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Use third-party tools and resources to streamline help desk processes

Help desk admins often have to act quickly and efficiently to resolve issues. Learn about third-party applications that can streamline help desk processes.

When I started my IT career, I worked in a help desk environment, and while I was there, I learned a crucial truth: The only way for a help desk to be truly effective is for the department to make the best possible use of available resources. This means using some third-party applications to streamline the help desk processes. Just remember to always perform due diligence when you are considering purchasing an application, rather than just buying it because an expert likes its features.

Before we continue, know this: I only talk about specific features in this article and not about help desk applications as a whole.

Issue tracking

Help desk administrators often have to resolve issues quickly and efficiently; after all, users may not be able to do their jobs until the issues are fixed. Because help desks are often understaffed, tickets can pile up while a technician troubleshoots, and that's why issue tracking -- that is specific to your organization's unique configuration -- is critical.

Microsoft has some solid knowledgebase articles that could help you with the troubleshooting process, but the issues in those articles are not specific to your organization's configuration. One answer is to create your own.

More on streamlining help desk processes

Using Reliability and Performance Monitor to gauge system stability 

ITSM: Connecting service desk operations to IT strategies

Using MOF to resolve common Windows service desk challenges

 Start an issue-tracking process by building a knowledgebase that is specific to your organization's particular configuration. Whenever your help desk solves a user's problem, take a moment to document the solution. It will save hours of troubleshooting the next time that problem occurs.

Most help desk software has an issue-tracking feature. One third-party application that I have heard particularly good things about is ServiceDesk Plus.

Tracking computers and users

Many admins see tracking as a way of maintaining an inventory, but there is a lot more to it than that. A good help desk application should maintain a call history for each individual computer and for each individual user.

Some computers are lemons. Having the ability to track issues and document case histories on a per-computer basis will pinpoint the lemons. When your issue-tracking process indicates that a certain computer's memory has been replaced eight times in the last month, that information can help you decide when to cut your losses and replace a faulty system rather than continue to spend money on it.

And while it's not exactly politically correct, I am also a big proponent of tracking users. Back in my help desk days, I received a call from a user who needed his computer configured in a very abnormal way. What he asked me to do took every bit of the computer's resources and every bit of my skills to pull off.

I knew this particular configuration was going to turn into a support nightmare and would take me many hours to develop. When I asked my boss about it, he told me there must be a reason why he needed such an advanced configuration and instructed me to do what needed to be done.

To make a long story short, it took me 16 hours to build a configuration that the user needed to move data between two applications (this was before drag and drop). The finished program allowed him to print a sign for his desk that said Lunch Time.

When I found out, I was furious. I told my boss about it, and when I told him the name of the user, he said that particular user had pulled stunts like that in the past. Had we tracked users, I would have recognized that this might not be a serious request.

Bottom line: Some users have legitimate problems, and others tend to abuse the system. It is important to be able to identify users who have the more important issues so that the help desk can deal with them first. Even if users don't make outrageous requests, user tracking may be important from a cost perspective. Many organizations bill support costs back to individual departments, so you need to know who is making the help desk calls.

One particularly effective application for tracking issues is IssueTrak. Another product with good reporting and tracking capabilities is NetKeeper Help Desk Captain.

Remote control

Depending on the size of your organization, remote control capabilities can be an extremely important part of your help desk toolkit. The last help desk job I held was in an organization with a thousand end users. When a user called in a problem, we walked to his or her desk, which added five or ten minutes in travel time to the amount it took to complete each help desk call. Of course, the amount of time increased exponentially if we had to go back to our offices to get tools, disks, etc.

Even more of a problem was that we would constantly get stopped en route to our destination by users who just had a "quick question." These "quick questions" became so disruptive that administrators would often take the long way to their destination, just to avoid walking through certain parts of the building.

Remote control functionality cannot fix every problem, but in a situation when it can, it is a huge time saver. It eliminates travel time and is easier than walking a user through a fix over the phone. Note: Windows OSes have a built-in Remote Assistance feature that many administrators (myself included) are reluctant to use because it allows users to circumvent the help desk process and ask anyone for advice. So it may be best to use a third-party product. Some of the better known remote control applications are GoToAssist and Proxy Pro 6.

While it's tough to cover all the features that make a good help desk product, the tools and resources outlined above can go a long way to establish and maintain an efficient help desk.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional Award four times for his work with Windows Server, IIS and Exchange Server. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities and was once a network administrator for Fort Knox. You can visit his website at www.brienposey.com.

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