Apr 21 2009

Helping the Help Desk

Documentation and imaging are two key components to running an efficient help desk.

Running an efficient computer help desk is a very key component to everyone's day-to-day operations. Everyone depends on computers so much these days, when you have an issue that prevents you from getting your work done it can cost the organization a tremendous amount of time and money. Providing a place where people can get their computers serviced and working in a timely fashion is an important need. The following are some tips that should help get your help desk moving in the right direction.


I cannot stress enough how important great documentation will be to your help desk. I know that it takes so much time to do, but I promise it is worth it. There are several key items that you need to document.

First, document all of your current processes and policies. I keep hundreds of "how-to" documents of all the tasks needed to run my help desk. It can be as simple as how to add a printer, to more complicated things such as installing a certain custom database that is located on a specific server. Your goal is to create documentation that is so good that if you ever are hit by a bus, someone could read your work and know how to perform most of the functions.

Another nice characteristic of very detailed "how-to" documents is that if a user sends you an e-mail or calls asking you about how to do something, you already have a very detailed set of instructions to provide them. You should also keep documentation of all your policies. This might include policies on your stance about users storing personal files on your servers to the proper use of the organization’s e-mail system. If any changes are made to any of these documents then you should inform all your users about the change to keep them informed.

A great place to store this documentation is on wiki site. This will allow you to set permissions as you see fit and allows easy access for your users. The editing of wiki documents is basic and simple for almost any user. One of my favorites to use is by Mindtouch. It is a free wiki that has a lot of features and is very flexible.


If you have a large amount of notebooks and desktops on your site then there is a very good chance you have several of the same makes and models. Some schools provide the staff members and students with a notebook so that all the models are the same. Because everything is the same when it comes to the hardware, you can use disk cloning/imaging technology to quickly deploy computers.

Imaging is a process of taking a copy of a computer's hard drive and placing it on another computer. This will copy all of the files, settings and operating system to the target computer. This is a much faster process than manually rebuilding every desktop and notebook one at a time.

A few of the more popular brands of imaging are Symantec Ghost and Kace KBOX. Symantec is a software solution that has been around for a very long time, and Kace is a hardware solution that has some amazing bells and whistles.

Typically you can keep several images of each model of notebook and desktop on a server. Then you boot into your imaging software and choose which image you want to pull onto the computer. I prefer to keep at least three older versions of an image for each model of computer I have on campus. This allows me to roll back to an older version if I made a recent change that caused any issues.

Trouble Ticket System

It’s important to keep track of all of the calls that come into your help desk. This is imperative to keeping your help desk performing at the maximum efficiency. A trouble ticketing system can keep an eye on any reoccurring problem that you may need to contact the manufacturer about. It can also help to troubleshoot future issues because that problem has been seen before, and there are detailed notes in the ticket about how to correct it.

You can also use this system to keep track of your technicians’ time. Determine whether you are understaffed or overstaffed by looking at the amount of time they spend on work orders. There are several commercial brands of trouble ticketing software out there: some open source and some you must pay for. I have found that it is best to have a custom system developed for your needs so you can have all of the features you want without any overhead that is not needed. I have used several commercial products in the past and they seem to have a lot of features, but they do not do any one thing very well and they lack the ability to customize to your needs.

Become a Self-maintainer

Most notebook and desktop manufacturers will let shops with a large amount of computers train to become a self-maintainer. This is normally a short test and small amount of money to gain the certification. This will allow your help desk to perform warranty repairs in-house instead of shipping the computer to a repair depot, wait for them to fix it and then have them ship it back. That is a lot of time for it to be out of the user's hands just to perform a simple repair.

When you become a self-maintainer, you can have your users back to work much faster, plus most companies will actually pay you to do the warranty work. We manage around 800 computers, and with all of the repairs we do, over a year we can make around $10,000 just for doing warranty repairs. It is actually cheaper for the manufacturer to have you do it because they don't have to pay for all of the shipping and administration fees.

Now, if you choose to go this route, you need to make sure your documentation is very detailed because eventually you will be audited by the manufacturer. I would suggest that you refrain from doing any sort of accident protection repairs. Accident protection repairs would include a notebook being dropped down the stairs, run over with a car, etc. Send those to the manufacturer so they can decide if it is covered or not.