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Workshop The helpdesk has always been the most visible part of the IT support operation. It is here that the “my password isn’t working anymore” and the “computer says no” calls are taken by valiant members of the IT team. As we move into an era when the help desk may become more of a ‘service centre’ and less of fault reporting point, how is its perception changing? Have any of the recent IT related popular TV shows had any impact on how users see this vital operation?

As anyone who has ever worked on a help desk knows, users - now sometimes referred to as ‘customers’ - are rarely at their most relaxed when calling in with a problem. And trying to get one to admit that they changed anything or installed ‘something from the Internet’ just before their problems began can be harder than getting a politician to say 'sorry'.

Although arguably the point of the helpdesk, it can be a very challenging place to work when the majority of the calls are seeking assistance for something to be fixed immediately. In these scenarios even the best support centre tools in the world have little value unless the help desk operator has excellent communication skills and an almost telepathic ability to ask the user/customer the right question to identify the problem and implement a solution. Communication skills are really at the heart of support, something it took me a very long time on the front line to appreciate.

As IT evolves, the need for such communications skills will by no means decrease. In fact, there is likely to be considerable scope for the ‘service desk’ to take an even more prominent role in IT operations. Indeed, as IT systems become ever more complex, keeping users productive and the business moving forwards will place further stress on support processes.

Some of the new complexities are staring us in the face, although we’re not sure what the impact of them is going to be yet. For example, the increase in users customising their access systems and using their own kit will load further pressure onto support staff. The uptake of ‘cloud’ and ‘software as a service’ services may also. Have you had a user call in about problems with an application or service that you did not even know was being used? Diagnosing a SaaS service issue or patching a user’s home PC without breaking company policies or software licensing conditions might not be real issues yet for you, but they might be soon.

In many ways the help desk is the public face of IT. As a consequence, the perceptions of end users regarding the quality of their IT services are strongly influenced by their interactions with it. For the majority of users it may be the only human interaction they have with IT. This may present an opportunity to harness something positive. The help desk could become a sounding board for new ideas and a means for IT to communicate with the business regarding what is going well, what can be done better and what new services could be useful. Would that be a step too far for over stressed service desk staff or an opportunity to shine?

Do you have any tales from the help desk as you struggled to get to the bottom of a problem and work out what the user really did to break things? Let us know your recollections of the absurd, the annoying and the downright funny calls with which you have been faced in the comments section below.

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