Resellers that install helpdesk software or build call centreks and call centres, the most important of which is the operator. environments should be conscious of the many ways in which the installation can effect staff. If staff needs are not considered, a helpdesk or call centre is unlikely to be successful, however sophisticated the IT may be. And the reseller responsible for its implementation is likely to be blamed for its failure, even if they have provided the most sophisticated hardware and software available.
The issues for resellers involve a gamut of human emotions and cultural factors centering around the workplace. They relate to job satisfaction and whether working in a call centre or at a helpdesk is a pleasant experience.
At worst, helpdesk workers or call centre staff can feel like pressured slaves - exploited, manipulated, controlled and with no job satisfaction.
The reason is plain: the software itself can be used to manage workers.
It can be used to monitor the number of calls received or made each day, the amount of time spent on each call, and the resolution rate. It can also be used to log the amount of time an operator spends away from the desk and can alert a supervisor if an operator takes too long or fails to deal with a minimum number of calls.
Most helpdesk callers are angry customers who have had negative experiences, so operators often have to deal with people who are dissatisfied and disgruntled.
They know that each call they take may be someone with a complaint or problem. Unless they are of a particular temperament, this can be a demoralising experience in the long term.
Job satisfaction may also decline because those who monitor phones have no face-to-face contact with their customers. They have to deal with people who have problems but have no way of knowing whether the problems are satisfactorily resolved or what the long-term outcome may be.
Call centres are even less satisfying environments because the work often involves little more than logging calls. But all these factors can be addressed so that working at a helpdesk or call centre is not just a happy experience but a positive career move.
The problem comes usually in those corporates that regard the call centre or helpdesk as a burden - a cost which must be endured. More enlightened companies which view the helpdesk or call centre as an essential part of corporate image take a positive approach. Paul Rappaport, director of marketing at Ultracomp, which markets a product that includes a helpdesk element, says it is important to take an integrated approach and see the helpdesk as part of a range of corporate functions. He says: 'Whatever the main business of the organisation, the helpdesk should be regarded as important as the core competency and not seen as an isolated function tagged on as lip service to customer care.'
Nick Payne, sales and marketing director with Sunrise Software, which specialises in providing helpdesks, says: 'A good helpdesk can be one way an organisation differentiates itself, so it is essential. But if it is going to work well, it is crucial to consider the human element.'
Payne agrees that the latest software has features which can be mis-used by the tyrannical helpdesk manager, such as the ability to monitor workers and ensure that they call back and follow up within a certain timeframe.
But, increasingly, companies are realising that such an approach is short-sighted.
'Unfortunately, some resellers do not take a holistic approach to helpdesks or call centres and just concentrate on installing the hardware and software.
This can exacerbate the attitudes of unenlightened firms. Those resellers are missing a big opportunity,' says Payne.
A profitable approach to implementing helpdesks has to have an analytical, consultative relationship between reseller and customer. Rappaport says: 'We will spend a lot of time with the client before implementation, making sure the helpdesk or call centre reflects the company's needs and objectives, and then keep tweaking the software after implementation to make sure it continues to deliver what the company wants.'
Payne says: 'We provide regular reviews as part of our fee and go back to the operators and supervisors to make sure the software continues to meet their requirements. If anyone is unhappy with the software or feeling pressured by it, we can change it.'
Both agree that a helpdesk should continue to evolve and provide the reseller with a long-term revenue stream.
Rappaport says: 'There are two types of helpdesks, depending on the software. One is merely call logging with short, sharp transactions, and it is difficult to deliver any job satisfaction to the operator. The other has empowered users who feel they can really do something to resolve a customer's problems.'
Tony Sumpster, director of UK operations of Workgroup Systems, a company which specialises in the design and delivery of service desks, says he is concerned about the rush of resellers moving into providing helpdesks but ignoring the human aspects. He believes that will ultimately give the industry a bad name.
'The problem is that operatives often have the software and a system forced on them without consultation or consideration of their views. No wonder they are often unhappy. Such an approach will lead to lack of confidence in the software and the system will not be used to its full potential,' he says.
