Setting Up A Functional Support Organization

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Document History

This document was originally created as part of a trip sponsored by the NSRC to help a successful Internet Service Provider in Luanda, Angola (EBONet, now NEXUS) with their Help Desk operations. The original version of this document is available here.


This document offers reccomendations for setting up an IT support organization.

There are some underlying assumptions in this outline. These assumptions include:

  • Western/U.S. philosophies of service and attitudes towards customers.
  • A local technology infrastructure or group of people who might be available for help.
  • Client access to computer equipment, phones, your office, etc.

A Few Critical Steps

The following steps are critical in setting up and operating a help desk.

  • Set client expectations. Define what your organization will support and make sure that your clients know what to expect from your organization. [see below]
  • Tier your support system. Structure your organization so that your less experienced support personnel are the first to attempt to fix a problem. If they cannot fix the problem, have them escalate the issue to a more experienced staff member.
  • Remove roadblocks and streamline the support process. Make sure to continuously reevaluate the support system you have created. If you notice that there is an issue with your system that results in an influx of issues to your help desk, attempt to change this policy. [see below]
  • Document technical procedures. Maintaining a wiki that houses information on how to solve common issues gives your whole staff a better ability to mitigate issues for which they may be unfamiliar. Making the wiki publically available can also allow your more savvy users fix problems without the help of your support personnel. MediaWiki is the software behind Wikipedia, it is easy to install, and is an excellent tool to use as a help desk "knowledge base".

Creating A Support Organization

The suggestions offered in this document are guidelines for setting up and operating a support organization, please apply the suggestions as appropriate to your organization.

Understanding Your Organization's Support Needs

  • Do your users need support? If so, what does your organization need to support?
  • How large is your user population? Do you expect it to grow?

Planning Your Help Desk

  • What issues will your organization support? Be sure to state in writing what issues your organization supports. It is often a good idea to publish this information on a website or on a sign in your help desk.
  • Where will support inquiries originate? As you setup your Help Desk think about where questions will be coming from. Will most people be calling? Coming in person? Sending email? Also, who is answering these questions? If it is a small staff be sure that traffic flows in such a way that this person can do their job.
    • If you have someone who answers the phone and helps customers who come in person, then how do you deal with the phone when a customer is present? You may want to assign someone to backup the phone at these times.
    • If people are likely to bring you hardware, then they will probably want it fixed on the spot. Consider creating a method for having people drop off their equipment.
    • If the phone is busy try to keep the person who answers the phone separated from other distractions. For instance, if you have a reception that can check-in machines that is better then having a client talk directly with the person on phone support.
    • Do you want customers to be able to walk, see, or talk directly with front-line support staff? In some cases you will and in others you may not.
    • Do you need machines available to show customers how to use software? If so, try to setup a machine (or more) for this, or designate a machine where this can be done.
    • If you are a larger organization you may want to have two levels of support staff - those that deal directly with customers who come in person and those who are answering the phone, fixing machines, answering email, etc.
    • What about a machine check-in service at your company. Can the customer bring their machine to you? If it's a software problem you can probably fix it with minimal investment in hardware to solve such problems. You can do this as a low-level service. This gives your staff an out for issues that are not easily resolved. Note, if you charge for such service, then client expectations are likely to change considerably.
  • When will your organization be available for assistance? Setting and publishing consistant hours for your organization will allow people to know when they may come to your organization for support.

Removing Roadblocks

  • Imagine a situation where 1,000 of your clients get stuck at the same point in a process and each ask your staff for help. If you remove this roadblock, you will likely save your organization many man hours.
    • For example, if your organization assigns a separate password for e-mail and shell access, many of your users may get their passwords confused and end up requesting support from your organization. Although mitigating this issue may only take your help desk personnel minutes to solve, migrating to a system in which your users only have single password will likely save time for the help desk in the long run.

Managing Support Cases

  • Implement a Ticketing System - A ticketing system is a very common way that modern help desks manage support cases. A ticketing system like RT or Track allows for the archival of help desk service records, and the delegation of responsibility to your support staff. If your organization consists of more than two support personnel, a ticketing system is HIGHLY recommended.
  • Delegate an individual to a managerial role - Be sure that you have identified someone who can give a definitive "yes" or "no" for exceptional support requests. Allow your front-line staff to refer difficult or problem cases to this person.

