What is a Help Desk and How is it Managed?

Many of the tools used by a Help Desk involve problem resolution and Help Desk Management. Examples for problem solving include knowledge bases, expert systems, and diagnostic software, while asset management and change management tools assist with the management of the daily operations of a Help Desk.

Knowledge Bases

A knowledge base is a collection of information, usually contained in a database, that helps Help Desk Analysts solve problems. A knowledge base might contain a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) database with keywords that identify each question. A keyword is an identifying characteristic that can be assigned to virtually anything. For example, an article about how to fix a printing issue on an HP LaserJet 4650 printer might contain the following keywords: HP, Laser, LaserJet, 4650, printer, Hewlett Packard, and so on. The more keywords you choose, the higher the probability that you will identify the usefulness of the article.

A knowledge base is only as good as the information that is stored in it. A challenge of many Help Desks is getting employees to contribute to the database. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) is often a good place to start. Rather than an entire article, an FAQ might be a short paragraph about a frequently occurring issue that has lately consumed a good deal of time and resources on the Help Desk.

A knowledge base must be easily searchable. Using the keywords described above, a user can label each piece of information in the knowledge base to facilitate searching. A keyword's main purpose is to help users search for information. When you use a search engine like Google to search for a recipe, you might enter "recipe" and "lasagna" in the search box. Those two words are keywords.

There are many ways to represent data in a knowledge base, and we will look at several of them: text retrieval systems, decision tree systems, case-based systems, and troubleshooting systems.

Text Retrieval Systems
In a text retrieval system, a database is set up so that it can be searched using terms (keywords). They are simple to set up and easy to use. There are many prepackaged knowledge bases available to Help Desk professionals, and a good place to search for the is the forums and organizations.
The main limitation to a text retrieval system is the deterioration of the search ability, when many words are listed in the knowledge base. For example, if you go to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)'s website and do a search on the word "tax," you are going to get thousands of articles and pieces of information from their site. You will need to be more specific in your search, because the IRS has a very large knowledge base of articles, forms, and publications. Similarly, as your Help Desk's knowledge base grows, you will need to be sure your content is kept up to date, and that your keywords are reviewed regularly.

Decision Trees

A decision tree works in this manner: A series of questions asks you to describe a problem or a process, and, through this series of questions, you are taken to the answer of your main question. A decision tree uses "If – Then – Else" logic.

Let's assume there are two main sections in your knowledge base – one for technology and one for procedures.

  • The first part – If – analyzes the initial condition. The condition might be, "If the user wants an article on technology…"

    • IF the answer is yes, THEN it will take the customer to a set of articles on technology.

    • IF the answer is no, it will ignore the condition and look for the ELSE statement.

  • ELSE

    • Take the user to the set of articles on procedure.

The above logic can be written in English as follows:

IF the user wants an article on technology,

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THEN send them to the section on technology,

ELSE send them to the articles on procedures.

Some knowledge bases use the If-then-else structure to help guide users to the exact information they require.

Case-based Systems

A case based system is similar to a text retrieval system, in that you do enter keywords to search. But, rather than search for articles or FAQs, the search is looking for existing cases that have previously been opened for the same problem. For example, a search for "HP 4650 printer" will return all support call cases for that particular piece of technology. There are many advantages to using a case-based system, and one of them is that the analysts do not need to be experts with every piece of technology to start using the system. When they fix an item, the closed support case becomes searchable in the system for future users.

Troubleshooting Systems

A troubleshooting system will typically have a list of commonly experienced problems listed as options to choose from. Once a selection is made, an article or some other piece of information will open to display information on how to correct the issue. You have probably used such a system in your daily life many times. At the back of most instructional manuals for common household items, there is typically a "troubleshooting" section that lists common things that can go wrong with the item. Many Help Desks use this type of approach in setting up their knowledge base.

Selecting the Right System for Your Help Desk

You can purchase a knowledge base that uses one of the four approaches described above, and they all have varying degrees of cost. Text retrieval systems are typically the cheapest and this might be an option if you have a small Help Desk, or if you are just starting out. You should not even consider purchasing one until you have a very clear idea of what type of system would work best for your staff, and what level of expertise your staff will have.

Help Desk Management Tools
The following are examples of some tools employed by Help Desks to manage their operations, make their analysts more productive, and protect their assets.

Remote Diagnostic Software

Remote Diagnostic Software (RDS) is one of the most exciting developments in technology for Help Desk Analysts. RDS enables an analyst to take control of a person's computer from their own desk. It doesn't matter if your customer is down the hall or more than 3000 miles away. When the customer gives some basic information about his or her computer, the Help Desk Analyst is usually able to log into their computer directly to diagnose the problem – and hopefully to resolve the problem, as well.

Naturally, if a customer's computer has become totally disabled, RDS will not work. If the customer cannot even turn on their own computer, a Help Desk Analyst is not going to be able to access it using RDS. But, for a majority of issues, RDS has made the work of Help Desk Analysts easier and more productive.

