University of Hartford Builds a Better Help Desk

When it comes to computers, Murphy’s Law prevails: anything that can go wrong will, and usually at the worst possible time. Systems freeze, viruses attack, printers misbehave and Internet connections go on the blink, seemingly on cue as project deadlines near. As the University of Hartford discovered, creating a centralized help desk and equipping personnel with automated systems to record, prioritize and track trouble calls can make an enormous difference in the ability to respond to these emergencies efficiently.

With two help desk dispatchers fielding phone calls and Help Desk Technology Corporation’s HelpSTAR software managing service requests for the university’s computer technicians, UofH has simplified computer troubleshooting for users and technology staff alike. SOS calls now come to a central location for screening and assignment to a technician, and all information related to each service request g'es into a common database for easy reference and reporting.

Result: faster fixes, fewer lost requests, better use of technical resources, greater technician accountability, a complete audit trail on all service work, and less computer-related downtime for end users.

Help Desk Setup

Until 2002, UofH accepted computer malfunction calls from some 8,000 faculty, staff, and full-time and commuter students at six different support numbers. Users called any or all of these numbers hunting for a technician, sometimes leaving voicemails at each location. This led to problems ranging from lost or ignored messages to duplicated effort as multiple technicians unknowingly responded to different voicemails by the same user.

Beyond those issues, there was no system for prioritizing requests, assigning jobs by technician specialty, entering calls into a database for tracking and accountability, or documenting job status and details. If a technician who began work on a given request was unavailable, no one was able to determine what work had been completed.

To eliminate these deficiencies, UofH established a help desk with a single phone extension, two full-time dispatchers answering the phones from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and student workers filling in at night and during limited weekend hours.

Faculty and staff can contact the help desk to remediate problems with university-issued computers, home machines unable to access the university’s Internet dialup service, or departmental hardware or software. Students can ask for help if they are experiencing virus or Internet connectivity problems with their own computers.

The two dispatchers screen all requests, resolve simple problems directly with the requester, and assign more difficult issues to technicians. Student workers document all service requests they receive for later handling by dispatchers.

Help Desk Management Software
With a current average of 600 service requests per month at UofH and an increase expected when telephone and administrative system problems are added to help desk responsibilities, automation is essential to ensure that no requests fall through the cracks, technicians can instantly see the work in their queues, and so on.

The university selected HelpSTAR help desk software to handle these tasks because it was relatively inexpensive, could be deployed quickly, provided the flexibility needed to accommodate UofH’s organizational structure and work processes, and offered an easy-to-understand user interface requiring virtually no training.

The HelpSTAR client software is installed on 20 desktops, including those used by the two help desk dispatchers, eight service technicians, eight systems analysts involved in maintaining the university’s administrative applications, student support staff, and the department supervisor. The server software is deployed on an HP NetServer PIII 8000 using a Microsoft Data Engine (MSDE) database. (HelpSTAR is also available as a Web-based client and in Microsoft Access and Microsoft SQL editions.)

Handling Service Requests
When end users phone the help desk to report a problem, dispatchers log the request in the HelpSTAR system and assign any request requiring technician intervention to the appropriate support rep based on his or her skill set – a vast improvement over the serendipitous "I’ll take this call" approach of the past.

Dispatchers also assign a priority level to ensure that requests are handled according to need, and place each request in one of 176 UofH-defined problem categories for reporting purposes, simply by selecting from drop-down menus.

End users also have the option to email their requests to its@hartford.edu (the software can automatically convert the email to a trouble ticket) and soon will have the additional option of submitting service requests and checking job status through a Web interface that is included with the HelpSTAR software. All three options are designed to free help desk staff from unproductive activities by reducing phone call volumes.

Each support rep can consult his or her personal "My Workspace" screen to quickly determine what jobs are on his or her plate, overdue, or in need of follow-up. Reps are given the option of receiving alarms when new service requests are placed in their queue or under other circumstances to ensure timely responses to specific developments.

The software also expedites problem resolution by enabling the help desk to build a database of common problems and their solutions for ready reference. In UofH’s case, the "Best Solutions" database currently includes entries for issues such as how to create an out-of-office response for emails, how to apply a mail-merge to envelopes, what to do when a battery on an IBM laptop is not charging, and the 11-step process required to enable Mac users to interface with the university’s administrative systems.

These and other features significantly reduce the time it takes to resolve requesters’ problems. UofH dispatchers estimate they have referred end users to the instructions pertaining to creating an email out-of-office response at least 50 times in the past year, for example, eliminating the need to reconstruct the explanation every time the question arises.

Bottom-Line Benefits

Having a centralized help desk yields important benefits beyond efficient problem handling in areas such as reporting and responsiveness to the user community.

With a few clicks in the data analysis menu of its HelpSTAR software, for example, the UofH help desk was able to justify a budget overrun for student employees last year by showing that students had handled 1,215 calls compared to 512 a year earlier. The data also showed that 80% of those calls were virus-related, and that the average fix time for a virus call was two hours.

In addition, the central help desk strategy has enabled UofH to guarantee that users who call for help between 8 a.m. and noon will receive a return call the same day, while those who call between noon and 5 p.m. will receive a response by noon the next day at the latest. This level of service was not possible without a central call-tracking system.

At the same time, end users clearly appreciate the fact that one phone call or email produces results. No time is wasted in chasing a series of technicians who may or may not be at their desks. One UofH staff member who initially resisted the help desk arrangement eventually wrote a letter to the president of the university praising the operation.

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