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The Role of the Help Desk Professional

Customers and users depend on the IT staff to keep systems available and operational. In this context, the IT staff includes all of the personnel that work directly with users and customers, and all of the personnel that are working behind the scenes to keep the servers and network infrastructure operational. This requires a significant amount of technical expertise by the technical staff combined with a dedication to the job. The help desk professional is often the “face” of the IT staff that customers see and, right or wrong, customers often make judgments about the entire organization based on their interactions with a help desk professional.

With this in mind, it’s important for help desk professionals to understand their role within the organization and especially their role to customers. In additional to having a strong set of technical skills, help desk technicians also need to have a strong set of soft skills.

First Line of Support for Users

While most organizations have several tiers or levels of support personnel, the help desk is the first line of support for users. When users experience a problem, they contact the help desk first for assistance. Ideally, the help desk can resolve the problem and the customer will be satisfied. Even if help desk personnel cannot fully resolve the problem, they need to provide assistance in such a way that leaves the customer with a favorable impression of the organization. In order to do so, help desk personnel need to have strong communication skills and understand the organization’s goals related to customer service.

Assessing Problems and Identifying Solutions

The primary reason customers contact the help desk is because they have problems they want to resolve. Help desk specialists focus on assessing problems and identifying solutions during the majority of their workdays. This indicates that their primary skills are technical, but this isn’t always the case.

Certainly, help desk personnel need to have technical knowledge and the ability to troubleshoot problems. However, assessing problems and identifying solutions for help desk customers goes well beyond the technical skills. For example, they also need to communicate effectively with the customer to understand the problem and communicate the solution. Also, some people are energized by problems and the challenge to solve them. In addition to helping the customer, they really enjoy the satisfaction of identifying solutions and solving problems. In contrast, some people are troubled by problems and view them as obstacles and irritations. Their goal is often to just get rid of the problem as soon as possible rather than ensuring the problem is resolved.

Recognizing Required Skillsets

Many people think that help desk technicians only need the technical skills required to solve problems. However, successful help desk technicians require a wide range of skillsets. These skillsets are often categorized as hard skills and soft skills.

Hard skills are specific, measurable skills such as configuring and troubleshooting systems. Soft skills refer to the ability to communicate effectively with others. In short, hard skills can often get you an interview while soft skills can get you the job. After landing any technical job, a good mix of both hard and soft skills help individuals move up into higher-level positions. In contrast, a lack of a mix of skills in both skillsets either prevents people from getting jobs or keeps them stuck in the same position much longer than personnel with a good mix of hard and soft skills.

Hard Skills

Hard skills are specific abilities that can be taught and measured. For example, someone might take a class to learn about security topics and then pass the CompTIA Security+ exam, earning the CompTIA Security+ certification. The certification indicates that the individual has specific competencies related to IT security. Some of the common hard skills needed by help desk technicians are technical skills, security skills, troubleshooting skills, and business skills (later chapters will discuss these topics more in-depth).

  • Technical skills refer to the technician’s ability to configure, maintain, and troubleshoot IT systems. These skills vary between organizations and even between specific jobs within an organization. For example, a help desk technician working at tier 1 needs to have in-depth knowledge about the systems and products that end users operate. This knowledge ensures these technicians can help the end users. A tier 2 technician needs to have in-depth knowledge about much more, such as the network infrastructure and servers operating within the organization. (See Chapter 4, “Technical Skills.”)
  • Security skills have become more and more important in recent years. Attackers and criminals are constantly waging attacks on individuals and organizations of all sizes. For example, malware is a common threat and technicians need to be able to recognize malware symptoms and resolve them. Employees that understand the relationship between vulnerabilities, threats, and risks are much more likely to recognize attacks when they occur. Additionally, these employees are much more likely to understand and readily comply with an organizations security policies. (See Chapter 5, “Security Skills.”)
  • Troubleshooting skills refer to the ability of a technician to identify and resolve a problem. The highest tier in most organizations is tier 3 and administrators and technicians at this level troubleshoot and resolve the most complex problems. However, tier 1 technicians should be able to perform some basic troubleshooting steps to narrow the problem. (See Chapter 6, “Troubleshooting Skills.”)
  • Business skills refer to the technician’s understanding of the organization’s vision, mission, and values, in addition to the ability to use tools available within the organization. Successful technicians understand the elements of a business and their role within the business. Businesses often deploy tools such as help desk applications, and technicians need to be able to use them. For example, technicians should be able to enter all appropriate information into a help desk application and use it to search for previously known problems so that they can quickly resolve some problems for users. (See Chapter 9, “Business Skills.”)

