Tips for Better Tech Support


Tips for Better Tech Support

John Holland knows that Clearspan Components is unique. “Most truss plants don’t have someone who is an IT professional,” acknowledged Holland. “Most places have that one guy who was asked to fix it that one time and now he’s in charge of it.”

As a member of the very small community of professional IT staff in the component manufacturing industry, Holland is eager to share the best practices he’s identified.

“No one has an expansive knowledge of all software and all things,” Holland said. The IT staff he knows are often “going to do the exact same thing as any other user” when faced with an IT problem: “we’re going to go Google it.”

That basic, commonsense approach is the heart of his advice on technology issue management and documentation. Whatever you do to communicate and track problems, he said, “make it a process that’s simple enough that you’ll actually do it, and detailed enough that it’s useful.”

Simple is key, although that can be less intuitive than you might anticipate. For example, take the first rule Holland sets with his IT staff: “You can’t ask me. You have to write it down.” Why document every issue when walking over to Holland’s office is easier? He explains it this way: say someone explains the problem to Holland, only to have him point to a third colleague who might know the answer. Now the problem has to be explained again—everyone’s time has been spent, and no one is closer to a solution. Writing down the issue, Holland insists, simplifies the process and saves time in the long run.

“The benefit is twofold,” said Holland. First, the question can be asked once—only once—no matter how many people need to be involved to find a solution. Second, there’s transparency. Everyone (including those who might encounter the issue in the future) can see that the question has been asked and can see what the answer is when both are written down.

And that leads to Holland’s second recommendation: once a problem is written down, keep it somewhere useful. “The most effective thing we’ve done,” he said, “is post issues on the internet.” Again, there are many benefits to this process.

For example, someone outside your company might have the solution. Holland explained that most of the software he’s asked to troubleshoot isn’t unique to the component manufacturing industry—think Windows or Excel, for example. “Usually there’s someone else in some other industry” facing the same problems, said Holland. In some cases, he sees a problem and knows right away: “We won’t get around to fixing this, but someone else might.”

In addition, posting issues and answers online makes them easy to reference. “Google will index this,” Holland explained. When anyone searches for an issue that he has posted, it will appear in search results along with similar issues. If no one has offered a solution to Holland’s post, or if that solution doesn’t work for the user looking up his post, similar issues and additional solutions are just a click away. Better still, some might even comment on or edit a post to provide additional or updated information, giving everyone easy access to the current answer to the problem.

The common-sense basis of the online posting approach is that it makes good use of what’s already there. Time poured into custom, home-grown software or an evaluation of each new task-management or documentation tool that comes to the market is time that could be spent resolving issues.

There’s also the other extreme to watch for: using what you know even if it doesn’t result in simple, searchable, accurate and up-to-date documentation. Holland’s example is email: everyone’s comfortable with it, and it’s searchable, but an email chain from a year ago about an issue that’s similar to, but not quite the same as, the issue you have now isn’t as helpful as having your issue properly documented, tracked and updated in an appropriate system.

In the end, Holland’s secret to good IT support is really good communication. “The people who are the best at communicating will be perceived as being best at IT,” he said. It doesn’t always come down to who in the plant has the particular skills to solve a technology problem. Instead, it often turns out that users running into problems “feel they were best supported by the IT staff who communicated with them best.”

So if you work at a company where, instead of looking to hire a full-time IT professional, you’re trying to identify the person who fixed something once and can now take the lead in providing technology support, make sure you have the right skill set in mind. “The number one skill,” said Holland, “is being able to communicate well.”

And if you have the people and are now looking for the best system to manage your issues and solutions, Holland’s advice is to keep good records and be patient. “We have been doing this for a couple of years now,” he said, and he’s found that it’s hard to recognize an effective system until it’s been in place for a while.

Fortunately, an ineffective process is much easier to spot. “You know your documentation system isn’t working when someone says, ‘I’ve seen this problem before, but I don’t know what we did about it.’ That’s how you know you’re making a mistake.” Every penny and minute spent solving the problem after that point is the price of not having a good documentation and communication system in place. It’s likely a high price. “If we solved this problem before, we obviously spent time and money to get that done,” Holland explained. “Why pay for that again?”

Recording all the steps of the problem and its solution, in a place where everyone can find them, increases the likelihood that you won’t have to go through the problem-solving process a second time. And, of course, downtime itself is very expensive, so you want to be sure your tech support team is free to solve the most pressing problems.

Holland has heard the questions that many component manufacturers have: Is it worth the time and effort that it takes to get everyone in the plant to document issues thoroughly? Will saving time solving tomorrow’s issue justify the process of documenting today’s issue? Is thorough documentation of IT issues cost effective in the long run? Holland’s answer, for the record, is yes.

For additional Tool Tips and Holland’s thoughts on what’s around the corner for Truss IT, check out the digital edition of this article.

About the Author: Before joining the SBC Magazine team in 2015, Dale Erlandson wrote for a variety of publications in several different careers, including non-profit communications, teaching and technical writing.