Workgroup Systems insists on workshops to ensure users and operators are happy with the implementation. 'We get their views and then make sure the system includes their wish list.' Sumpster says it is also important to set milestones for operators and have regular appraisals to help build a positive attitude towards the work.
Mike Anderson, a helpdesk manager at Unisys, says the statistics within the software can be used to help build a positive working environment.
'Operators can have a definite awareness of their achievements matched to milestones, and far from being an oppressive regime, can create a healthily competitive atmosphere,' he says.
In fact, Anderson says that in his experience, many operators choose to work at a helpdesk because they are enjoyable places to be. He says: 'Many helpdesks are operated by people who have a wide range of options but select a career as a helpdesk operator because they enjoy it so much.'
Anderson agrees that some people might find it difficult to sit at the end of a phone all day dealing with other people's problems, but in the end the key is in the selection and management. 'Obviously, you have to choose people who are temperamentally suited to working on a helpdesk or call centre - it is not everyone's cup of tea. Then you have to train and motivate them in the same way that all teams have to be managed.'
Hans Stiles works on a helpdesk and loves it. 'Yes it is high pressure but I like that - I like solving people's problems. It gives me a good feeling. There is a steep learning curve, but there is no better way of finding out about technology than working on a helpdesk.'
Stiles says the best software encourages operators to develop relationships with callers so they get routed to them on subsequent calls and they call them back to make sure the solution worked. 'It's like all jobs, it's what you make of it. I know I won't stay in this job forever, but I want to learn as much as possible. It has definite personal and financial rewards.
For me, a job in engineering or programming would be far more boring and oppressive.'
Sumpster believes good helpdesk software is essential if a company is going to satisfy its commitment to customer care and support. 'Ensuring that operators are happy is part of delivering that care,' he says. 'Any company which has service level agreements (SLAs) can improve their SLA delivery by having helpdesk software which sets targets and automatically prioritise calls to match the definition of the SLA. Good helpdesk software will ensure a company delivers according to its SLA commitment.'
Resellers are key in making sure the helpdesk is fine-tuned to deliver these parameters. Graeme Pitts-Drake, MD of Magic Software, says good helpdesk or call centre software will reduce, not increase, the stress on operators. 'Far from a helpdesk being a tough place to work, the software can empower the operator to be effective and leverage the knowledge built up by other workers.'
Pitts-Drake also points out that good software will prevent workers burning out after six months. 'It gives helpdesk operators more tools to make sure they do a satisfying job. Resellers can provide plenty of value-added services around a helpdesk installation - like training users about the product and ensuring that it reflects the companies' general procedures and processes.'
He adds that integrating internet access into helpdesks, the latest feature on many products, will also improve working conditions for helpdesk operators.
'It will mean that callers will be able to do more self-help, allowing the operators to concentrate on more difficult and more challenging problems.'
'It also means that a helpdesk can offer round-the-clock coverage when previously they may have been limited to the hours the operators could work. And it means that the helpdesk can be located anywhere in the world, which can reduce the running costs.'
Pundits agree that working on a helpdesk or call centre can be a nightmare, but it doesn't have to be that way.
With the right management approach and well constructed software, combined with a good supplier, a helpdesk can be a challenging, satisfying place to be - and far from the sweat shop that some critics claim it is.
Have you got what it takes?
Installing helpdesks requires resellers to have a wide range of skills and expertise across many IT disciplines and applications, particularly decision support, database integration and internet access.
A good helpdesk or call centre needs to be active, not just reacting to incoming calls. It needs to provide statistical information which can be used for statistics and supporting management decisions. Internet access is considered standard and is quite sophisticated. For example, callers to a helpdesk can try to resolve their problem using visual aids and explanations, which requires the reseller to have good HTML and Java skills. Anyone contacting a helpdesk through the Web should automatically trigger a profile for the helpdesk operator so they have a full record and profile on screen within seconds.
Web-based, self-help systems are also on the increase. Helpdesks are being viewed as the most important element of the enterprise - an octopus with tentacles in every department.
Resellers need to keep up with the latest skills in a broad range of disciplines and human interests - knowing what makes people happy at work, is just one.
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