robots.


Anonymous said...

Your help desk comments exactly describe Prudential real estate in northern california...only they went one step further...they used "est" training to gather info on their managers, which they in turn, used against them...pretty insidious.

The Mad Tech said...

So when is part two? I am submitting your ideas in the employee suggestion box at my place of employment. Your the best you damn drunk.

The Mad Tech

Glyph said...

how true is it.... my current company is now working do this kind of thing all the while...

and the worse part is they claimed to cut expense one day, and the nest day the tell whole world how much new contract they get...

Drunken Samurai said...

Here we have another really old post from a time when I was more bitter ;-) This is the second highest visited post on this blog and the last comment was years ago. This is one of the top ranked results for several searches which is shocking to me. Hopefully there is something people are finding of use. I would hate to think I have wasted people's time over the years! Ironically, the help desk I worked on went out of business just a few months after I posted this.