Dial 'H' for Hell

Dial 'H' for Hell

Why are they called help desks when the name so rarely rings true?

I don't often ring help desks because I have a genetic condition that prevents me admitting I need help: my Y chromosome. But I've had, well, let's call them issues, over the course of my various ambitious projects, and have had to resort to ringing the odd help desk or two (or three or four).

These days most help desk calls are initially fielded by an automated telephone voice, placed there to shield staff from customers. These voices have been carefully created with intonation and inflection, yet still sound remarkably like Stephen Hawking: "You are now . . . 8th . . . in the queue . . . Your call has advanced, you are now . . . 8th . . . in the queue."

No matter the time of day or night, my bank's help desk message always tells me that lines are particularly busy at the moment and I should check the Internet for help (which is curious as I only call when there's a problem with the Web site and a message instructs me to phone the help desk).

My favourite opening message was: "Press 1 for hardware support, press 2 for software support, press 3 for account enquiry or press 4 to hear a chicken." I pressed 4, heard "Squawk" and was immediately disconnected. I rate that company in the top 10 percent of help desks.

I am very important. I know this because after negotiating the IVR's automated defence perimeter, there's the inevitable wait during which I'm constantly told how important my call is, how important my privacy is, how important my business is - everything's important except providing someone for me to talk to.

The biggest differentiator is the audio I'm expected to listen to while I wait. Sometimes it's a radio station, which tells me in what demographic they think their customers fall. Sometimes it's just silence sporadically interrupted with a voice message unsuccessfully reassuring me I haven't been forgotten. The worst are the company ads, though. It's bad enough they're wasting my time to get their product working without using that time to flog me stuff. I don't hang around long on those calls (which, come to think of it, could be the result they're looking for).

I know staff turnover is a problem for many help desks, so with each phone I'm resigned to once again explaining my problem, the system I'm working on, blah, blah, blah, and then requesting the help-desker move along their script a little because I've already done the steps listed in the first three pages. Often by guiding them through basic problem determination procedures, I discover a solution, at which point I thank the bemused help-desker for their time and hang up.

On the basis of "if you can't beat them, join them" I've initiated my own help desk, requiring all employees to submit a formal help request for any problem. My finely honed process is to file each request in LIFO order (most recent on top of the pile), which is the Level 1 support queue. Requests remain there until the complainant asks what's happening, which escalates the problem to Level 2. This is where I search through the pile for their problem and actually read it. The benefit of this system is many problems never get asked about, so after a month they get de-escalated to the Level 0 rubbish bin.

I can fix most Level 2 problems as soon as I read them, but I don't let on for fear of being asked why it wasn't fixed sooner. As a delaying tactic, I say I have to check with my supervisor. For the ones I can't fix, I first attempt a workaround: "Can't you do without it?" If that fails, the problem is escalated to Level 3, which means I should get to it tomorrow. Unless I have a problem.

Bruce Kirkham is a veteran IT professional specializing in leading-edge technologies and scepticism, who views the IT industry not so much as "dot com" as "dot comedy"

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