When Colleges Use Twitter As Help Desk

Education IT leaders, your users are turning to Twitter to complain about the campus network and IT services. Are you responding effectively?

Lee Badman, Contributor

June 3, 2013

4 Min Read

Educational 'Technology' Across the Ages

Educational 'Technology' Across the Ages

Educational 'Technology' Across the Ages (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Perhaps it's a generational thing, or maybe it's inevitable -- social media is changing the traditional help desk model in higher education.

You might not want to accept it, or perhaps you choose to cling to what has worked for years. That doesn't matter, because your customers are evolving how they cry out for help. If those cries go unheeded, everything -- from the credibility of the help desk operation to the metrics on tickets closed over a specific period -- becomes invalid.

So what's the change we're talking about? It's Twitter. In 140 characters or less, students are demanding assistance, crying for help, asking general technology questions and saying very unkind things about the IT organization that likely (hopefully) have no basis in truth. It's going on 24 hours a day, in increasing volume. It's what they do, and whether the "official" help desk plays along matters little.

Students can work themselves into froth when their devices don't seem to work properly on the campus network. Or they don't see as many "bars" on their wireless client devices as they think they should. Or when everyone in an auditorium has their wireless connectivity impacted by someone's personal hotspot. Or when an iOS update screws up something in their iPhone. It's all the network's fault, and you are getting repeated black eyes delivered by Twitter. Unless you jump in and meet fire with fire, and tweet with tweet, it only gets worse. Given that on a healthy network, almost 100% of perceived problems are individual client issues, you owe it your network and clients to engage in every way possible.

[ Want to know why Twitter's new security may not help large organizations prevent account takeovers? Read Twitter's Two-Factor Authentication: 5 Reasons To Avoid. ]

Sure, many universities are now savvy to spreading their brand around the Internet via Twitter. It's common for schools to have Twitter accounts for everything from student organizations to the public safety department, but these accounts typically push event-type information to followers and are not used as two-way conduits to ask for assistance. When it comes to client support, it's a whole different paradigm.

Those of us who have embraced social media professionally see the change in what students are willing to do to get help. They don't want to come to the counter. They refuse to fill out forms. What they want is to be able to tweet "the network sucks tonight and I have an important project to do!" from a fake name at an undisclosed location, and have it be magically acted on by the 24/7 staff of mind-readers that we all keep on hand for these cases. The more these laments go unanswered, the nastier the beating that our organizational reputation takes as the Twittersphere gets populated with negative snipes. And often we know nothing about it.

So how do we reconcile the legacy help desk ticket methodology of Web forms, phone calls and personal visits with the "help me now!" expectations of tweeters? Every school is different, so there's no template to recommend. At the same time, there are common-sense steps that we should all consider:

-- Create a help desk-specific Twitter account, publicize it and tap into what your clients are saying.

-- Explore options like HootSuite to let multiple users share the same account.

-- Even with shared account, have staff end each Tweet with their initials, or a two-digit identifier that tells managers who said what in the Twitter logs.

-- Take no offense at the sometimes biting messages that come in, as frustration can make users pretty crabby.

-- Set the expectations: let followers know that Twitter does not replace the help desk, the department is not open for business 24/7, but that all Tweets will be read.

-- Be empathetic and friendly in responses, but set limits on how far your team can go trying to work with clients via Twitter on specific problems.

-- Problems that can't be easily solved in a quick exchange will warrant a visit -- be consistent with that message and make the in-person visit process as painless as possible.

-- Do follow-ups to every late-night "I hate the network" squawk, but don't be surprised when many go unanswered.

-- Post maintenance notifications, tips and hints, and relevant client-related news (bug discovered in iOS, Win 8 known issue, etc.) occasionally, but without being so chatty that followers tune out.

-- Put definite limits on how the Twitter account can be used, stick with them and make sure that the help desk is in line with overall organizational Twitter guidelines.

Expect to evolve the Twitter-help desk pairing after you jump in, as it won't take long to find what's working and what's not. But jump in you must, or you risk becoming irrelevant.

Remember that Twitter is social media, so don't be surprised to see clients helping other clients via Twitter once you've helped them. When you get to that point, you'll know you're doing it right.

About the Author(s)

Lee Badman


Lee is a Wireless Network Architect for a large private university. He has also tought classes on networking, wireless network administration, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronic Warfare systems technician and Master Technical Training Instructor, and a stint in telecommunications in the private sector. Lee is an active Extra Class amateur radio operator (KI2K), and has a wide range of technical hobbies. He has helped organize and has presented at several higher education and industry conferences, and has done extensive freelance writing work for a number of IT, low voltage, and communications periodicals. Follow him on Twitter at @wirednot, and read his personal blog at wirednot.wordpress.com.

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