IT customer service in higher ed

Meeting campus expectations for IT support

What staff and employees from every corner of campus expect from IT often differs from what tech staff can actually deliver. And while white-glove tech service might not always be possible, internal teamwork and enlightened management techniques can help IT departments earn a strong reputation for responsiveness.

Of course, developing and maintaining a strong customer service ethos sometimes brings IT managers into unexpected territory. Following are tips on how to handle four such scenarios. 

Scenario 1. You manage a computer lab with six technicians. The nursing program director asks if you can extend hours to Saturdays.

Avoid responding too quickly, says Darrell Lutey, assistant director in the Office of Information Technology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Ask yourself, if you don’t do it, will it really hurt the university?”

Management resources for IT and other campus administrators

  • IT Managers Inbox is a blog for IT managers and professionals. It covers employee development, performance counseling, staying positive in negative situations, preventing social loafing in the workplace, and other topics.
  • UC Berkeley’s Central Human Resources office offers guidance on challenging employees through work experiences, connecting employees to important relationships, identifying employees’ most pressing areas for development and encouraging employees to learn from work experiences.
  • Boise State University’s managers toolkit features topics such as developing employees, managing employee absences as well as authority, compliance, and ethics.

Online exclusive: Seven strategies for minimizing tech services staff issues

And what are the long-term implications if you say ‘yes’? If you take on tasks outside the normal scope of services, declining future requests could be difficult. On the other hand, it’s important to project a positive image.

“You don’t want to be known as the ‘Department of No,’ ”Lutey says.

While weighing these factors against available resources, gather feedback from staff and, if needed, other administrators. Sometimes you can accommodate new requests without unduly stretching departmental resources. “It could be something you’ll end up doing in the long term anyway,” he says.

Keep an open mind, adds Joey Petrella Wall, director of media and instructional technology at Marist College in New York. “Assume they’re asking because they need it. They don’t know if you’re short on staff or frustrated by competing projects.”

Start with “maybe”—not as a stalling tactic, but as a chance to consider all the relevant factors, Wall says. “Take their request seriously. See if there’s a way you can work together to achieve it.”

If it becomes apparent the demand can’t be met, be clear but diplomatic. “Give them a legitimate reason the answer is no,” she says. “And be honest with your reasoning. You can’t fake sincerity.”

Also tell requestors you don’t mind if they go over your head. In some cases that might bring administrative support for more resources, Wall says. When an unwanted project is assigned by upper administration without an option to decline, a staff pep talk may be in order. “Make it clear that at the end of day, we have to do this,” she says. “So let’s not make ourselves miserable about it.”

Scenario 2. Two student employees who have adjacent cubicles don’t get along. One complains to you about the other’s behavior.    

“We have to remind ourselves it may be their first job in the field,” Wall says. “Everything is a teaching opportunity, and you need to be as much mentor as supervisor.” 

This may mean taking them aside and clarifying behavioral expectations. “Teach them that this is a work environment and it’s all about the work,” Wall says. “Explain that you don’t have to like each other, but you do need to work together without drama.”

Students should be managed with a measure of flexibility, says Lutey. “If they make a mistake, give them a chance to correct the error. Give them opportunities to improve.”

And if problems continue? “They’re at-will employees,” he says. “If they’re causing conflict, we can let them go.”

Leaders should seek guidance from the human resources department. “Find out if there is a policy on working with or supervising students,” Wall says. “And take advantage of anything your institution has in terms of training, such as supervisory training or Title IX.”

The latter proved useful where one student worker reporting to Wall began talking about another’s sexual orientation. Thanks to prior training, she realized the situation fell under Title IX guidelines. She contacted an HR specialist, who met with both students. After a discussion, they actually became friends.

In Wall’s experience most student interventions come out favorably. When complaints arise, “try to separate the drama from the work performance issue,” she adds. “If they’re worth keeping, you’ve got to try to mediate it.”

Scenario 3. Julie is a strong technologist and troubleshooter who, as the office “superhero,” typically handles problems. But she insists on doing them alone and doesn’t share how she gets results. She takes a day off and many problems go unresolved.

This is an area where management intervention can make a big difference, says Kathleen Dooley, director of media resources at Midwestern University in Illinois. In fact, administrators may be part of the problem.

“Sometimes we create that superhero a little bit,” she says. “When we as directors have 85 things on the plate and then a problem comes up, you want to go to your strongest technologist.”

But it’s better to force that person to not work alone. “Instead of handing a job off to one technician, now I hand it off to two,” she says.

It also may be necessary to explain to a worker such as Julie that her value to the organization is diminished because work can’t always be picked up by others when she’s away. Through teamwork, other staff will learn Julie’s problem-solving techniques—and she will benefit from seeing more of what co-workers have to offer.

Wall recounts a situation that didn’t turn out well. “I had a superhero who was a wonderful contributor to students, the department and the college,” she says. “But he went rogue and stepped out of his job description often.” By putting in extra hours to get things done, he was cheating other staff of his expertise.

Wall attempted to persuade him to work more in concert with others, but he continued to go it alone. Eventually he left for another job. In the future, she won’t allow this kind of problem to develop. Instead, she’ll insist on more teamwork.

Scenario 4. Technician Joe has been putting out fires all day. He’s called to a lecture hall to fix a mic. He snaps and says, “Apparently I’m the only one in the office who knows how to change a battery.” The faculty member responds, “Maybe if you could just keep the equipment working I wouldn’t have to call you all the time.” The exchange takes place in front of students.

“The first thing to happen would be me having a serious discussion with that staff member,” Lutey says. “We’re here to help, and I would make sure he understood that.” But the discussion should be constructive rather than entirely punitive, along the lines of “Let’s talk about what went wrong.”

After the conversation, Joe might be placed on an informal probation, with restrictions on service calls or being teamed with another staffer who can observe and offer guidance.

In-house training on interacting with customers is another option. Role-playing activities offer an effective alternative to formal counseling or training videos, especially with student employees, Lutey says. But whatever strategy is followed, the manager must address the behavior head-on, Lutey adds.

Wall agrees that employees should get an opportunity to improve. “Everyone has a bad day,” she says. “Let them cool off, then ask them not to vent at the customer in the future.”

A manager might also have to reach out to the faculty member, Wall adds. “If you have to, apologize on behalf of the department.” In some cases, the IT staffer might not deserve all the blame.

Wall has dealt with faculty who never seem satisfied. In these cases, the manager must support the staff member while also striving for positive relationships outside the department. “I strongly believe in customer service,” she says. “But I’m not a rep at Best Buy where that person can take their money elsewhere.” 

So while she doesn’t advocate the classic “the customer is always right” mentality, a measure of balance is required, she says. “You have to be a little bit strong, especially if someone is speaking negatively about staff in front of students.”

But don’t hold a grudge against chronic complainers, Wall advises. If someone’s a problem, it’s not just your problem—others on campus face similar challenges. If nothing else, you can commiserate with staff. Let the employee complain to you, then say, “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based writer who frequently covers HR issues.

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