Soft Skills

Soft skills are much more subjective than hard skills. They are typically associated with personal attributes and indicate how successfully individuals are able to work with other people in teams and how effectively they are able to interact with users. Each soft skill will be discussed in more depth in later chapters.

  • Communication skills. Effective communication is extremely important in IT support job roles. Technicians need to be able to question the user to get adequate information on a problem without taking on a tone of interrogation. Two important communication skills are using open-ended questions and active listening. (See Chapter 2, “Communication Skills.”)
  • Personal skills. Personal skills refer to someone’s ability to manage different situations and manage themselves. A core personal skill is attitude, which includes maintaining a positive attitude in general and evoking an attitude of service toward the customer. Other elements of personal skills include the ability to manage personal time, stress, and an individual’s career. (See Chapter 3, “Personal Skills.”)
  • Writing skills. Superior written communication is one of the most important soft skills for help desk technicians, especially in organizations that use a searchable knowledge base. Technicians and administrators use these systems to search for common problems and how to resolve them. In order for this database to be useful, support technicians must document their actions after they resolve a problem, and so strong writing skills are important. (See Chapter 7, “Writing Skills.”)
  • Training skills. In many cases, technicians provide training to users so that the users can resolve problems on their own the next time they occur. This can be informal one-on-one training or in some cases formal classroom training. When an organization deploys new operating systems or applications, they often provide formal classroom training to the users before the deployment. The goal is to help the users understand the product and reduce the load on the help desk after the deployment. Senior technicians are also expected to provide training to newer technicians. (See Chapter 8, “Training Skills.”)

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is another soft skill that makes a world of difference in job performance. Unlike the other hard and soft skills mentioned in this chapter, it is not covered in a specific chapter within this book, so it is expanded here. Critical thinking includes the following activities:

  • Actively thinking. A person uses their intelligence, experience, knowledge, and skills to explore a problem and identify a solution.
  • Asking. Critical thinkers often ask themselves questions about a problem or challenge, and then seek out the answer.
  • Changing perspectives. Many problems are easily resolved by looking at them from a different perspective.
  • Evaluating evidence or symptoms. The critical thinker is able to use reason to evaluate existing facts to come to a substantiated conclusion.

Many organizations use flow charts with simple yes and no questions or predefined procedures that technicians can use to identify problems, but creating these flow charts takes time and money, and they can’t be created for every possible situation. As an example, Figure 1-2 shows a simple flow chart that can be used when a user complains that the “computer broke.” The technician can ask simple questions such as “Do you see anything displayed on the monitor?,” “Do you see the monitor power LED?,” and “Do you see the computer LED?.” Based on the user’s responses, the technician can then either ask more questions or follow a predefined process to resolve the problem. Admittedly, the flow chart shown in Figure 1-2 is simplistic, but many times the problems are simple. A simple flow chart helps technicians resolve these problems quickly.

Figure 1-2

FIGURE 1-2 Sample flow chart.

When the problems aren’t simple and flow charts aren’t available to assist the help desk technicians, critical thinking skills are important. Many complex problems have multiple symptoms, and help desk technicians are required to evaluate each of them and separate the relevant symptoms from the non-relevant symptoms. Critical thinking skills help them to evaluate a problem and compare it to past problems they’ve seen. They can then draw on their experience to troubleshoot and resolve different and more complex problems.

For example, imagine a user complains that a computer lost network connectivity. There are several possible reasons for the problem. It could be due to a physical issue, such as a cable break or a faulty network device (like a switch or router). It could be due to a faulty configuration on the computer or a network device. It could be that the user lost network connectivity to one network resource such as email, but assumed that all network connectivity was lost. The problem might be affecting a single user, a small group of users, or all of the users. Successful technicians use critical thinking skills to formulate questions, gather information, and determine what is relevant.

Many colleges and technical training providers offer critical thinking and problem solving courses to help students develop critical thinking skills. These courses can often be the most beneficial for students well beyond their college years because they help them to think on their own.

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