Thursday, 6 July 2017

How (not?) to run a helpdesk

In what is a slightly longer than usual article I want you to consider two very different models of providing a helpdesk service to customers, and consider the relative merits of each at satisfying customer needs and exceeding customer expectations.


At ABC Co Ltd it is a requirement that all uses of their products attend a FREE training course on how to use it. The first aim of improving customer services is surely to ensure that they don’t need it!

Anyone who has been on a course can ask for help, but don’t bother trying to make a helpdesk call if you haven’t had any training or haven’t asked someone who has. The second aim must be to discourage pointless calls which could be resolved by reference to the training material or consulting a colleague.

Getting people to attend training is rather like sheepherding cats, so ABC Co Ltd  say the first course is FREE but if you want more there is a charge for that. By insisting only people who have attended training can make calls this further adds value to attending the training.

People seldom value anything that is free, and often will abuse the generosity of the provider. Unless your product is truly broken most calls are from people who can’t be bothered to help themselves and calling you is the first option not the last resort.  You don’t necessarily want to prevent them from picking-up the phone, but you do want them to pause for thought first!

Putting a nominal fee on follow-up training and making a pre-requisite of service is a triple-whammy:

1.       it encourages people to attend training.
2.       it creates revenue from those that don’t.
3.       it resolves many problems at source by educating the user.

When ABC Co Ltd do pick-up the call they first identify the user and problem and resolves to have an expert call them back within a short period (well within the SLA) .

This is a significant difference from XYZ Ltd (which we will look at further, later).  XYZ Ltd will attempt to resolve the problem right there and then, demonstrating to the customer the value of an on-demand service.

ABC Co Ltd places someone on first response whose key skill is empathetic rather than technical. Their role is first to address the needs of the, sometimes distressed, user and then to elicit the information which will help identify the best person and quickest route to resolve the problem. They then check a convenient time for the user to receive a call from the expert. This is helpful because many users are in the middle of something or on their way to somewhere when the need to make a call and (obviously) don’t have the current moment scheduled in their diary to talk to a technician.

The benefits of this are manifold.

1.       The user can generally get on with something else whilst a solution is being sought;
2.       The highly skilled technicians are focussed on solving problems rather than answering calls;
3.       The technicians can also specialise, and rely upon first response to recognise and route the calls appropriately
4.       The first response person can better focus on the person rather than the problem, and both calm and guide and support the person to providing the information which will expedite a solution to be delivered by the appropriate expert.


Consider for one moment a super 999 or 911 service which rather than route your call to Fire, Police, Ambulance, Coast-Guard, (or Vehicle Recovery Service) instead insisted that you were speaking to someone who had all the skills and experience of all the above.

Would you believe them?

As a user you might be sceptical how the humble operator at the end of the line could have all these skills, on-demand and without reference to anyone else.

If any organisation does provide such a comprehensive service, I would be interested on how they identify recruit, train, remunerate and retain such expertise and then persuade them to sit patiently by the phone.


By making the customer wait (for 20mins or what-ever the SLA is) ABC Co Ltd is achieving three things.

1.       They are creating an opportunity for the user to think “…err, actually if its 20min I think I can fix this…” and thus nullify pointless calls.
2.       Once they realise the standard response that someone will call back in 20 minutes they may think before they dial, possibly referring to documentation or a colleague before making a call.
3.       They are creating an opportunity for the technical expert to think, refer to a knowledge base or colleague and thus be better informed and prepared before attempting a fix.

Hopefully if the product or service is any good resolving the issue should be straight forward.  If the call transpired to relate to training issues this is logged and when sufficient similar issues are noted ABC Co Ltd will suggest to the client that refresher training would be wise.

If, as happens often, the call for support relates to something other than ABC Co’s product or service (eg advise on someone else’s product or service (because your helpdesk is nicer or cheaper than theirs!) then this too is logged and if it gets out of hand ABC Co will either sell training (prevention) or charge for support (cure). This way the operation whilst flexible and friendly doesn’t become a unsustainable charity which will inevitably fail the needs of both customer and provider.


As noted above XYZ Ltd prides itself on rapid response providing on-demand solutions.

They don’t provide training, but will provide telephone support providing there is a happy coincidence between the needs of the caller and, by random selection, the knowledge of the person answering the call.

For the expert or technician picking up the call, this is more a game of Russian Roulette than an opportunity to exploit a particular expertise that you have honed.

Often the expert or technician is more focussed on the problem than the person which may affect their demeanour and rapport [ an essential element of customer service] and this may be made worse if their disposition is dependent on whether the telephone Russian Roulette has yielded a harmless click or a skull crunching BANG!

At this point the technician may be relieved and confident, or surprised and stressed by the revelations coming down the phone line. In the worse circumstances they will have to juggle satisfying the emotional needs of the caller and resolve the technical need of the problem all, if possible, right-first-time.

This is not impossible. I have seen some remarkable people be both customer focussed and technically brilliant, however their scarcity is what makes them remarkable!

The above, perhaps, doesn't give XYZ a reasonable case even though XYZ (probably) represents the industry standard.

I would concede that the XYZ model can work where there is low variety of products and service requests. Clearly if there only 2 or 3 products or 2 of 3 request types then expecting the person at the end of the phone to have reasonable expertise on-demand isn’t unreasonable. This then necessitates a strict approach to standardise and streamline.

Going back to our previous analogy it is rather like calling the Vehicle Recovery Service. If you call the AA, RAC or Green Flag you can reasonably expect them to know something about cars, engines and possible causes for breakdowns. It would however be unreasonable to expect them to opine on car accessories, holiday destinations or indeed provide driving lessons.


What is interesting about ABC and XYZ is that I can name at least 4 companies for each model and I am curious as to which is actually better. I personally think ABC is better (and I acknowledge some bias in this article) but I am interested in others’ opinions, experience and possibly other models.

I would especially welcome feedback from customers who are the recipients of these services and organisations who need to recruit, train and retain the people that provide them.

As always, feedback welcome.

If you are in Jersey (Channel Islands) I am always willing to share a coffee, croissant and chat about your ideas and experiences.


Tim Rogers is a Qualified Change Practitioner and PRINCE2 Project Manager, with an MBA in Management Consultancy. Past projects have included the incorporation of Ports of Jersey and Operations Change and Sales Support for RBSI and NatWest. He is a tutor/lecturer for the Chartered Management Institute.