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Evolve IT help desk skills to meet modern user demands

"Have you tried turning it off and then back on again?" is no longer the first question a help desk technician should ask. Widespread use of tech by just about everyone has changed the role.

IT help desk staff are the first line of support for application end users. But with the ubiquity of advanced technology inside the average person's home, organizations' user bases have outgrown the traditional help desk.

End users' technical skill sets have grown, and, in many cases, they can address basic IT or application issues on their own. For help desk staff, this means user calls and requests are for issues that are more complex than they have been traditionally -- which requires new knowledge and skill sets.

In addition, the increasing complexity of software tools, in terms of their cross-platform functionality, makes support more difficult to provide. The more dynamic pieces involved with an application, the more points of potential failure: This is where typical users can no longer troubleshoot on their own.

The average user doesn't grasp how everything in the IT environment works together. Enter help desk support 3.0: For support personnel today, the easy questions are gone, and so are the ticket-takers; help desk skills should mirror those of junior-level engineers who understand the complexity of today's systems -- not just simple Windows troubleshooting. This increases help desk overhead, as fast and accurate problem resolution isn't cheap.

Map out systems interaction

It's critical to understand how IT systems interact. Support staff can't work in silos when the applications they service are no longer in silos. For example, support personnel must know a little about Windows and Linux, as well networking and security. They don't need to be experts in these fields, but they must understand core concepts.

Modern help desk skills

Networking skills must exceed simple IP addresses: The ability to trace IP traffic and determine connection points -- including with voice over IP and wireless networks -- are now essential skills for help desk roles.

In addition, understand application workflows. Identify the role each server performs for the application, and the effect of breaks or resource contention. Support staff's knowledge won't be as deep as the application owners', but it won't, and shouldn't, be far behind -- and, unlike the application owners, who must know only a few applications, support personnel should know them all. This breadth of systems knowledge, coupled with more advanced troubleshooting, forms the basis of modern IT help desk skills -- but the role is not limited to troubleshooting.

Enforce comprehensive communication and documentation

Support staff can't work in silos when the applications they service are no longer in silos.

With the more technically savvy end user, help desk admins must ask what the user has already tried to prevent unnecessary step repetition -- or to prevent the call from sounding scripted, which users hate. This requires IT to sift through information to troubleshoot as quickly as possible. To balance listening and troubleshooting, staff require advanced communication skills.

Documentation goes hand in hand with communication: If IT admins must send the issue up the food chain, higher-tier support personnel shouldn't waste time repeating steps that were already taken but not documented. Because higher-tier staff carry a higher cost per hour, this shuffle can be measured in real dollar amounts.

Invest in training for new help desk skills

IT help desk and operations professionals are in transition because of fluctuations in the user base. Support specialists have become closer to engineers to facilitate efficient problem resolution. Management must invest in training for both technical and soft skills to attain those more advanced skill sets. This investment can pay off rapidly, as it creates a path of advancement for support staff to later transition into application ownership or engineering.

This type of personnel movement can greatly benefit an organization, as it results in ample staff with deep knowledge of IT systems. However, if an organization wants these advanced skill sets, it must be willing to pay for them. This cost is still lower than hiring a new engineer, but higher than a traditional support specialist.

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