Call Centers vs Help Desks

From my experience, customer support at most businesses falls into one of two categories: Call Center or Help Desk.  As either a customer or an employee, I prefer the Help Desk.  Now let me explain both and why.

A Call Center is usually defined by the (over)use of call metrics to define success.  They want to have as few calls as possible be answered by the automated backup system (when all the reps are busy), and you do that by decreasing call length.  A rep who is not on the phone is a rep who can answer the phone.  In a Call Center, the reps are encouraged to pick up the phone, gather information, answer if they can do so easily, and if not inform the caller that someone will call them back and issue them a ticket or incident number.  No real “work” gets done in a Call Center, they are just there to answer the phone so you don’t talk to a machine.

A Help Desk is very similar except that often the only metric that matters is how many calls it takes to resolve an issue.  The fewer the better.  Call length is unimportant as long as that time spent is relevant to solving the problem.  The goal is to have every problem resolved on the first call, so that the customer does not have to call back.

Whenever I call a company for support, if the entirety of my first call is to create a trouble ticket and then wait for a call back, I already know that my support experience is going to be disappointing.  In one of my most recent experiences, I called about a service outage (no phone service from a 3rd party reseller) and a ticket was created and I was told I would be contacted “shortly”.  Now, understand that my initial report include the line “we are a 24/7 business and we are completely down”.  It took 3 hours for a technician to get in touch with me, during which time I had called the support number a dozen times and escalated through several managers, because, you know, my business was dead in the water.  When he called he was very nice and explained that they were having lots of high priority calls today (which I only half believe since it has become defacto procedure in business to never accept blame and deflect onto other people or situations), and then he ran a line test and determined in less than 2 minutes that he couldn’t help me and we needed to have AT&T go physically fix a line.

Now, allow me to outline one of my jobs on a Help Desk to explain why the above experience was bad.  When I worked for one company, I started initially as a “2nd Level” support person, not clearly defined, but I was not an admin nor did I directly take support calls.  Through my efforts and with the support of management, our help desk would eventually have three clearly defined levels:

  • 3rd Level – These are the system admins, the experts who troubleshoot problems when everyone below them has no idea how to fix it.  If you talk to this level, it is because your problem is new or different enough that a new solution has to be found.
  • 2nd Level – These are the system techs.  They have knowledge, one day probably hope to be promoted to the admin level, and their desks and inboxes and hard drives are filled with solutions handed down from the 3rd Level.  They use these solutions and refine them on issues passed to them from the 1st Level, and they pass failures and run new ideas past the 3rd Level.
  • 1st Level – These are the people who answer the phone.  They aren’t required to have any real knowledge at all beyond being able to read and follow instructions, and to have good people skills.  On their desks should be folders of solutions refined from the 2nd Level, or their PCs should have access to a knowledge base or other digital medium with search capabilities.  Every thing they cannot solve from documents on their desk or in the knowledge base is passed to the 2nd Level.

The goal of these levels is clear.  The 3rd Level guys have other work to do, which is interrupted when they have to take support calls, so they want to solve and document and pass to level 2 as quick as possible.  The 2nd Level guys want to become 3rd Level guys, so they work to understand and refine everything that comes from level 3, and part of that process is recognition that will come from authoring documents for the folders and knowledge base for level 1.  The 1st Level folks, if you’ve hired them correctly, are the kind of people who love helping other people, so they want to resolve every call and don’t want to pass things off to level 2, and if you’ve hired your 1st Level manager correctly they’ll be the sort who hounds level 2 for solutions to problems that keep going past his people.

If you staff and train this three tier help desk right, it is extremely efficient and people won’t mind at all when they have to call because their issues will be handled promptly.  At the company I worked for, while I was the 2nd Level guy, I implemented the folder system for problem resolution.  For everything from password resets to broken PCs, I gave the 1st Level every piece of information they could safely use for troubleshooting and resolution, and when I needed to give them access to something unsafe I wrote or provided a tool that allowed them to do what they needed without giving them full access.  And for everything I absolutely could not give them access to, I gave them instructions on how to gather what information in order to make my job as easy as possible so that I could resolve and respond to the issue as fast as humanly possible.  When I ascended to the 3rd Level, I took my process with me, convinced management we needed a 4 person 2nd Level staff to replace me, and I began documenting every 3rd Level process I could pass off to level 2, which they in turn continued my example of refining and passing to level 1.  Within a couple months of the full three tier setup, the 3rd Level group barely received any support calls as level 2 was handling most of them, and the 2nd Level was rapidly trying to pass the buck to level 1 with new procedures and documentation in order to free themselves up for working on “special projects” (which mostly consisted of implementing work that level 3 had designed … the grunt work that helped educate them on more facets of the systems).   Over time, some of our level 2’s got promoted or got new jobs, and we were even able to promote people from level 1 to level 2 (not often done since the prime skill set for level 1 was customer service, but if someone had technical aptitude we allowed them the opportunity to try, some went back to level 1, some did well at level 2), and the whole thing ran much more smoothly than when I had arrived.  Even I eventually moved on, and when training my replacement, a guy promoted from level 1 to 2 to 3, I showed him all my duties and toys, and then I handed him a documentation manual with every solution I had not or could not pass on to the level below me.  It was beautiful, and as far as I know still runs that way today, eight years later.

So how does that relate to my recent service outage?  Well, if a technician can, in less than 2 minutes, tell me that the problem is not theirs and we needed to call AT&T, whatever he did should be able to be wrapped up in a tool that can be given to the people who answer the phones so that problems like mine can be routed properly more quickly and not have to wait three hours just to be told they aren’t talking to the right people.  The problem is that it is a Call Center, and their management has no interest in having the people answering the phone actually solve problems, their job is just to answer the phone so people don’t wait on hold too long.

Me, I’d rather wait on hold comfortable that when they answer I’ve a good chance of getting my problem resolved, than to talk to someone sooner only to be pushed off and told they’ll call me back at their convenience.


  1. I once worked in a call center for a cheap PC components retailer. It was hilarious and frightening at the same time. We had at least 20 guys in the office and the phone was calling constantly. People complained they couldn’t reach us every time. There was ONE desk reserved for service calls. It was literally impossible to get through there. The joke is that the people on that desk were recruited from the sales desks a a sort of punishment for bad sale statistics. They had no education and no authority. So it would go like this: you would pick up the phone, some angry guy wants to know where the replacement for his broken item is that he sent in. You could look up his number in the database and tell him where the item was. In 95% of all cases it was “underway”. The rest of the call was the customer insulting you and requesting to speak to your superior (which you weren’t supposed to do).

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