Panayiotis Christodoulou
About help desks and a typical help desk
The incident management process
The physical layout of help desk work areas
How hardware and software tools are used to
manage help desk incidents
Help desk trends
The mission of a support group and the parts of a mission
The steps in staffing a support position
The contents of a training program for support staff
How to manage a user support project
Which software tools help with project management tasks
The industry certifications that are available to support
About professional help desk and user support
Ethical principles that guide the professional behavior of
support workers
User support management encompasses a
variety of positions. The managers of larger
support groups may oversee one or more
supervisors or lead workers who in turn
supervise a team of support specialists. When
the support staff understands the big picture
it enables them to improve customer
satisfaction and help the support team to be
A managerial perspective also helps prepare
entry-level staff to advance into positions with
more responsibility and a higher salary. Support
groups often develop a mission statement, which
is a list of guiding principles that communicate
support goals and objectives to staff, users, and
Help desk managers often use performance
statistics and measures of customer satisfaction
to document and justify the value of user support
Performance statistics are objective summaries of
information about the user support or help desk
operation. Some examples of common help desk
performance measures include average response time
to calls (sometimes wait time), percentage of calls
that were abandoned when the user hung up before
support staff response (abandonment rate), average
resolution time for calls that require problem solving,
percentage of problems that cannot be resolved and
number of problem calls currently in an unresolved
status. Subjective evaluations such as a user
satisfaction survey that attempts to measure how
satisfied users are with the support services they
have experienced can also be used to measure the
performance of user support services.
User support and help desk managers face a great
challenge when determining how many support staff
members are needed to meet the service level’s
requirements. The managers must strike a delicate
balance between having too many staff, which can
lead to idle employees and a poor productivity to
staff ratio, and having too few staff, which can cause
frustration among support staff and long wait times
for users. A calculation called an Erlang unit is often
used to calculate the staff needed. An Erlang is a unit
of traffic (user calls in the case of support groups)
processed in a given period of time. Managers may
use trial and error, rely on previous experience or use
a sophisticated calculator to help make staffing
Most user support positions require a combination of
technical skills, business skills, and communication
Managers often start with a Knowledge, Skills and
Abilities (KSA) assessment of the mission statement
to determine the qualifications needed for a position.
These qualifications spell out the level of proficiency
required with hardware, operating systems and
application software, technical skills, network
experience and skills, Internet and Web skills,
communications, listening and telephone skills,
working in a project team and understanding
perspectives. From the KSAs list, a support manager
can then write a position description.
From the position description, the support manager
or the Human Resources Department places an
advertisement in the newspaper. The search for a
new staff member my not result in applicants that
completely match the profile, however, managers
may select the applicant that most closely matches
the desired skill set.
During the interview, managers may include a
knowledge and skills test that measures a
prospective employee’s knowledge and problemsolving ability. Another tool that can be used is a
scenario question, which gives the applicants a
specific problem (or set of problems) representative
of the kinds of problems that user support actually
Support staff training includes both new employee
orientation and ongoing training for staff to keep their
knowledge and skills current. Managers will occasionally
assume that support staff will simply pick up information
about new products in their everyday work. If one goal of a
support group mission is to provide high quality services,
support staff members need time to learn how to be
productive with new technology. Training for new support
employees often includes orientation to the organization,
payroll and employee benefit information, specific job skill
training, support group policies and procedures and
performance appraisal criteria and procedures. Training
programs for user support employees should help keep
support staff current with changes in computer technology
and how those changes affect their customer base.
Support managers should also communicate
with support employees about when and how
job performance will be evaluated. A
performance appraisal is a process to
evaluate a user support employee according
to established criteria.
User support work can be divided into routine
operational tasks and special projects. Most of
the work of a support group falls into the
category of routine operational tasks. A special
project, however, is a support task that does not
happen regularly and that may be based on less
well-defined steps and procedures.
projects might include developing or updating
computer product standards or support policies
in an organization, planning and implementing a
new training facility or developing end-user
documentation or a user training session for a
new software package.
Project management is a step-by-step work plan
and process designed to reach a specific goal.
Step 1 is project definition. Early work on a
project serves to define the project, including its
goal(s), a tentative project calendar (beginning
and ending dates, important due dates), a project
budget, and the project participants. A project
goal is a specific, measurable result that is the
ultimate target or outcome of a project. It is
important that the project goal be specific and
measurable even if the budget and calendar are
tentative at this stage.
Step 2 is project planning. After a project is defined, the
bulk of the project planning activities include dividing the
project into specific tasks (or objectives), estimating the
length of time (or duration) for each task, identifying
available resources and the cost of each, and assigning
resources to tasks. A project task is a specific action or
objective that must be performed to meet the project goal.
A project plan complies a list of all project tasks into a
documentation that answers the questions: What tasks will
be accomplished? Who will perform each ask? How long
will each task take? What will each task cost? The project
plan generally includes an assessment of the project’s risk
factors, which are an analysis and assessment of the
problems that can arise during the life of a project.
Step 3 is project implementation. The
implementation phase of the project is where
the real work gets done. The project
manager’s responsibility shifts from project
planning to project coordination and support
staff members work on each task or objective
according to the schedule in the project plan.
