IT Support: Supporting Family

There's no reason for a prickly relationship between the help desk and university staff.

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, and incompetence.

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 and maintenance. 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 past incidents.

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.

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