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Help Yourself Help Desks

Self-service help desks can improve response times and free up IT staff, but don't underestimate the work it takes to implement an effective system.

IT help desks are caught between a rock and a hard place. On many campuses, budget cuts are forcing painful retrenchments, even as the era of BYO devices threatens to overwhelm support staff with help tickets. The resulting squeeze is prompting schools nationwide to turn to self-service as a way to relieve the pressure.

Fortunately, it's a move that tends to be easily accepted among on-campus users. Indeed, for small technical issues, many users actually prefer to read a troubleshooting guide, peruse FAQs, or generate their own help tickets. It sure beats the slow death of waiting in an interminable calling queue. And by siphoning off many would-be callers, self-service modules can reduce the wait time for those who face genuinely difficult IT issues.

That's precisely what Saint Joseph's University (PA) did a few years ago. Wanting to improve service and free its IT team to focus on other tasks, the school decided to replace its existing call ticketing system with a combined knowledgebase and self-service portal. "Our users were asking for a centralized, web-based portal for support documentation," says Lauren Adams, director of user services. "We lacked that capability."

As a solution, Saint Joseph's installed new help desk portal software from Parature and a ticketing system that enabled a DIY approach. At the heart of Saint Joseph's system is an extensive list of FAQs that range from "How do I set up my iPhone?" to "Why can't I print a document from Microsoft Word?"

If users can't get the answers they need from the knowledgebase, they can generate a help ticket that's handled by the five-person IT department. Most of the time, the escalated cases involve hardware issues, hard drive crashes, and other problems that require a human touch to resolve.

While schools can reap significant time savings from establishing a self-service portal, no one should underestimate how much work goes into creating and maintaining a knowledgebase. According to Adams, it was the hardest part of the task. "We had to pull together a lot of technical information that wasn't in a user-friendly format," she says. "It took quite a bit of organizing and rewriting."

It was something of an eye-opener for Seattle University (WA), too, which uses FAQs to tackle the most common IT issues on campus. When users access self-service support on the IT website, they are instantly walked through a troubleshooting process. A professor who wants to install the school's virtual private network (VPN) at home, for example, can get complete download, installation, and troubleshooting instructions online.

To keep the knowledgebase current, the IT team regularly reviews help desk calls and uses them as source material for new FAQs. If users are experiencing issues that go beyond what the knowledgebase offers, they can create a help desk ticket that is initially addressed by an off-site, 24/7 call center. This center can handle Level One problems, such as printer jams and disconnected cables. Level Two issues, including hardware failures and hard drive crashes, are routed from the call center to the university's IT team for further attention.

The setup has its limitations. "The FAQs, which are the real self-service aspect of our system, can walk users through a general system check," notes Manny Ovena, Seattle's chief technology officer. "But if the problem persists, the user is still going to have to put in a ticket or call the help desk."

Addressing these limitations will require even more self-help articles and improved troubleshooting steps, says Ovena, both of which require a lot of hours and technical-writing ability. "We'll keep moving toward a more streamlined, automated help desk, but it takes time, especially when you have to address a wide range of users who have different levels of tech savviness, skill sets, and equipment."

Reaping the Rewards
The benefits of honing a self-service initiative can be significant, however. In the four years since Pepperdine University (CA) set up its self-service help desk, the college's IT team has been able to reduce user wait times, reassign staff members to other tasks, and cut down on the back-and-forth communications that commonly took place between users and support staff. Furthermore, unassigned help tickets are no longer bounced from agent to agent--a process maddening to customers and IT alike.

Indeed, determining how user issues are routed--and which services are automated--is a key component of creating a successful self-service help desk. At Pepperdine, for example, users can handle their own password resets, a feature that has significantly cut down on the amount of one-on-one time required of support staff. "We get a lot of people who forget their passwords," says Jonathan See, Pepperdine's chief information officer. "It's our No. 1 help desk request."

The password-reset function prompts users to enter their profiles once, develop reminder questions, and choose whether they want to receive these reminders by e-mail or text. "Users go to the site and reset their passwords without any intervention on our part," adds See.

For thornier tech issues, users fill out a technology-request form online. A 24/7 support team then routes the tickets to the appropriate departments. For example, questions about data ports, phone installations, and wireless access points are directed to the school's network-services team. Help tickets that don't fall into a specific category are assigned to a catchall group and then manually assigned to those departments best equipped to address them.

This multipronged approach has helped Pepperdine's IT team improve its service levels dramatically. Even problematic issues that have to be manually assigned are handled within hours, or a few days at most. Previously, they would have taken up to a week to resolve.

"User satisfaction is definitely up, and frustration levels are down," notes See, who anticipates a time in the near future when students, faculty, and staff can input their own help tickets into the system, which will then route the requests automatically to the respective departments.

Saint Joseph's has also seen benefits from its automated help desk. According to Adams, the number of students who call or make in-person visits to the IT department has been reduced significantly. Keeping the knowledgebase updated, though, is an ongoing job. "Things change pretty quickly with technology in the educational setting," says Adams, "and you have to be able to deliver the right information to your university community."

To address this challenge, See advises CIOs to come up with a list of the top 10 user IT problems (such as forgotten passwords) and then find ways to automate the help desk around those issues. "Look at where people are struggling the most," counsels See, "and then figure out how the self-help approach can ease those pain points."

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