Asset Management System
An Asset Management System automatically detects all hardware and software that is connected to a network. This has made the job of a Help Desk so much easier in recent years, and it has helped to protect inventory against theft and other events. As we stated in a recent chapter, the Help Desk must always know who their customers are and what technology they are using. Through the use of Asset Management Software, the software does much of this "fact finding" for them. For example, when it comes time to upgrade certain computers to newer models, the Help Desk would not need to send an email out to everyone asking what type of computer each person has. Some people might not respond and some people might not be technically adept enough to respond. With Asset Management Software, the Help Desk will already know what types of computers are in use, and who is using them.
Asset Management Software also helps protect against theft. If employees know that all of their equipment is being logged and monitored -- electronically and automatically -- by the Help Desk, theft will typically be decreased. In addition, this type of software helps to locate PCs that might not be in wide use anymore. You can ask the software for reports on the location and status of all pieces of equipment linked to the network.
Your Help Desk and the Internet

There are varying degrees of opinion on both the Internet's usefulness in business and its impact on our daily lives. But, one thing is a fact: It is an incredible, vast array of information. This information is available to Help Desks worldwide at the touch of a button, and it has changed how professionals deliver support services to their clients.

The Internet is a tool for business. Used correctly, it can deliver results. Used incorrectly, it can actually do severe damage to both your Help Desk and your business. A closely related topic to the Internet is an Intranet. An Intranet is an internal website that is used for many purposes.


The Internet presents a wide range of opportunities for Help Desks, including the ability to improve both the services they provide, and how they function. Some of these opportunities are as follows:

  • You gain access to the largest knowledge base in the world – virtually for free. While there are many places on the Internet that charge for information, the majority of the information on the Internet is readily available for free. Data can be retrieved at any time, and from anywhere in the world.

  • Communication is easy, fast, and, again, virtually free in most instances. Whereas, before the Internet, talking to someone in a foreign country to get technical assistance on a foreign product was expensive and logistically difficult, today it is free and easy, due to the Internet's capabilities. Discussion groups (or forums), news servers, and websites make it easy to find someone with the answers to your questions. All Help Desk Analysts can now share ideas without having to go to an expensive conference or belong to a professional organization.

  • It offers the ability to install software remotely – that is, without having to be physically near someone's computer. Many software products today automatically connect to the Internet when they are opened, and they check for patches. A patch is an update to a computer program. Patches are widely used by Help Desk Analysts on a daily basis. It is often the case that some customers are experiencing problems with software, because they are using outdated versions of it. An analyst can email the patch to a customer or remotely log in to the customer's computer to install the patch.

  • There is also the ability to provide customers with direct access to their own technical assistance. Online help sites and self-help tools on the Internet have dramatically improved the efficiency of Help Desks around the world by enabling customers to access their own assistance.

  • The ability to gather information from customers has been greatly enhanced by the Internet. Surveys from customers, for example, can be easily submitted electronically to the Help Desk. These surveys are a great way to keep informed of what your customers think of you, and how you can improve both your services and your Help Desk's function.

  • Many Help Desk tools – such as Remote Diagnostic Software (RDS) – can be accessed from the Internet now. This enables you to have Help Desk Analysts working anywhere in the world. If they need to resolve a customer's issues, they can access the RDS from anywhere and resolve the customer's problem.

All of the opportunities listed above result in less calls to your Help Desk, and they lead to more productivity for all employees in your company.


Naturally, there are some challenges, as well, with the advent of the Internet.

  • The technology in use today is growing so fast, it is often difficult to keep up with all the new initiatives. What seems like a fad today, might be the next big thing in a very short period of time. A Help Desk needs to be able to keep abreast of changing technology, but you must also remember that just because a technology exists, it does not mean your Help Desk should support it. If you executed your plan wisely, you have a clearly defined list of the technology you will support.

  • Security is often a concern on the Internet, and businesses go to great effort and expense in protecting their data. A company's data is an asset and its loss can mean a significant blow to its bottom line. Virtually anything that is sent through the Internet has the potential for being intercepted by someone, but most websites today use very sophisticated security technology that makes the interception of data very difficult. Such security is called encryption. A hacker is someone who tries to intercept (or steal) confidential data from the Internet. Hackers are an increasing problem in today's business environment, but diligent efforts are being made in security software that makes the hacker's malicious endeavors much more complicated.

  • Some information on the Internet is unreliable. This is an especially important concern for Help Desk Analysts. Their role is to fix issues – not to further complicate matters by giving out wrong information. As you become more experienced as an analyst, you will know which sites offer reliable information. The forums and professional organizations devoted to Help Desk support are the best places to start when looking for information.

  • There is a very high volume of information available on the Internet. Sometimes it is difficult to know where to start, and how to search for it effectively. Search engines make the job of searching much easier, but it can still be a daunting task.

  • Whenever you travel on the Internet, you are potentially exposing yourself to a virus. A computer virus is a malicious piece of software that tries to install itself on your computer. Once installed, a virus can do many things, including steal information, or even try to shut down your system entirely. Virus protection software is essential in today's business environment. In fact, the installation of virus protection software is one of the first duties of a Help Desk team.

Allowing Customers to Contact the Help Desk on the Internet

Another advantage to the Internet is that it gives your customers a quick and easy way of contacting your Help Desk, even if they travel -- such as traveling consultants or salespeople. This is a special topic, in itself, because it opens your Help Desk, and your company, to a wide variety of both opportunities and challenges.
With Help Desk Management software on the Internet, customers can log their own issues, and Help Desk Analysts can work through their own problem list from anywhere in the world.
Customers must be aware that any information they send over the Internet is a target for hackers, so you will need to have firm rules in place about the type of information customers should include in reporting problems to your Help Desk. The inclusion of passwords, for example, might be forbidden.

You will also want to make sure customers receive training on how to properly use the software. If they are not properly trained, they might cause more problems by using the software in an unintended manner.
Overall, putting Help Desk management software on the Internet can be a positive experience for both your analysts and your customers, but you should be aware of the risks and rewards ahead of time.