In tech support for higher education, we have the unique opportunity to provide students with a great real-world experience of serving others while gaining valuable technology skills. Even though this is a great opportunity for the students, in order to be done successfully, it is essential to have a strategy for preparing the student staff to effectively aid your campus customers with technology issues.
At Duquesne University, the CTS Help Desk serves a campus of more than 10,000 faculty, staff, and students. Help Desk is staffed with an Assistant Manager, Team Lead, a Communications Specialist, 3 Help Desk Consultants, and 11 Student Workers. Our student staff are permitted to work only 11 hours per week on work study. The Help Desk Team Lead is responsible for the management of the student staff which includes hiring, coaching, and other performance management responsibilities.
The CTS Help Desk is the single point of contact for all enterprise technology offerings at the university in addition to best effort support for personally owned computers with the goal of removing any barriers for our campus communities teaching and learning objectives. Given the limited time the students can work, we have put together a formula that has been quite successful in enhancing our coverage as well as providing the best possible experience for customers seeking assistance.
Defining Scope of Support and Access for Student Staff
If you are new to creating positions for student workers on your team, the first, most important step is to define the scope of work and levels of access that are appropriate for your student staff. Not only will this give you better insight as to how to measure the success of your student staff (which may be different from your full-time employees), but it will also give your second level organizations a better level of comfort knowing this has been proactively considered and documented.
We noticed at the onset of this initiative, second-level support groups were concerned that student workers would have access to things they shouldn’t. By being proactive, we were able to alleviate those concerns.
We count on our student staff to do everything that our full-time staff does except things that are related to accessing PII (Personally Identifiable information). We thoroughly train them troubleshoot issues such as hardware, software, and account issues. They interact with the customers over email, the phone, and through our walk-in service desk. Many of our tools are designed to be self-service, so the student staff have been trained to aid the users in that way. Our student staff members work independently and have the resources to aid them with knowledge that they don’t have. Believe it or not, these students are digital natives and solving issues with their computer is second nature to them. They have grown up in a world of “Do-IT-Yourself,” YouTube videos, or “Googling it” when they have a problem that they need help fixing. Luckily the skillset is quite transferrable to the world of customer support.
Define Core Values
Setting a culture of excellence in serving your customers is essential. Many of your student staff members have never worked in a professional environment and need to be taught how to provide the best possible experience to those who they are assisting. This is a great opportunity for your full-time staff to model the type of behavior they would like to see the student workers show. Trainable skills such as customer advocacy, respectfulness, and service-oriented behaviors are just some of the core values that they will be able to utilize in any profession they choose.
Most students have never worked in a professional environment, so when we hire them, we know they are going to do things in a less than ideal manner. But the greatest gift is that, as their manager, you have the ability to make such a great impact on their professional careers after they leave you. Remember being new to the workforce and making rookie mistakes in how you communicated with people? Likely, no one was interested or able to say, “Hey buddy, that probably should have been handled this way.” And those interactions may have limited you in selling an idea or gaining a promotion. By addressing those things in a positive coaching matter with your student staff, you not only improve the service they are providing to your customers, but you will support them in their future careers. We encourage all of our full-time staff members to acts as mentors for our student workers, so we have in essence a team of people dedicated to indoctrinating these students into our team’s core values.
Hiring the Right Students
As with any job search properly preparing for the interview is critical. In our experience, creating a standardized list of questions that capture the students desire to be a part of a dynamic service- oriented team is at the top of the list. Technology experience is not required. We can train them on how to troubleshoot. But we can’t train them to love our customers!
We can train them on how to troubleshoot. But we can’t train them to love our customers!
Clearly communicating the requirements for the job helps them to decide if the position is right for them. Our students are told that it is a busy job, and there may be times when doing homework might not be an option while on their shift. We also really work to sell the job, because there is so much that they can get out of working on our team. No matter what their major, the skills that you gain while working on the Help Desk will provide a step up to the competition when looking for a job after college.
Going into the interview process with realistic expectations is also very important. Most of the time, student workers have limited knowledge of troubleshooting methods and technical acumen, however, the desire to learn and serve other people really comes through when you ask them questions. Be on the lookout for it. When talking with the student, ask yourself, would they love the customer and make them feel heard? Were they nice to talk to?
Another important criterion when selecting the perfect student worker is their course load. Sometimes students feel that they can do it all. At Duquesne, depending on your major, we know that some years can be more rigorous than others related to the number and types of classes students are required to take in a given major. By supporting the students to ensure success in their studies, as well as their job, we foster a happy and productive staff. We strive to keep lines of communication open with the students to ensure they understand that we fully support their academics and encourage them to let us know if they are struggling with their current course load, assignments, or upcoming tests so we can work with them to better accommodate their schedules. Sometimes that could be as simple as allowing them off for a week while they get caught up. More often than not, that time passes, and they are back to a fully functioning valuable member of the team.
Training and Tools
As with any Help Desk, the tools and training methods are what set a firm foundation for success for the team that is supporting the customers. At Duquesne, we have found that the use of OneNote and other internal knowledge-based tools aid in seamless communication with our student staff. We also had to change the way we trained the student workers, focusing more on how to find the information instead of what the information is.
In the past, we used to spend a week with onboarding, training, and mentoring, talking through a training grid detailing everything they needed to know. What we found is that it was actually too much information all at once, like shooting a firehose into a Dixie cup. Not much was retained. So, by changing the model where we provide scenarios to our students and request they seek to find the information, we have developed much more self-sufficient workers with quality problem resolution by our student staff.
Review and Coaching
As mentioned, student workers often have limited hours due to their course load. So being intentional in communicating their performance objectives is critical. As we know, today’s traditional student is a member of Generation X. Research shows that GenX thrives on constant feedback. We have found that this method helps our student workers thrive. We coach them on what we need them to do and then we follow up if they are not meeting the objectives. So why would they care or want to do better if this is a part-time thing while they are going to school? I can say one thing has been evident in our experience, and it is making them feel a part of something bigger. By indoctrinating them into the team culture, we make them feel as critical a part of our team as the full-time staff.
There are so many ways student workers can be utilized to augment your staffing, and in turn better serve your customers. Be creative! As technologists, we are faced with constant change. By working side-by-side with student workers and building strong relationships with them, we have really benefited from all of the amazing feedback they give us when providing support so we can continually improve our services to the campus community. We look forward to the continued partnership with such a valuable student staff.
Melissa Jackman is an IT service management professional with more than 25 years of experience leading high-performance teams in service delivery and support for IT infrastructures and operations. Melissa has a strong commitment to servant leadership, professional coaching, and fostering team dynamics. She also has broad experience implementing ITSM tools and processes, cybersecurity, and identity and access management. Melissa has served as a local chapter officer for HDI Steel City and has presented at a variety of conferences on topics such as critical skills for new managers, trust, managing multigenerational teams, and coaching. She currently serves as the Help Desk Manager at Duquesne University, providing support for a campus community of approximately 10,000 students and 3000 faculty and staff. Follow her on Twitter @melissajackman.