What is a help desk?

A help desk is a department within a business or organization that fields and resolves questions and problems. Some companies consider a help desk as a sub-function of a service desk; others use the terms help desk and service desk interchangeably. Two clearly defined types of help desk include IT help desks and HR help desks. 

Companies can have an external IT help desk that helps customers use a product or service, and an internal IT help desk that helps employees (sometimes called internal customers)  find answers or solutions regarding the hardware and software they use in their jobs. In the case of an internal IT help desk, the department serves as part of the organization’s IT Service Management.

HR help desks field and resolve employee questions and problems around HR issues such as how to apply for benefits, how to request a schedule change, or how to fill out a regulatory compliance form.  

Modern help desks have multiple tiers or levels of service, often beginning with self-service options (in which customers can find their own answers in a knowledge base) up through solutions powered by artificial intelligence (such as chatbots), and finally to interface with a live person via phone or chat. Other forms of help desk communication may include emails, texts, chats on a collaboration software, and social media interactions. 

Help desk knowledge bases and why you need one

A help desk knowledge base is a repository of information—often in the form of articles, blogs, procedural documents and so forth, that can be used by anyone trying to find answers or solutions through the help desk. Internal or external customers can search for answers to their own questions in a knowledge base; chatbots can use, or refer to, the information in a knowledge base; service agents or representatives can use the information in a knowledge base to answer help desk questions they don’t already know the answer to. 

Without a knowledge base—often called a single source of truth—customers and employees waste considerable amounts of time seeking answers in siloed data collections. A knowledge base can speed issue resolution, improve productivity, and increase customer satisfaction.

The role that IT help desks play in companies

Most companies today operate on an ever-expanding tech stack with a variety of interdependent hardwares and softwares. The data on which the organization depends, as well as the functions that comprise its operations, rely on this technology and on employees’ ability to use it efficiently. Any issues that prevent this functionality hinder productivity. 

The IT help desk provides a central repository for information and assistance so problems with using the technology can be resolved quickly and productivity is restored. 

Internal IT help desks field a wide range of questions that arise for employees in the performance of their jobs. Some of the most common include questions about how to link with the printer or use tools like Zoom; but they can escalate to emergency questions around network security or the website being down. 

Each of these issues can be very important to the organization and, compiled together, can strongly impact the organization’s performance. An employee’s inability to log in to a Zoom meeting, for example, could harm the company’s relationship with an important customer or vendor, or delay a key decision. 

External IT help desks help customers who have questions or problems with products or services they purchased from the company. In addition to helping customers resolve these issues, external IT help desks can track problems as they arise, flagging repeat tickets as subjects for future knowledge base articles or for evaluation by development teams as future product improvements.

Consequently, IT help desks play a vital role in maintaining customer relationships, supporting organizational productivity, and influencing the evolution and development of the company’s products and services.

Why small businesses should use help desk software

Help desk software may be even more crucial for small businesses than for large ones, especially as the business scales. Many small business leaders and employees have to stretch over a number of jobs to compensate for a small staff. But researchers predict that by 2020 85 percent of customer contacts will be handled without an agent, meaning fewer employees have to handle help desk issues. This results in a huge cost savings. McKinsey reports many companies using automated help services expect to save more than 40 percent over the cost of live contacts. 

In addition to time and money saved, many customers prefer self-service options, meaning that using help desk software is actually the customer-centric approach to resolving problems. This applies, to internal customers as well as external ones.


Help desk policy, goals & objectives

Every help desk must be governed by a set of policies, goals, and objectives. Policies cover such areas as: 

Policies must support help desk goals and objectives which include key performance indicators such as resolving issues on the first contact and routing questions to the correct channel the first time. In the case of external help desks, this is crucial for customer care because customer satisfaction depends on the speed of resolution. 

The ITIL help desk explained

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is a globally accepted service management system of best practices and principles. An ITIL help desk is a help desk designed on ITIL principles and procedures.

How human resources uses help desk software

Human resources is a complex and highly regulated area. Each HR department must comply with federal, state, and sometimes local, rules around fair hiring, fair labor and compensation practices, health care, employee safety, and myriad other issues. In addition the HR staff is responsible for making and enforcing company policies, screening job applicants, training, scheduling employees, managing payroll, and many other key activities. HR software offers a suite of tools to manage all of these functions, but because there is such a great variety and number of forms, documents, and tasks to be performed, issues and questions necessarily arise. HR help desks can assist with common tasks such as filling out I-9s, applications for benefits, direct deposit forms, and questions about pay, vacations and holidays. Having an HR help desk to field the common questions allows HR experts to spend their time on the more complex issues.

