IT Support: Supporting Family
- By Mikael Blaisdell
There's no reason for a prickly relationship between the help desk and
THERE ARE FEW relationships more potentially contentious than
that between the IT help desk and the people it supports.
“Some faculty members have all the social skills of a porcupine,”
a help desk manager recently told me.
Meanwhile, a faculty member complained, “There are people on that no-help
desk who act like they’re doing you a favor by even talking to you.”
Not surprisingly, my inquiries about support to both campus support professionals
and faculty brought in a wide range of responses at various volume levels. Each
side had horror stories to tell about perceptions of arrogance, indifference,
Yet, both also expressed gratitude, respect, and liking for the people on the
other end of the phone line. Let’s face it: Life on the hotline is seldom
dull and boring for anyone. But caught between juggling scarce resources on
one side and sometimes overly high expectations on the other, what’s a
help desk manager or director to do?
First, you need to realize that what you are dealing with is an ongoing relationship
within the context of a community, and act accordingly. Second, as with any
relationship, you need to properly set and manage the expectations of both parties.
The Power of the Relationship
Many years ago, running my own help desk, I learned that my regular callers
were far more likely to be cooperative simply because over time and many calls,
we’d come to know each other and the rules of the game. They knew that
I understood their needs, and that while I would do everything I could for them,
I had very limited resources with which to work. If they let their frustration
over a particular issue push them into screaming, they knew that my motivation
to help them on that case and those to come would be reduced accordingly.
The reverse was true as well: I knew not to let my own frustration boil over
at them, for that would cause them to lose interest in working with me. Ours
was an ongoing relationship and the cooperative connection had perceived value
for both parties.
The relationship between the faculty and the help desk is exactly that—a
relationship—and it needs to be considered as such. It extends well beyond
any given incident or transaction. The vital first step toward making relationships
work is for both sides, help desk and university staff, to understand that a)
they are in fact connected to each other, that b) there is value for both, and
that c) the connection will persist over time.
The first challenge for the relationship manager (who may be a support director
or VP, or even a CIO, depending on the size of the institution) is to bring
the parties to an awareness of the relationship. The second is to keep the relationship
going. That responsibility can’t be delegated to the faculty; they are
focused on other things. If the relationship manager d'esn’t make it happen,
it isn’t likely to happen at all.
Every phone conversation or e-mail is an opportunity for relationship building
Accordingly, all support staff should be trained to consider
“enhancing the relationship” as one of the primary goals to be accomplished
in the call-handling procedure. Use your incident tracker to alert your team
to the individual quirks and preferences of the campus “customers.”
Designate an account manager to be responsible for specific schools or faculty
members on campus. The account manager might not take all of the calls personally,
but he or she should review every case involving designated faculty customers,
to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. Once per quarter, the account
manager should call the assigned faculty member to check in, subtly emphasizing
the relationship by giving a status report and asking for feedback.
Manage Expectations, or They’ll Manage You You know
how you define the term “support,” but that’s only half the
picture. How do the faculty members define support? D'es it mean, “Teach
me how to use Windows or Linux”? “Recover the file that I didn’t
back up”? “Get somebody over here in the next two minutes to fix
my projector!”? All of these can (and probably will) be included with
their expectations, and you may find yourself frantically scrambling and juggling
resources, trying to meet those demands.
Yet, where do the faculty members come up with these expectations? Where do
the members of your own team come up with their ideas about what their role
is supposed to be? The most common source is stories, the tales we tell about
From the very first moment a faculty member hears about the help desk in conversations
with others, impressions and expectations are formed. Perhaps another faculty
member has been venting, telling horror stories about unresponsive reps and
failed events. Or, the reverse may be the case: faculty bragging about the “water-walker”
in support who “saved the day.” Either way, the listener will use
such tales to form initial assumptions about what the help desk is all about,
and the kind of treatment he or she can expect to receive in the future. Your
reps share their own stories, and such talk sets the expectations for their
listeners, too. If you’re aware of what is being said, you can adjust
your ongoing staff training accordingly.
Most importantly, you can’t wait for the phone to ring or the e-mail
to arrive before you start the conversations with the faculty about appropriate
expectations. By the time the calls and messages arrive, the assumptions have
already been made, based only on what users perceive as their own needs and
priorities. The author of the working definition of support at your school needs
to be both you and the faculty.
If faculty make requests beyond your capability to deliver, be prepared to
honestly show them why such services are out of reach—and in the process
of those relationship-building conversations, you might even recruit some allies
and advocates for increasing your budget to extend your capabilities. (Are resources
stretched too thin for networked projector support? Maybe faculty could lobby
for the additional dollars and technology.)
In any event, the foundation of the definition is a clear statement of the
services you are offering, and of the priority levels that will be assigned
to various types of cases (e.g., five-minute response time for blown projector
bulbs during lectures; 24 hours for software upgrades).
Relationship Management Never Stops There will always be unexpected
problems and difficult people to deal with; it g'es with the territory. IT support
is a high-stress profession and always has been, but there are things that can
be done to make life easier. Maintain your relationships with the faculty members
by staying in touch. Monitor perceptions and expectations by seeking out the
stories being told, and by making sure that corrective measures are taken as
needed. Place appropriate case histories on your Web site as examples of how
the system works. If there is a campus newspaper, try to get some informative
articles about your reps or service published. If, as will happen, a ball gets
dropped, try to find some way of compensating the users involved. Taking some
of the heat out of the hotline isn’t impossible, but it’s up to
you and your team to accomplish it.