Keep Your Help Desk Staff Happy

Tuesday Oct 24th 2000 by Valle Dwight
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Appreciating employees, providing good pay, and rotating assignments make a tough job more tolerable.

In a way, Don Boylan misses being a smoker. Boylan, one of 15 people on Schering-Plough Corp.'s help desk in Memphis, Tenn., used to rely on outdoor cigarette breaks to manage his help desk stress. Now that he has quit smoking, he has to make it a point to get up and walk away from the phones when he feels stress building up. "If I don't have a call coming in, I walk around and get some jelly beans," says Boylan, who has worked help desks for 14 years at several companies.

Finding ways to relieve help desk staff stress is a constant challenge for service and support managers. "If you can keep people engaged and motivated, [it] helps them give good support to your customers. If they're stressed out, they're not giving good service," according to Ron Muns, founder of the Help Desk Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But providing good service is only one benefit to keeping stress levels low on the help desk. HDI estimates that the help desk turnover rate for 2000 is 35%, and its 1999-2000 Best Practices Survey found that 46% of service and support managers surveyed consider turnover a moderate to serious issue. Muns says, "Burnout and turnover [are] the most significant issue[s] for the support services industry."

Help Desks Were Asked: Estimate the average number of service requests (inquiries, problem calls, etc.) your help desk or comparable support function receives per month. Include all types (phone, e-mail, fax, walk-in, etc.)


Source: Help Desk Institute, "1999-2000 Best Practices Survey"

Beating Burnout

Mavis Strebler, a Buchanan Associates consultant who manages the help desk at Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., in Hurst, Texas, understands what is behind such statistics. Strebler knows that many factors contribute to burnout and high turnover rates on the help desk. She says help desk staff members are under constant pressure, deal with agitated callers, and get little respect from those they help. The fact that they do monotonous work that offers low pay and limited career advancement creates problems, too.

HDI's survey found that 48% of the help desk staff surveyed work on the telephone more than 80% of the time. It is a situation designed to create stress. "Not too many people want to sit on the phone all day," says Strebler. "You're also dealing with irate callers sometimes, and some help desk people absorb the callers' frustration, and that can build up."

Strebler, who came to Bell Helicopter Textron two years ago when its 12-person help desk was suffering high turnover, lots of user complaints, and a backlog of calls, took dramatic steps to increase employee satisfaction on the job. She changed the way Bell Helicopter's support staff worked.

When she came to the company there were two groups providing support--help desk and desktop. While the help desk staff was tied to the phone, the desktop staff was sent to fix problems in person. To improve job satisfaction for the entire group, Strebler first combined the groups and then began rotating staff on and off the help desk. With the new rotation, the combined group spent half its day on the phone and half its day solving problems in person.

Aside from making the job more interesting, Strebler found that providing hands-on support experience to staff that once worked exclusively on the phone improved their problem solving when they rotated back to the phone. She says phone workers find solving problems face-to-face less stressful because "People are generally nice to you in person. You get more positive feedback, and they're more likely to write letters of appreciation."

Strebler introduced another rotation to the group. She moved employees into leadership roles for months at a time. "Every two months I switch the lead positions among the more experienced people," she says. "They don't get any more money for it, but they get the variety and they gain some management experience." Expanding the roles of Bell Helicopter Textron's help desk staff seems to have improved job retention, too. Strebler says only three people have left the help desk since she began making changes two years ago.

Keep Things Cool

While changing the way a support staff works can reduce help desk stress, where it works also plays an important role. Help desk managers at Schering-Plough Corp. recognized that having help desk workers toil away in a drab room under the glare of harsh fluorescent lights contributed to help desk stress. "We've tried to make the environment as pleasing as possible," says Patty Kani, manager of support services. "They [help desk workers] like low-lighting, so we just use task lighting and no overhead lights. It makes a calmer atmosphere. We also have a refrigerator and coffee machine close by, and we encourage help desk workers to eat and drink at their desk. Spills are no big deal."

At least one of the support staff agrees. The mellow atmosphere helps to diffuse the natural tension of the job, says Boylan, who has worked at Schering-Plough for six years. "It's a hushed environment, and it reduces the stress," he says. "It helps. It really does."

Aside from low lights and comfortable surroundings, the managers of Schering-Plough's help desk also try to make it a fun place to work. "We sometimes buy toys," says Kani. And according to her, the biggest hit on the help desk is the "Jibber Jabber," a small rubber doll that squawks like a crazed chicken when you shake it. "We tell our employees to shake the doll when they really want to ring the neck of an impatient caller," laughs Kani.

Games have a place at the Schering-Plough help desk, too. There's a dartboard on one wall and a putting green in the aisle. "We don't encourage them to put photos of callers on the dart board," says Kani. Once managers gave everyone on the help desk oversized boxing gloves so they could pummel the company punching bag to relieve stress.
At a Glance: Schering-Plough Corp.
The company: Schering-Plough is an international pharmaceutical and healthcare products company based in Kenilworth, N.J. Its help desk staff is located in Memphis, TN.

The problem: Schering-Plough's support group, 15 help desk professionals answering 500 calls a day, is constantly threatened with high employee burnout and turnover.

The solution: Corporate strategies focused on offering better-than-average pay, great benefits, and a fun, comfortable environment to its help desk workers. With the introduction of games, such as a dartboard and a putting green, stress levels are down, and the result has been lower turnover. Five of its 15 help desk professionals have been with the company for 20 years or more.

The IT infrastructure: Schering-Plough has a multi-site Novell 4.0 WAN environment (around 200 servers) dedicated to disk storage and printer sharing. Its Windows NT WAN (about 100 servers) serves e-mail, shared databases, and Web access to approximately 12,000 employees located in offices in Tennessee and New Jersey, while providing the same services for 1,000 remote workers in the field.