What to Do About Issues You Cannot Resolve

  • What about those clients who can't resolve their problem, or who will require excessive amounts of your staff time to resolve over the phone? Here are a few ways to deal with these cases:
    • Be sure that you have identified someone who can give a definitive "yes" or "no" for exceptional requests. This is likely to be the manager of your group. Allow your front-line staff to refer difficult or problem cases to someone else.
    • Draft written policies on how to handle exceptional cases. This can make life much easier on yourself and your staff when exceptional cases arise.
    • Take responsibility for exceptional cases. Once you take on an exceptional case be sure that someone is responsible for the case until it is resolved. If no one is handed the responsibility of resolving the problem, then it may get dropped or go unnoticed. This can result in a very upset customer. Be sure you give the responsibility for such cases to someone who can actually deal with them. I.E., don't give a really difficult hardware/software troubleshooting issue to a new hire who is a student and only around part of the time, unless you feel comfortable with their level of responsibility.
    • Don't be afraid to let someone know that they have exceeded your support capabilities. If you are giving "free" support, or basic setup support that comes with establishing an account you can explain to a client that you simply don't have the resources to resolve their problem, but present this with positive options.
    • Identify local businesses that can help with problems your customers may encounter. If you find a common problem you might even want to consider discussing this type of problem with a local company or group, explain how it can be resolved and let them know that if they are willing to help your clients in these situations that you may refer people to them.

Staffing Your Support Organization

Finding good people to staff your help desk is extremely important. When considering whom to hire you may have to make trade offs between people with technical skills and people with personal skills. Depending on the structure of your organization, you may favor technical or personal skills.

  • Hiring non-technical employees. Someone with almost no technical skills, but excellent personal skills might be worth the time and effort to train. The big unknown is whether this person will be able to learn enough, or understand enough to become useful to your group.
  • The help desk as a public relations mechanism. Often a help desk serves as one of the only places that a user base interacts with your organization. It is important to hire people that exude a positive impression of your organization.
  • There is no substitute for experience. Many people assume that user support is easy, while this is true in some instances, a person with a lot of experience will likely be an excellent resource for your organization.

Tips and Tricks

  • Sometimes customers will offer to pay you, or ask if your staff can come to help them. What you do in this situation is your own decision. Very few jobs are as quick and easy as the client, or you may think. Once a customer has paid you they may feel that they can contact you repeatedly for special help without further payment - this becomes an unclear area of support. Once you help someone with one problem they may think that all future problems are related to what you did - this can be good and bad. If you need the money, feel like helping, and it is not a conflict of interest, then paid for outside jobs can work well, but understanding these potential conflict possible outcomes is useful.
  • Giving good support often requires enthusiasm and patience. When a client calls and blames all their problems on you, don't take it personally. Learn how to sympathize with the client and then help them to solve their problem.
  • If you have the money, pay for good hardware. The PC industry has so many options, varying degrees of standard adherence, and some truly bad hardware. Research hardware before you buy it. For instance, if you spend five hours getting an inexpensive piece of hardware to work with your computer, it might be cheaper in man hours to have bought the more expensive piece of hardware that you know works right.
  • Think about what you recommend to people. If you tell someone that they can't go wrong buying brand 'x' and then their equipment fails they will probably blame you. A good tactic is to give the client a few choices, or tell them what has worked well for you.
  • Publish a list of 'recommended' hardware to your clients. Buying a computer can be a tricky process for someone who is non-technical. Recommending good hardware to your clients can mitigate a lot of problems they might encounter.
  • Practice active communication skills. Communication is critical to resolving your client's support issues.
    • If you encounter your clients in person, be sure to greet them and maintain eye contact when speaking to them.
    • Over the phone, be sure to actively listen to your clients and paraphrase their concern to make sure they know that you understand the issue at hand.
    • If you are communicating with your clients via e-mail, remember that e-mail lacks expression. In other words, choose your words carefully to make sure that the tone of the message remains positive.