Helpdesk? Helpdesk? We don't need no stinking helpdesk!

How do your users submit problems to you? Hollering "The Internet's down!" across the cafeteria doesn't count.

Marc Wagner's post, "Customer service — university style", provides the perfect introduction to a piece that has been percolating in my head for a while now.  How do your users submit their problems and service requests to you?  At the university level (and certainly in any reasonably-sized business), there is a helpdesk, a central point of contact where needs can be tracked, triaged, and dealt with appropriately.  However, at the K-12 level, the idea of a helpdesk can be a pretty foreign concept.

At the beginning of this school year, I asked all of the users in my school to submit problems via email.   I invariably forgot their passing comments in the hall, lost the scraps of paper with jotted notes in my box, or ignored my voicemails.  However, I'm an email junkie and Gmail makes it so darned easy to follow a thread of emails, that I figured this would be a great way to track and follow up on support issues.  I even made sure every user had a school email account and provided training and documentation on how to access it.  Piece of cake, right?

No...I'm afraid not.  Users in a K-12 setting are accustomed to very informal interactions in the teacher's lounge, hallway, or classroom.  In a business or university, the IT staff and end users rarely see each other unless there is a problem, so a helpdesk paradigm makes sense.  K12 users can't understand why they can't just ask the IT guy for help.

Unfortunately, as said IT guy, it becomes all too easy to become absorbed in putting out brush fires on a simple walk down the hallway.  Prioritization, projects, and lunch can go right out the window.  On the other hand, if users can be made to understand why a helpdesk is a good thing and not just one more layer of technology behind which us IT guys can hide, we can actually manage and resolve a lot more problems.  I have a number of student interns who help me out on a regular basis.  How great would it be for me to just forward a help request to a student who can handle a simple problem?  Or use the help requests and their resolutions to create a knowledge base for self-help?

As we're evaluating new student information systems in our district, we stumbled across one that quite nicely integrates workflow management.  This company has developed an interface so robust that they use their own system for managing help calls and provide the framework to districts so that they can set up their own helpdesks with a minimum of effort (and integrate the associated workflow into the SIS, such that anyone with an account can submit problems, view resolutions, follow up on requests, etc.).

While it isn't necessary to create a full-blown helpdesk application, simple forums and discussion boards are easy to integrate into school and district websites.  These still aggregate support information and provide an easy, universally accessible way for teachers and staff to submit requests.

As your IT needs grow, you really do need a stinking help desk.  You just need to convince your users that it will allow you to be more productive and provide them with better customer service, rather than simply allow you to blow them off as they holler across the cafeteria to you. 

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