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Over the past year, there has been a major increase in the number of open job postings for support specialists: Approximately 39,000 job postings in Q1 2015 vs approximately 48,000 job postings in Q1 2016, according to CompTIA's IT Jobs Snapshot for Q1 2016. While not every job posting translates to a hire, the data does suggest increasing job market demand for this role.

The growth for help desk jobs is being driven by technology changes and greater skill demands. "Help desk technicians and staff are being asked to take on more responsibilities. Many in these roles are now expected to understand and address authentication problems, address malfunctions between several systems (e.g. server, desktop and mobile) and deliver service with excellent communication skills," commented explained James Stanger, senior director of products at IT certifications provider CompTIA.

The human element

The phrase "IT help desk" produces mixed reactions. Nontechnology staff often equates "the help desk" with IT. For them, the help desk experience powerfully shapes their daily experience. In contrast, many IT leaders choose to focus on other priorities -software development, CRMs and innovation, to name a few- rather than the help desk. That mismatched perception can be a problem for IT leaders. Delivering effective and courteous help desk services effectively is a way for IT leaders to build a reputation for trust with the rest of the organization.

The human factor is a key success factor in the modern help desk. The whole process starts with hiring and selecting technicians and consultants who care about helping. Specifically, patience and empathy for the frustration caused by technology make a difference. Selecting staff for technical problem solving capacity alone is an ineffective solution.

"Delivering help desk services requires flexibility. I know of cases where help desk staff go to the homes of executives to provide technical help on occasion," says Tyler Regas, author of Getting an IT Help Desk Job For Dummies. "Some help desks create knowledge bases and they help some users, but not a majority," he adds. Help desk knowledge bases may also be used as an internal resource to help technicians document solutions for reuse by their colleagues.

Effective management

Successfully becoming the manager of a help desk department requires organizational understanding. "The first issue to tackle is to understand what senior leaders in the organization value overall and in reference to the help desk," Regas says. "Prior to proposing changes or improvements, start by gauging their willingness to support those changes," he added. Consider the issue from the executive's viewpoint: if they are constantly receiving complaints about rude service from the help desk, it is imperative to address that concern before proposing new changes.

Promoting a learning culture and getting to know staff in detail are the next steps for a new help desk manager. "Setting the tone is vital. If the manager makes it clear that learning is valued, then staff are more likely to grow. In technical circles, some highly knowledgeable people become arrogant and even occasionally bully their less knowledgeable peers. That kind of behavior needs to be noticed and addressed by the manager," Regas adds. Promoting a learning culture also encourages staff to speak up about knowledge gaps.

Addressing the skills gap

Without timely and effective training, the help desk cannot deliver worthwhile service. Effective help desk training programs include cross training between staff, formal programs and project training. If the enterprise plans to launch a new service, it is vital for the help desk manager to be an active stakeholder.

Coping with the proliferation of new applications can be addressed by focusing on the basics and problem solving. "Starting with the fundamental building blocks in training is often more effective than training staff on specific products. If a technician understands virtual systems, TCP/IP and so forth conceptually, that equips them with better problem solving skills," says CompTIA's Stanger. "I'm seeing a decline in new hires understanding the fundamentals of technology," he says.

Interpersonal and communication skills are vital to providing effective help desk services. "It is important to have empathy for users and their difficulties with technology," Regas says. Non-technical professionals who seek help with technology are often frustrated by corporate technology that fails to live up to the ease they've come to expect from Amazon-style one-click shopping. "The most successful people in service desk roles tend to be strong communicators. Specifically, asking good open ended questions is an important skill for staff to develop," Stanger commented.

Beyond the call of duty

While delivering one-on-one service will remain a core help desk offering, forward-thinking managers are going one step further, taking advantage of their position to detect trends and systematic issues in the user experience.

Getting started with this analysis can be as simple as extracting a log of tickets and determining the most frequent issues. By analyzing those reports and bringing suggestions to other IT managers, the help desk can drive systematic change and improvement.