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Why Having a Kick-Ass Service Desk Is So Important (And How To Build One)

Erika Flora
Written by Erika Flora

A strong Service Desk can cover a multitude of sins. Too many organizations don’t take advantage of this fact, neglecting the poor Service Desk in favor of behind-the-scenes IT initiatives (and giving themselves a black eye in the process).

Here’s why that’s a huge mistake: Your customers likely interact with your Service Desk more than any other point of contact at your organization. Whether you realize it or not, they’re forming an opinion of your entire organization based singularly on the person they speak to at the service desk. This is a very big deal. They are judging you by how long they sit on the phone, how accommodating the rep with whom they spoke was, and ultimately, whether their problem was solved. But being a customer yourself, you already know this. Think of the various experiences you’ve had with other companies’ Service Desks, and how you formed opinions as a result of them, good or bad. If you work in IT, your customers are doing the very same thing.

What makes working the Service Desk so difficult?

Many years ago, I worked as a consultant for a hospital. When onsite with this customer I took the only available desk, which happened to be smack in the middle of their Service Desk. This provided me with a unique opportunity to see through osmosis what the Service Desk experience was like.

What I learned is that being on the Service Desk kind of sucks. No one calls you to say, “I am having a fantastic day. Keep up the great work, guys!” It just doesn’t happen (Ok, sometimes it does. More on that later). More often, things are broken, and the people on the other end of the line are having a bad to really bad day. They’re usually impatient, and sometimes they take their frustration out on you. Imagine if that was your job.


There’s also a tremendous amount of uncertainty involved in working on the Service Desk. Here’s an incomplete list of things you cannot predict while taking calls, making it necessary for Service Desk agents to know everything about everything, always:

  • What problem or question awaits on the other end of each call
  • Whether what the caller believes to be the problem is actually the problem
  • The level of technical knowledge of each caller
  • The caller’s ability to clearly describe their problem

The above uncertainty can then be exacerbated by the fact that many Service Desks lack the tools necessary to effectively determine what the problem is (e.g. info on how everything in the enterprise is connected, so you can get to root cause), visibility into which issues are outstanding, information on where to route calls, documented knowledge describing how to resolve the problem (the answer may be out there, but other people in IT haven’t taken the time to write these fantastic solutions down for you).

But wait! There’s more!

Other people in IT look down on you because you are not a Subject Matter Expert in a few areas, you get paid less, and you’re typically shoved into small, cramped quarters away from the rest of IT. The one I was in was better than most, with enough space for one office and a bunch of cubicles. The restroom was a few short steps from my cubicle, which was like being that unfortunate soul with the seat on the airplane right next to the restroom: Every time the door opens, you hope and pray for the best. (Suddenly I’m realizing why that particular cubicle was available.)  So, yes, the Service Desk can be a not-so-glamorous place.

It takes a special person to love the job, and it’s easy to get burnt out. Turnover rate is high for these positions, with an average tenure that hovers around a year or two. Some companies look at this turnover rate and conclude, because it’s so high, that properly training up Service Desk agents simply isn’t worth the investment. I can assure you from (a ton of) experience that this approach only compounds the problem.

How to improve Service Desk morale 

I work with a large number of organizations and have seen Service Desk teams of all sorts – good, bad, and ugly. Through these experiences, I’ve noticed something important: the best-run IT organizations look at their Service Desks differently than the others. Here are a few stories that illustrate what I’ve seen the most successful organizations doing.

The Angry Professor

This anecdote serves two purposes:

  • To highlight the exemplary work performed by Service Desk agents every day.
  • To illuminate the care with which the Service Desk was treated at this organization, thus creating a healthier, and ultimately happier environment.

I recently spent a good amount of time on-site with one of our Higher Ed customers and, while there, got to know a lot of people in IT. One thing that surprised me in learning more about the team was how long everyone had worked there – particularly those working on the Service Desk. One woman in particular, Mary, stopped me in my tracks in telling me she’d been on the same Service Desk for over FIFTEEN YEARS and absolutely loved it. My response (naturally), was to stare blankly and ask why. Mary patiently explained that she enjoyed interacting with people and found she had a real skill for empathizing with them.

Mary then told me about a professor so notorious among the Service Desk team that seeing her name on the caller ID was enough to make them physically bristle. This professor yelled, took her frustration out on whoever answered the phone, and had a general knack for ruining anyone’s otherwise good day.

Not Mary’s, though. She never minded taking these calls (to the extent that her colleagues eventually began routing all of this professor’s calls directly to her). Mary approached these calls by practicing empathy and asking lots of questions to get at why the professor was so upset. In their most recent conversation, the professor called because she couldn’t get a particular application to work at her home office. Taking this as a clue to dig a little deeper, Mary asked why she was working from home. Turned out, the professor was ill.  Mary saw the professor as a human being: She sympathized, asked after her health, and wished her well. This opened up the conversation and softened the professor’s approach, allowing Mary to get to the heart of the technical issue with some degree of pleasantness.

This was just one example of how Mary interacted with customers. She was so good at it, customers frequently went out of their way to bring Mary and the team cookies and thank you notes. Mary was their hero.

In our conversation, Mary mentioned two additional factors that contributed to her staying so long with this particular Service Desk. Both are a credit to the organization:

  • Mary was provided options for those days when she needed a break from the phones. This (much needed) relief came primarily in the form of administrative tasks (reporting, etc.), tackling potential burnout head on.
  • In an almost-unheard-of display of support and solidarity, the CIO of the university SPENT FOUR HOURS EVERY WEEK (yes, you read that right) fielding calls right alongside the other Service Desk agents, which included a number of students. The CIO was not only the embodiment of a true servant leader, he understood the hardships that those sitting on the Service Desk went through and valued their contribution. He also better understood the voice of the customer – because he was literally talking with them directly each week – and was better able to fix issues both at the Service Desk and throughout IT more effectively as a result. No wonder everyone stuck around for years.

I’m going to Disneyland!

Another customer, a large food company, also had Service Desk staff who loved their jobs and felt valued. One way this was exhibited? Recently, IT leadership sent the entire Service Desk team, about 30 people in all, to Disneyland for the entire day. They got to spend time away from the office to hang out with one another and just have fun. The rest of IT filled in while they were gone. The result? The Service Desk returned to the job re-energized and felt closer as a team, and the rest of IT quickly realized working on the Service Desk could be a genuinely difficult, thankless job. They gained a true appreciation of the work the Service Desk did on their behalf every day. What better way to teach your IT organization what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes than have them experience it for themselves? The rest of IT also realized they needed to do a better job of giving the people on the Service Desk the tools needed to do their job better.

So, what can you do? Take the time to really, truly invest in your Service Desk. You’ll find it brings benefit to your entire organization. It all starts by valuing, empowering, and working to retain the members of your Service Desk. They are your face to the world – make sure you’re putting your best possible face forward.

Want to see how your Service Desk stacks up?

An ITIL Maturity Assessment is a great place to start.
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Originally published November 11 2017, updated June 06 2023