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I like Julianne's point about the HelpDesk seen as simply being a starting point. That is likely true in many cases--but it highlights what I see as an inefficiency with the way many do front line support.
I put my most experienced staff and students on phone support, and have the less experienced do field work. Why? Putting an inexperienced person on phones simply to generate tickets to escalate makes no sense to me. We want to provide a fast and accurate resolution to our customers so they can be productive, so we need people with months or years of experience to handle the incidents and questions that come in via phone (and email).
Our computers, images, labs, etc.. are all set up fairly consistently--so field work is more straight forward. Our field techs carry a radio with them so that they can "dial home" any time they need for advice. I don't want my full timers spending their day walking all over campus when they can make the biggest contribution at their desks--on the phone, email, or assisting walk ins--rather than sitting in someone's office for 2 hours reimaging a computer.
If your phone people are handling lots of password resets or questions about common software (or lots of simple questions)--then you have another problem. You need to automate password resets, and you need to provide training or have online training available for your end users.
That said, many people do get burned out by doing front line support. My full time staff spend about 2/3 of their day on front line support, and the rest of their time is spent on projects teams, cross-functional teams, documentation, and working on ways to be pro-active so we do not get as many support calls in. This is all to keep them challenged and to reduce burn-out as well.
I also agree with the level of professionalism and customer service skills that are needed in this position. That can be more important than technical knowledge in many cases.
I disagree with the philosophy of using the Help Desk as the "foot in the door". I think this is a huge mistake and probably contributes to the Help Desk having inconsistencies when it comes to professionalism and customer service. It may be difficult to understand but there are indeed people who not only excel at first line of support but, because of their excellence, provide protection, feedback and resources for the rest of your organization.

I know a lot of organizations rely on student workers to provide first level of support so there's not much that can be done if the budget does not allow an investment in full-time professionals there.

(just had to toss my two cents in there)

Regarding "upward mobility", I think we tend to get trained to the thinking that if one does not receive a promotion, one must be dissatisfied with one's job. Or if one doesn't get that annual increase, there's a level of dissatisfaction. For me, I look for the next challenge, the next area for improvement. I try to understand what my staff members want: challenge, mobility, advancement, rewards? And in what percentage?

Julianne Journitz
Director of Client Services
Information Technology Services
Pomona College
Bill Vriesema 
Assist. Dir. of Technology Support Services
Calvin College Information Technology
Phone: 616-526-6762
HelpDesk: 616-526-8555
Fax: 616-526-8550
certified: HDM, HDA, ITIL, A+
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Hi All

    Interesting discussion. First of all, the survey specifics are missing and I would assume that these are dominated by corporate IT staff. Assuming this to be the case, it appears that the issues are the same in the corporate IT as in Higher Ed. May be there is a positive message here! If an IT leader took the job not knowing that it is a thankless job, there is an issue right there.

    A somewhat related topic - I gave a talk to the Science faculty last week titled "Managing Library and Technology Services - a complex constrained optimization problem" where I laid out my job as trying to maximize a theoretical customer satisfaction function while living with umpteen constraints (vendor mandated changes, wide range of technology expertise of users, trying to satisfy customers in the age range 17-80+, varying levels of comfort to change, budget constraints, government regulations  and trying to maximize staff morale at the same time). It brought home the point that we are charged with an impossible task. I showed how for-profits use the Kano model as a framework and argued that whereas there are lots to learn from it, it really does not apply to us because services we provide are perceived "free". Specifically about managing the IT staff, I talked about some of what has been already discussed.

   It is obvious that we are fast losing the arguments that worked 10-15 years ago about working in Higher Ed IT vs corporate IT. For eg. Flexibility at work (one could argue that corporations are ahead of many of us in this), benefits (probably we still may have an edge here), stability of job (generally true), and intellectual satisfaction (true). However, in many other areas including stress and increased hours of work we are at or exceed our corporate counterparts. As a total, what works in our favor is that depending on the person and time in their lives, working in Higher Ed may be favorable. 

  We all are lucky to have the staff that we have - many working hard and feeling a strong connection to the institution. Most of them can make a lot more money working elsewhere and some have the potential to rise up the career ladder or pyramid (implies the slippery climb really well). The landscape is changing because the younger staff are a different breed. Their demands and expectations are very different and our arguments are becoming stale and not so convincing. 

    So, I agree that we have a huge challenge ahead of us in this regard.

-- Ravi
CIO, Wellesley College
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