IT troubleshooting at Bucknall Austin used to be run on a chaotic first-come, first-served basis. A new helpdesk and priority system for calls has smoothed out the system.
David Tovey got more physical exercise than he bargained for when he joined Bucknall Austin as information technology manager responsible for its London headquarters and six satellite offices. He and his team of two inherited a ramshackle system for dealing with problems that often meant he would find himself on the first floor of the London office, then on the third, only to find he was wanted on the first again. He was continually running up and down stairs in response to panic calls rather than concentrating on ironing out bugs in the system and upgrading software to improve performance.

Tovey's solution was to come up with a new system for dealing with employees' IT problems. A helpdesk was set up with a dedicated phone number and an assistant to pass on messages about technical problems. Previously, IT calls were answered by the receptionists, who also manned the main switchboard. Setting up the new system took almost a year, starting last January, and it went through several incarnations before becoming the honed but fairly simple system it is today.

The first step was to stop calls going through to reception. Tovey needed someone who would make answering IT calls part of their job. The task went to Leigh Collins, a team secretary. Her number was established as the helpdesk point of contact, with a quarter of her time dedicated to answering IT calls.

Originally, Collins put calls through to the IT office as they came in, but that depended on someone being at the other end to log them. "We didn't have an answerphone because it would have taken us too long to transcribe all the messages," says Tovey. "However, if there was no one in the room – which, with 250 staff with potential IT problems, was quite likely – there was no one to answer the phone." It became obvious that a system for logging calls was needed. With staff using a mix of 486 and Pentiums PCs, laptops, and a range of database, spreadsheet and design software, Collins needed a way to accurately note down the problem, as well as the time of the call. Tovey introduced electronic notelets – Microsoft WinPops – so that Collins could log all the necessary information, and then send the message to the IT office computer.

This worked fine, but, having scrolled down the messages, Tovey and his team still had to write them down. Although laborious, this step enabled them to prioritise calls. Messages were transferred to cards marked with a category according to the response time needed. A was for immediate, B for one hour, C for three hours and D for 24 hours. Category E was added later for long-term projects.

The final step on the road to a smooth-running helpdesk was the introduction of pagers last November. Collins still takes the initial call but now sends pager messages to Tovey and his team using Zap-Direct software. She divides the work according to who is best suited to each task, or sends messages direct to Tovey, who can delegate if necessary. This means Tovey and his team no longer have to note down messages by hand. The e-mail system is still used for problems that need long-term solutions, but as there are now fewer messages, they are kept on the computer rather than transferred to cards.

The most useful innovation, says Tovey, was the category system for calls. Staff have been briefed on the system, so they realise simple problems will be low priority, which Tovey says makes them think twice before phoning. "It's a way of getting users to think about what they're asking. Some users are thinking for themselves and solving their own problems," he says, particularly staff in satellite offices whose problems are dealt with by phone.

"We still deal with 50 or more problems a day – the volume of calls has increased steadily throughout the year, as we are in the process of migrating to a new operating system. But now, with the pagers, we're not having to go back to the office to find out what the next urgent job is, so we can guarantee that one of us will be on the spot within five minutes. It also means I'm not running up and down stairs so often."

A day in the life of an IT helpdesk manager

8.50am A rush of problems arises when staff start up their computers, including trouble accessing a PC, a dead modem and a printer not working (mapped to a different printer) 10am The early rush is over but run-of-the-mill problems keep cropping up. One person says their spellcheck is not working, a satellite worker’s laptop cannot connect to the main system, and there are more printing problems 11am Time to do some routine maintenance work if there is a lull. A laptop needs to be upgraded from 16 MB of RAM to 64, and a PC needs sorting out for the meeting room 1pm E-mail and printing problems continue; attend meeting on IT resources 4pm Lower priority problems get dealt with towards the end of the day. A PC keeps crashing and corrupting – it needs investigation to see if it has a virus 5pm Check on problems outstanding for next day, install scanner, chase delivery of cables and maintenance contract for malfunctioning laptop 6pm Time to read e-mails, prepare training for IT staff carrying out a server upgrade, plan anti-virus programme, and roll-out and check archives