Help desk how-to

Make sure the solution you choose conforms to the processes, not the other way around.

1. Solutions should fit the process, not the other
way around.

2. Tracking is a core component.

3. Ease of use is critical for a successful
application.

4. Look for a robust reporting function.

5. Weigh the flexibility of a Web-based solution
against security concerns.

6. Match help-desk support to business
practices.

At its most basic, a help-desk application lets
users create tickets that describe their problems.
Technicians use this information to
begin to diagnose the problems, fix them and
close the tickets. Help-desk programs can
reduce costs by solving problems that impede
work, making better use of existing resources
and eliminating delays.

With most systems, users can create tickets
via phone calls, e-mail messages or other
means. If they have trouble with one channel,
they can use another. Administrators can
define the issues the system will handle as narrowly
or as broadly as they like. Purely computer-
related problems, trouble with phones,
building maintenance, human resources and
software bugs are all legitimate possibilities.
Workflow tools that route tickets to the
appropriate person for assignment, diagnosis,
action, verification and closing are also features
of a robust help-desk application.

However, the solution shouldn't impose a
workflow on an organization.

"Tracking is the heart of a help desk," said
Daryl Covey, hotline manager at the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's
Nexrad Radar Operations Center in Norman,
Okla. "You don't want things to fall through
the cracks."

An optional knowledge base can let users
self-diagnose and remedy problems using validated
procedures without a technician's
assistance.

Another useful tool is remote access, which
lets technicians log on to user machines to
investigate and solve problems. For example,
LogMeIn Rescue lets users give permission to
technicians to run diagnostics, start and stop
processes, reboot ? whatever is necessary to
find and fix the problem.

THE BIG PICTURE

It's important to recognize that a help-desk
solution is only part of an overall information
technology strategy. Adding a configuration
management capability lets administrators
link reported problems to system configuration
issues. An asset management component,
such as the one Internet Software Sciences'
Web?? supplies, can help inventory and
manage agency resources. Change management
options can assist with planning
decisions.

All those options are important, but reporting
is perhaps the most useful for management
purposes. One type of report involves
details of the help-desk process, such as how
long it takes to respond to tickets and fix problems.

However, other reports can be more useful
for spotting trends or patterns in the big picture of effective systems management.
For example, recognizing that certain problems
are typical of a particular configuration
allows agencies to avoid future difficulties by
using targeted, preventive responses.
"Use trend analysis to determine
root causes and fix the underlying
problem, not the symptoms," Covey
said. Reports also can aid with decisions
about acquisitions and deployment.

Help-desk programs should
have predefined reports but also
allow for creating custom reports.
The most vital aspect of a successful
help-desk solution is ease of use. If users can't
use it ? or technicians won't use it ? it's a failure
no matter how good the solution's capabilities.
Does it have multiple channels for users to
create tickets? Can technicians access tickets
via BlackBerry? Technicians should also be able
to assign meaningful priorities, categories or
status to tickets.

HELPING HANDS

Before choosing a help-desk application, make
a thorough examination of agency business
practices. You want to be sure that what you're
supporting ? and the support you're providing
? makes sense.

"Knowing your end goals for the help desk
and how you want to support your users and
sponsors will go far in choosing software to fit
your needs," said Ronald Meyers, program lead
of the Joint Systems Support and Knowledge Center at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego. Also, help-desk
applications are expensive, with price tags
typically in the tens of thousands of dollars ?
all the more reason to invest the time to be sure
your process is correct.

Choosing from among all the possible features
is not easy. A Web-based solution helps
agencies deal with problems in geographically
distributed offices but can also raise issues of
security. Covey said some users also find help-desk
sites too complex.

"You may need to refine your Web interface
to build confidence and comfort so people will
use it more," he said.

Pricing is also complex, partly because each
agency's situation is unique. Vendors could
charge a monthly or yearly fee or have a single
payment for the duration of the system. Some
vendors charge per user, and others have a flat
fee for any number of users. Some vendors'
products are intrinsically Web-oriented, and
others charge for Web access. With some
solutions, all options are part of the package
with no extra fees; with others, you pay as you
go for each option you select. Are technical
support, maintenance and upgrades included,
or do they involve extra charges?

"Remember to include the annual cost to
maintain and support the software after
implementation," Meyers said. Agency IT
staff members should question vendors closely
about the expected costs of deployment.

Given how cost-conscious government
agencies are, it makes sense to look at the free
help-desk applications available, especially
for small deployments and first deployments.

The open-source Liberum Help Desk offers a
Web interface with built-in reports, configurable
e-mail messages and customizable
pages. Similarly, OneOrZero has capabilities
for customizable ticket fields, tickets via
e-mail, time tracking, project management,
searches and reporting, and powerful security
in multiple languages. Other free
help-desk applications include Help
Desk Software, Hesk, QuickIntranet
and Simple Help Desk. Also, many
vendors offer free trial versions of
their software.

"An agencywide product allows
more consistency throughout the
agency by having one way to manage
tickets and more consistent metric reports
regardless of system or sponsor," Meyers said.
Selecting a help-desk application that has a
modular structure makes sense for many
agencies ? especially those implementing a
help-desk application for the first time ?
because they can implement functions one at a
time. "Start with tracking to ensure tickets are
worked and closed out correctly," Covey said.
A help-desk program usually requires its
own hardware and software resources.

However, some vendors, such as Athena, also
host the solution as a service. All the information
resides on the vendor's servers and is
accessible via the Internet. For this option,
agencies will need reassurance about security
measures.

Help-desk applications must be compatible
with all the platforms the agency uses. Pay
particular attention to different versions of
operating systems: Windows Vista does not
equal Windows XP, for example.

Finally, should agencies deploy the chosen
application themselves or outsource it? There
are benefits to both approaches. However, a
help-desk application is an individual choice,
fitted to the needs and style of the agency.

"The help-desk staff should be able to selfmanage
the software to adapt to changing or
emerging systems," Meyers said. Agencies
might be hesitant to entrust this responsibility
to outsiders.

Edmund X. DeJesus is a freelance writer.

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