With help-desk field expanding, diligent employees are in demand Personnel solve problems for customers and face some hardships on the job



Jason Clark, a former computer consultant, joined Microsoft Corp.'s help desk last year, purely to get into the company. Now he loves it. "You play with technology and solve problems, but you don't work 70-hour weeks like the people in development," he said.

Sharon L. Allen, a former corporate trainer, knew she would love the work when she joined IHS Helpdesk Service, which runs corporate call centers, in 1992. After she burned out two years ago -- "Fielding the same questions over and over finally got to me" -- she stuck with the career.

She now supervises IHS help desks at Johnson & Johnson and the Bellcore unit of the Science Applications Corp.

It's true. There are people who really want to be the voices answering the phone numbers that consumers or co-workers call when their computers crash or when they can't figure out the tax code, hook up the printer or get the dishwasher to work.

It is no easy job. Personnel at help desks must soothe angry customers and solve their problems -- and then do it again, maybe 100 times a day, five days a week. They must understand the technical details in a user's manual, but explain them in layman's terms.

They must be endlessly patient and polite, even when the caller is neither. And they must do so in an atmosphere in which their comings and goings, down to their restroom breaks, are often controlled.

"They are married to a console, tethered to a phone, with no firm promise of upward mobility," said Lindsey L. Miller, a human resources manager at the General Electric Co., whose 17-year-old Answer Center in Louisville, Ky., is considered a help desk gold standard. "They have to really [enjoy] helping people."

Such diligent souls are in demand. Personal computers are ubiquitous. New -- and often bug-ridden -- software floods the market. Complex technology pervades cars, televisions and other items that were once relatively easy to understand.

"Today's products are more complex than the customer's skill set can handle," said Bill Rose, executive director of the Software Support Professionals Association, a for-profit membership group in San Diego.

Fitting customers' needs

Customer service is a mantra throughout industry and government. Even the Internal Revenue Service, as part of its much ballyhooed attempt to become user-friendly, is spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars to make the people and technology in its telephone help operations "fit our customers' needs, not our own," said Robert C. Wilkerson, the agency's deputy executive officer for customer services.

In the year ended last Sept. 30, the IRS spent $293.4 million to run its help desk.

Similar objectives are sweeping the industry. The result, said Deborah Ingram, managing partner of AT&T Solutions, is that the market for trained help desk personnel -- and for consulting services like her own, which advises companies on how best to set up call centers -- is growing more than 30 percent a year.

A necessity

"Help desks have gone from nicety to necessity," she said.

The work does not pay particularly well. Starting salaries rarely top $30,000 -- not much for people who often are middle-aged or college-educated.

But as time and expertise accrue, help desk workers are often promoted to higher levels, at which they spend less time on the phone and more researching problems. In a few high-technology companies, such support staff make as much as $100,000.

The demand is overtaxing the supply. For every help desk employee who regards the job as a career choice, several more are trying to scrape together some extra dollars until a better position becomes available.

High turnover

Turnover on help desks remains high.

"Let's face it, we are education machines, places that train people who move on to better, higher-paying jobs," said Walter Borland, a general manager of Matrixx Marketing, a subsidiary of Cincinnati Bell that operates help desks for corporate clients.

GE, with its experience, has not solved the problem. It gets most of its help desk workers on referral from employees, "so they know what they are in for," Miller said.

GE trains them, offers tuition refunds, assigns shifts by seniority, gives them business cards -- all the things the textbooks say guarantee a cadre of loyal employees. Turnover rarely falls much below 35 percent a year.

The model of a perfect help desk remains elusive. Some companies, like GE, run their own. But a growing number, including Johnson & Johnson and Owens Corning, contract with specialists like Matrixx in Cincinnati, IHS in New York or Sky Alland Marketing in Columbia.

"That way, you can be fully staffed at peak times without firing people during the off-season," said Karen Strauss, director of marketing communications at Owens Corning.

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