The future: The company hopes to maintain its record low employee turnover rate by continuing to provide help desk workers with time away from the phones, employee appreciation days, improved benefits, and a relaxed atmosphere.

Reward Valued Workers

It takes more than changing job roles and enhancing the workplace to achieve a satisfied, stress-free help desk staff. Terry Allen, president of the Help Desk Institute's Dallas/Fort Worth chapter, says many companies are making strides in improving conditions on the help desk, but there's still a long way to go. Allen often hears familiar complaints. "Some companies have good employee satisfaction programs," he says. "But the vast majority of help desks aren't treated as well."

Allen, a consultant who advises companies on how to build effective help desks, says employee recognition is a key factor in improving job satisfaction. He sees that some companies now make it a point to let help desk workers know they are appreciated by sending company officers, such as vice presidents, to meet with the staff .

There are other ways to show help desk workers they are valued. For instance, Schering-Plough's help desk was awarded special recognition during a customer service week. "The theme of the week is to let the staff know they are appreciated," Kani says. In addition, the company catered lunch for the help desk, brought in a popcorn machine, and purchased gifts for the staff.

"Recognition is so important," says Allen. "It's not just about money." But money obviously affects job satisfaction. Help desk salaries rank near the bottom of contemporary IT pay scales. The average salary for a help desk employee is $48,000 per year. What's more, the average rate for independent contractors on the help desk is $23 per hour, according to EarthWeb's recent salary survey of help desk professionals.

Schering-Plough addresses this issue, and achieves a low help desk turnover rate, by offering its support staff salaries that are about 20% higher than regional averages, according to Kani. She says the company also offers good benefits, profit sharing, retirement plans, and free pharmaceutical products.

Breaking Old Habits

Developing corporate strategies for reducing help desk stress certainly helps, but ultimately workers need to learn to develop and use their own strategies for relieving stress, according to Boylan. It's a topic he knows something about.

Lessons learned about help desk management
Although the typical help desk is a high-stress, under-valued place to work, managers can take steps to boost morale, improve job satisfaction, and cut down on employee turnover. Here are a few tips from managers and consultants who know how to keep a help desk happy:

  • Relieve tedium by varying job responsibilities
  • Diffuse tension with fun
  • Provide career development and training
  • Hold regular employee recognition events
  • Allow breaks away from the workplace
  • Build a pleasant work environment
  • Promote camaraderie
  • Build time into work schedules for get-togethers
  • Before coming to Schering-Plough, Boylan was a one-man help desk for a large company. He had to respond to in-house calls for help in addition to providing phone support for users nationwide. "I got pulled in so many directions, I just stopped caring," he says. "The workload was so huge, it didn't matter how much I did. There would be 12 new calls waiting."

    In the end, Boylan burned out on the job. But the big lesson he learned was to maintain a balanced view of work. Now he makes sure he leaves the office at lunch time every day, even if it's just for a walk around the building. "I get out, I don't sit in the room. Even if you're not on the phone, there's still a high level of stress in the room."

    He also has learned to manage difficult calls. Even though help desk workers expect hostile calls, Boylan finds the worst calls come from the users who are having a bad day "and want to spread the grief around." Now he knows he needs time to cool off. "After a bad call, I'll walk away," he says.

    Whether the calls are good or bad, Boylan routinely takes breaks during the day. Unlike the past, he no longer uses smoking as his reason for taking a breather from the help desk. Now he gets up, putts golf balls, or strolls over to the jellybean jar. But the biggest lesson he has learned is to leave his job at the help desk. "I don't take it home. At my last job I was always working, and I simply don't do that anymore," he says. "I'm not shooting to be the superstar of the help desk."

    Valle Dwight, based in Northampton, Mass., is a contributing editor to FamilyPC magazine.

    Certification programs for help desk professionals are on the rise

    One clear route to career development and training is certification. Technical certification often benefits IT professionals with good jobs, high pay, secure employment, and solid skills. And IT employers value certification because it is a sign of technical proficiency.

    Although certification for all IT professionals is becoming more important, it is not yet essential that help desk professionals become certified. But help desk professionals stand to gain many of the same benefits certification brings to other IT pros. That's why interest in help desk certification is rising, according to Anne Martinez, who runs EarthWeb's GoCertify site (www.gocertify.com). Today, help desk certification programs are being offered by several organizations, including HelpDesk2000 (www.helpdesk2000.org), Help Desk Institute (www.hdi.com) and Computer Associates. Here is what is available:

    From Help Desk 2000:

  • Certified Help Desk Professional (CHDP)-- For front line help desk professionals. ($995)
  • Certified Help Desk Manager (CHDM)-- For individuals who implement help desk systems, including human resources and technical aspects ($1,195)

    From Help Desk Institute Star Series Certification:

  • Certified Help Desk Analyst (HDA)-- Designed for entry-level help desk analysts with nine to eighteen months of experience ($1,790 for two-day class, $99 test fee; options: $1,395 for boot camp class, $295 for self-study kit).
  • Certified Help Desk Support Engineer (HDSE)-- Designed for experienced internal help desk and external support center consultants ($1,790 for two-day class, $99 test fee)
  • Certified Help Desk Manager (HDM)-- Designed for experienced help desk managers who are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the help desk ($1,790 for two-day class, $99 test fee)

    From Computer Associates:

  • Certified Professional-Help Desk Specialist-- For individuals who implement and administer help desk solutions and services using Computer Associate's Unicenter TNG and Enterprise Edition products. Must pass two exams ($200) --Valle Dwight

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