Step 4 is project monitoring. Project monitoring
involves assessing the status of all project tasks to
learn whether they are on target as compared with
time and budget estimates. Because each task of a
project seldom comes in on time and under budget,
project monitoring is necessary. Project managers
need to regularly evaluate each project task to
determine how much work has been completed, what
remains to be done, how staff or other resources
should be adjusted or reassigned and what impact
task changes will have on the completion date. Scope
creep is the tendency for a project to grow or change
in unexpected ways that increase the time frame,
resources, and cost to complete the project.
Step 5 is project termination. The final stage
in a project may include communicating its
completion to stakeholders, preparing a final
project report, and analyzing and evaluating
the performance of the project and its
Project termination activities help project
managers learn from mistakes of past
projects and use their knowledge to improve
performance on future projects.
As projects become more complex, more
resources including additional staff members,
more resources, a bigger budget, a larger time
frame, and also additional risk factors, a one- or
two-page project plan is not sufficient.
Fortunately there are software tools, which assist
with all aspects of project management. Project
management software tools, however, are no
substitute for careful project planning. A Gantt
Chart, is a common project planning tool that
shows the basic information about each task in a
project as a horizontal bar on a graph.
“What if…?” questions are often easier to answer
with a project management software tool. A
modified draft plan first shows a more detailed
breakdown of each task into subtasks. Second, it
shows that some subtasks are predecessor tasks
for other tasks. A predecessor task is an activity
that must be completed before another task can
begin. Third, instead of one trainer being
assigned to the project, as the first draft plan, a
second trainer is assigned to select subtasks that
can be accomplished at the same time the first
trainer is working on another subtask.
The Gantt Chart shows certain tasks in as
solid black horizontal bars. These bars are
the project’s critical path. A critical path is
the sequence of project tasks that must be
completed on time to meet the project’s
completion date. The critical path can also
indicate where in the process more resources
will have the best impact on the project’s
completion time.
Project management software can assist with project tasks,
task time duration, assignments to staff members, what-if
analyses, the critical path and estimated completion time.
It can also complete other important project management
tasks by using features to monitor partial completion of
projects tasks and periodically update the Gantt Chart.
Also, it can identify project tasks that are behind schedule
and where additional resources could be used effectively.
This software can also aid a manager with assigning
resources such as personnel, facilities, equipment and
supplies. In addition, it can track overhead costs to
prepare a project budget, define report formats that are
alternatives to Gantt Charts (including project calendars,
budget and variance reports, PERT or network diagrams),
individual staff assignment e-mails, and other project
management output options.
Certification is an assessment process to
measure and document employee knowledge and
skills in a specialized segment of the information
technology field. There are several kinds of
certification in the market today including formal
education that results in certificate, diploma or
degree, vendor-specific product knowledge and
skill certification in a specific area, such as
certification that measures the fitness of a
support group against industry-standard criteria.
Community colleges and vocational/technical
schools have offered certification for many years.
This certification is usually an indication of
general skills. Employers are more often
interested in an applicant’s specific skills and
expertise. A number of vendors now offer
certificates that assess knowledge and skills in a
specific area. There are also vendor neutral
certifications that are more generic. Help desks
and help desk staff can also be certified. Some
certifications are aimed at organizations rather
than individuals. Best practices are support
industry procedures, tools, and methods that
very successful support groups employ.
For help desk and user support specialist, some
of the benefits of certification include a
recognized benchmark of minimum-level job
skills and experienced worker, a justification for
receiving higher pay, an opportunity for
promotion and career advancement because of
documented knowledge and skills, a way to
document for an employer efforts to keep up to
date in the computer field, and a feeling of pride
of accomplishment and increased job satisfaction
upon passing a certification milestone.
The most common certification expected for user
support and help desk positions is either MOS or
A+ certification. MOS certification indicates that
the support specialist has a recognized level of
expertise in common Microsoft applications
where A+ certification demonstrates knowledge
certification have a number of options including
college or vocational/technical courses, crash
courses, online tutorials and self-study courses.
The skills needed to pass certification exams
can be gain in a variety of venues. Many
college and vocational/technical schools now
match the curriculum in their courses with
certification in the area covered by the
course. Another option is to take a crash
course. Crash courses, sometimes called boot
camps, are intensive classes designed to
prepare participants in a short time to take a
certification exam. Other options include
online tutorial courses and self study courses.
Most certifications are taken on a computer
workstation. In the traditional format of a
certification test, all test takers answer the same
set of questions on a test that has a fixed-length
sequence of questions. A new type of test, called
an adaptive test, is becoming common in
certification. An adaptive test asks questions
selected from a test database to try to quickly
estimate the test taker’s ability. The test
questions are rated from easy to difficult and the
adaptive test offers questions based on a
mathematical estimate of skill level of the test
taker based on the pattern of correct and
incorrect answers.
The Information Technology Association of
America (ITAA) estimates that more than 600,000
technical support positions were open some time
during the year 2000, and that more than onethird of them went unfilled. As a result of the
growth of the user support field, there have been
a number of professional associations formed in
recent years. A professional association is a
formal organization that represents the interests
of a group of professionals and provides services
to its members.
These associations offer a wide variety of
professional association can also publish a
code of ethical principles or conduct
standards designed to guide its members’
professional behaviour