Keep Your Help Desk Staff Happy

Appreciating employees, providing good pay, and rotating assignments make a tough job more tolerable.


How to Help Your Business Become an AI Early Adopter


Posted October 24, 2000

Valle Dwight

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In a way, Don Boylan misses being a smoker. Boylan, one of 15 people on Schering-Plough Corp.'s help desk in Memphis, Tenn., used to rely on outdoor cigarette breaks to manage his help desk stress. Now that he has quit smoking, he has to make it a point to get up and walk away from the phones when he feels stress building up. "If I don't have a call coming in, I walk around and get some jelly beans," says Boylan, who has worked help desks for 14 years at several companies.

Finding ways to relieve help desk staff stress is a constant challenge for service and support managers. "If you can keep people engaged and motivated, [it] helps them give good support to your customers. If they're stressed out, they're not giving good service," according to Ron Muns, founder of the Help Desk Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But providing good service is only one benefit to keeping stress levels low on the help desk. HDI estimates that the help desk turnover rate for 2000 is 35%, and its 1999-2000 Best Practices Survey found that 46% of service and support managers surveyed consider turnover a moderate to serious issue. Muns says, "Burnout and turnover [are] the most significant issue[s] for the support services industry."

Help Desks Were Asked: Estimate the average number of service requests (inquiries, problem calls, etc.) your help desk or comparable support function receives per month. Include all types (phone, e-mail, fax, walk-in, etc.)

Source: Help Desk Institute, "1999-2000 Best Practices Survey"

Beating Burnout

Mavis Strebler, a Buchanan Associates consultant who manages the help desk at Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., in Hurst, Texas, understands what is behind such statistics. Strebler knows that many factors contribute to burnout and high turnover rates on the help desk. She says help desk staff members are under constant pressure, deal with agitated callers, and get little respect from those they help. The fact that they do monotonous work that offers low pay and limited career advancement creates problems, too.

HDI's survey found that 48% of the help desk staff surveyed work on the telephone more than 80% of the time. It is a situation designed to create stress. "Not too many people want to sit on the phone all day," says Strebler. "You're also dealing with irate callers sometimes, and some help desk people absorb the callers' frustration, and that can build up."

Strebler, who came to Bell Helicopter Textron two years ago when its 12-person help desk was suffering high turnover, lots of user complaints, and a backlog of calls, took dramatic steps to increase employee satisfaction on the job. She changed the way Bell Helicopter's support staff worked.

When she came to the company there were two groups providing support--help desk and desktop. While the help desk staff was tied to the phone, the desktop staff was sent to fix problems in person. To improve job satisfaction for the entire group, Strebler first combined the groups and then began rotating staff on and off the help desk. With the new rotation, the combined group spent half its day on the phone and half its day solving problems in person.

Aside from making the job more interesting, Strebler found that providing hands-on support experience to staff that once worked exclusively on the phone improved their problem solving when they rotated back to the phone. She says phone workers find solving problems face-to-face less stressful because "People are generally nice to you in person. You get more positive feedback, and they're more likely to write letters of appreciation."

Strebler introduced another rotation to the group. She moved employees into leadership roles for months at a time. "Every two months I switch the lead positions among the more experienced people," she says. "They don't get any more money for it, but they get the variety and they gain some management experience." Expanding the roles of Bell Helicopter Textron's help desk staff seems to have improved job retention, too. Strebler says only three people have left the help desk since she began making changes two years ago.

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