If you’re a school IT administrator, tell me if any of these circumstances ring true:
- Your cell phone is vibrating a hole in your desk.
- Your email inbox is flooded.
- Your phone system crashed because you have too many voicemails.
- People randomly pop into your office and interrupt your work.
Help. Everyone needs it, including you.
The role of the school IT admin requires wearing many hats these days. When you’re not busy overseeing your servers and networks, updating your district's long-rang technology plan, or protecting against hacked school websites, you spend all your ‘spare time’ managing the sparkling customer service at the help desk, right?
Help desk sanity starts with expectations.
After 10 years on the front lines of IT support, I've learned a few things about how to set up a help desk. The key is doing it without losing your sanity. Before my life as CEO of Campus Suite, I ran a managed service provider, which is a virtual IT department for a business that doesn't want to hire staff. Our group supported hundreds of businesses with thousands of users.
Undefined boundaries become damaging to your team and the people you support. Without a definition of what to expect – and when – causes tension. When your tech staff faces the pressure of users who want everything right now, and your users have no guidelines of what to expect, the modus operandi often is the "squeaky wheel gets the grease."
Users get conditioned to learn that they get results when they push harder. You work hard enough; do you want someone calling you every 10 minutes about their email? I don't.
I have a clear set of rules for my team and our users to follow. Every group will have different needs, but here's my advice for keeping your sanity.
Make rules. Write them down.
The core helpdesk guideline is to enforce the rules you define for getting support. If you require users to email an address to get support, don't take calls. If you have a form, don't let them email you directly. Don't take verbal requests.
There are two reasons for not taking verbal requests. Accountability is number one: verbal requests made outside your rules might not get tracked and handled properly or forgotten – this leads to unhappy users. The second reason is your sanity. The scenarios listed above at the start of this article are all symptoms of a lack of rules.
Create a service level agreement.
A service level agreement (SLA) is the formal definition of what to expect for communication. I find that many internal school IT departments don’t measure their KPI's (key performance indicators) for support. Using a SLA to define your school IT key performance indicators is valuable when discussing needs with management. You can request new staff or software more confidently when you have data to back it.
Define support parameters.
What do you support? When is support available? Who gets what support? How are users to contact and engage support? What isn't supported. Users often want help with cell phones, home computers, their personal tablets and other technology. Define what isn't covered as much as possible. (With watches and other ‘wearables’ being rolled out, a support team staffer may soon be required to be a watchmaker and tailor.)
Prioritize your problem solving.
A printer being low on toner is not the same problem as an email server outage rendering 3,000 users incommunicado. Having a priority matrix is key in setting expectations. Create a graph with number of users impacted on one axis, and a business impact scale on the other. The major ‘business impact’ for schools is reporting, compliance, security, and your own metrics on delivering education.
Set realistic response times (and expectations).
You are not a short order cook. IT is complicated. You and your team need time to assess, define, and develop a plan to respond to an issue. You need clear response times for your users. Enforcing the response time is critical in building trust in the support process. At Campus Suite, support requests that are not handled in our time frame move up the chain of command.
9 keys for a successful school IT help desk
1. Create a monitor page. Campus Suite has a system status page for all of our systems. If you have a high-impact event, users can see the status without opening a ticket. Google, Rackspace, Amazon, and many others follow this practice. Get a solution in place to show a dashboard. Pingdom, Site24x7, and StatusCake, and others have great solutions to monitor your systems. Create a web page, and embed the monitoring status.
2. Use help desk software. Your inbox is not a support system. Helpdesk software can save you a lot of time when working with users, and bring clarity and scalability. There are hundreds of helpdesk software packages available that integrate with anything you might have.
3. Communicate. Communication is key with managing expectations. Users will wait if they know that someone knows and is working on their issue. Your helpdesk software should offer options for email updates, self service, and auto-responders. Helpdesk software should help automate communication. Any package needs to work with your school's communication platform.
4. Customize messages. Customize your emails and messages in your help desk software. Personal sounding emails make the user experience better. Automation is hidden when you take the time to add a personal touch. Take the time to use form fields to use names, issues, etc, in any automated communication.
5. Use a ticket queue. Every request for support needs to be a ticket. A ticket queue needs to track the user and the system affected. Tracking your resources assigned to a ticket is critical in larger teams. The queue is your measurement of your current non-project workload.
6. Track assets. Any information you can know about a user without asking is critical. Asset tracking saves time, and prevents users from giving you bad information. Track configuration notes and service history to a device. I like to require a user and an asset ID to create a ticket. You can have trouble with users, devices, or both.
7. Manage your SLAs. SLA management is tracking tickets against your response time. Did you respond in time? What is the impact? Meeting and beating your SLA is easier when the software can do it for you. Setup escalation to make sure you know if a ticket might miss an SLA. Knowledge base. For example, what did you do to fix Dreambox on the Ipad? History may never repeat itself, but support tickets do. Capture tickets into a knowledge base to save time on recurring issues.
8. Integrate with email. Email is still the main form of communication in IT. (If the server isn’t down. What does the monitoring system say?) Having a helpdesk solution that connects to your email to capture requests, notes, or anything that you need to attach to a ticket is a lifesaver.
9. Encourage self service. Some users are happy to try and solve a problem themselves. Help them! Every self-service solution is time saved for your team. Create a public-facing knowledge base and guides for common tasks. If you have power users, ask them to write articles and guides for you.
Create a process to build your help desk
I like to start with a process diagram to review with my team. Larger help desks will want to follow ITIL, but for a smaller school or district, I suggest looking at the high levels of ITIL, and building your own process. Use BPMN to create a diagram of how you expect support to be delivered. I like using LucidCharts. LucidCharts offers free premium account upgrades to the education sector. Some people start with a wall and Post-It notes, then attempt to do a diagram. The goal is to outline your process for these target areas. (You may have more.)
Use these processes as a map to setup your help desk software:
- User support process – What is the experience that a user should have through support? When are things logged, emails sent, or decisions made?
- Incident process – What is our response to an incident? When do we need to escalate the issue? When should we call a vendor for support?
- Escalation process – Who gets notified when? At Campus Suite, we move it up the chain of command when something over a certain level happens, or if a SLA is close to being broken.
- Backup process – You need to be ready for Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests, or other emergencies. Have a process for monitoring backups tied to your helpdesk, and alert leadership if backups have any issues.
Help is on the way
The key to a good helpdesk is process, planning, and improvement. Aim to improve with every ticket, and your service levels will shine. The goal of IT is to support every other business unit in a school. As IT professionals, we need to build trust with these other units. Having a helpdesk solution is key to building reliability and trust with your users.
Have you had positive or negative experiences setting up a help desk at your school? Do you have any secrets of your own for setting up a responsive school IT help desk?
Eric's background as a technical CEO with a big-picture focus brings the experience and vision that both gains the respect of technical audiences, and gets the attention of the progressive school leaders and administrators.