Research shows that companies that use HR ticketing software and help desks “often see higher levels of employee engagement and system adoptions, increasing the number of people each HR administrator role can support.”

Tools to build help desks

Open source: There are many open source help desk softwares available which are fully customizable and some of which cost very little. Organizations with talented IT staffs who have development experience can often handle the customization, support, and security, but that talent is essential for these systems to succeed. 

Web based or SaaS: Web based or SaaS help desks are “out of the box” systems for which companies pay a monthly subscription. Depending on features, they can be more expensive but they also handle upgrading and security and require little customization.

Cloud based software: Cloud based software is hosted in the cloud, rather than on a vendor’s servers. It offers more flexibility for customers to use the features the want at different price points and to scale up or down as needed.

Google apps help desk: PCMagazine says Google’s Mojo Helpdesk is super low cost but lacks integrations and has limited reporting and branding.

Help desk software comparisons – our top 10 picks for best help desk software: Clearly, we believe atSpoke offers the best help desk software with our advanced AI and machine learning capabilities. But in case you’re looking for other options, PCMagazine has listed a number of top companies for 2019 including Happy Fox, Freshdesk and Zoho Desk.

The help desk SLA

A help desk Service Level Agreement (SLA) outlines what the customer can expect from the help desk service in terms of outcomes, speed to resolution, reliability of the service, performance metrics and penalties if the agreement isn’t met. This type of agreement is often made between a company and a third party that will be managing the help desk for its customers to ensure that customers will be well cared for. 

What are standard help desk ticket tiers?

The most seamless help desk system is designed so that simple repeat questions are supported with knowledge base articles and self-service options; issues that escalate to an IT support agent are routed to a representative at the correct tier so that the top experts are devoting their energies to the most important and complex issues. Moreover the system should ensure that tickets are categorized and routed so that the problem is most often solved on the first contact, rather than through continued consultation.

Tier 0

People don’t refer much to Tier 0 but this is self-service, where employees or customers use a knowledge base or troubleshooting function to solve their own issues. 

Tier I Support

This is basic support from someone who has general understanding of the company’s IT, HR, or products and services, and can use the knowledge base to help answer relatively simple questions. Frequently this service is available 24/7 and outsourced to a third party. 

Tier II Support

The representatives providing Tier II support have more education and expertise around the specifics or inner workings of a particular system. They have access to advanced diagnostic tools and are more likely to be able to spot and resolve bugs in the system or more complex issues. These technicians tend to specialize and a good help desk software will route the questions to the best expert to answer them. Tier-II support involves technical knowledge and is staffed by technicians who have troubleshooting capabilities beyond the Tier-I employees. 

Tier III Support

This level of support generally comes from specialists involved in product development who deal with complex issues. They begin by gathering data from the ticket as it has progressed and look for diagnostic solutions that may be only possible from a high-level expert. 

Writing a help desk ticket – example templates

How you write a help desk ticket depends on the form or template used which will also depend on the features involved in your help desk. There are numerous examples of help desk templates to browse. If you use a SaaS help desk, the tickets will be pre designed. But if you have an open source solution you can purchase ticket templates that fit your company’s branding.

Help desk jobs – how to certify help desk technicians, the skills to look for on a resume, and how to train help desk staff

A career working on an IT help desk is ideal for methodical problem-solvers who can quickly learn and who can be patient and communicate well with customers who need help.

Some of the roles of help desk employees include Desktop Support Technician, technical or IT support specialist, or field service technician.

Technicians are rarely required to have a college degree, although there are degree programs in computer information systems (CIS), help desk administration, technical support, and network administration. There are also certifications in computer repair or IT/help desk support. Skills in network management, OS deployment and configuration, information security, desktop and mobile device troubleshooting, help to qualify a candidate. 

There are different approaches for training help desk staff including offering scripts for them to learn, training them on how to use the knowledge base, practice interactions with customer, and shadowing other help desk employees. Many help desk hiring interviews require applicants to be able to do a mock help desk session and resolve questions and problems.

The role of a help desk support employee is often not seen as elevated position, but without them, companies couldn’t operate. Help desks are the not-so-sexy infrastructure that keeps employees productive and customers happy. Companies should recognize that the tools and people involved with answering the critical questions are the core of any organization.

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