How to get the help you need from IT

Try these tips to improve your relationship with the IT department.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Having a computer freeze up or battling a stubborn projector before a major presentation is no one's idea of time well-spent on the job.

In addition to stress and frustration, technology disruptions can mean a loss of hours worked (and, at some accounting firms, hours billed). That's why it's important to make sure that things are running smoothly and, if they're not, to get things up to speed as quickly as possible.

Clients expect almost immediate feedback, said Jim Bourke, CPA/CITP/CFF, CGMA, a partner and head of firm technology at New Jersey-based regional accounting firm WithumSmith+Brown. "If technology is not what it should be," he said, "how can you provide an instantaneous response?" 

To meet clients' or customers' expectations, you need to have a good working relationship with the IT professionals who keep your organization plugged in. Here are some tips on how to do that.

How to ask for help

The best route, experts say, is to follow the process that's in place to ask for help.

Some large firms have a ticketing system in place while other IT departments prefer that associates send an email or call a help line. Dropping by in person can work as well, but many IT departments prefer having a documented system in place so that they can prioritize different requests, said Peter Henley, CPA/CITP, chief information officer for the Bellevue, Wash.-based firm Clark Nuber.

When you're filling out a request for help, be specific and offer as many details as possible about what programs may be acting up, and any error messages you get or pressing deadlines that you have. If you don't get any response to your request, escalate to an IT manager, your manager, or someone in an authoritative position, Henley said.

Employees working out of the office, such as auditors, should always let their IT colleagues know they're having problems remotely, he said.

"If you're at the client's [office] and your computer is broken, you're done," Henley said, whereas if you're at your workplace, "you can probably find something to do."

In his firm, those having problems out of the office almost always get classified as a high priority.

Also, realize that your IT colleagues are likely dealing with a number of requests and may not be able to drop everything immediately to help you, said Marc Staut of Boomer Consulting, a technology consulting firm for the accounting profession.

"Every single person thinks whatever they need should be priority number one," said Staut. "It can be a challenge to make sure everyone's getting that top level of service."

Don't wait to flag problems

Few things are more frustrating for IT professionals than facing a colleague in crisis mode, and having him or her mention the problem existed for the last few weeks, Staut said.

"IT departments are really good at fixing problems they know about, and they're really lousy at fixing problems that they don't know about," he said.

So, if the corner of your laptop's screen has cracked, let your IT colleagues know immediately instead of waiting until the whole thing shuts down.

"You're doing the firm a disservice by not getting this fixed," Henley said.

Not only can individual problems affect your workflow, they could also indicate a more widespread problem that IT needs to have on its radar.

IT departments should also routinely reach out to staff to see if people are having problems or need help navigating software programs, Staut said.

IT professionals sometimes "think that since they're not hearing anything, things are good," Staut said. But often that's not the case.

Give feedback

CPAs can offer valuable insight to technology associates about how programs or systems are working. Sometimes they figure out a better way to do something than the existing procedures, which can be valuable information for IT to know, Henley said.

Henley has also had his CPA colleagues tell him about innovative software programs that have gone on to be adopted companywide, a boon that he credits to having an open relationship with his colleagues.

But accountants and firm partners should avoid buying new software or tools without first running them by their in-house IT staff, who can assess whether the new product is really the best choice, Henley said.

Invite IT to participate in company culture

In some companies, IT departments sit in a separate office and don't mingle much with the CPAs that make up the bulk of the office. When that happens, IT professionals can start to feel like they're stuck in their own silo. 

To encourage collaboration, Bourke's firm intersperses IT staff workplaces with CPAs' instead of putting the IT department in a separate location. That fosters close working relationships, and people are comfortable talking with the IT representative in their department.

"Then staff are inclined to go to the person near their office," he said. 

IT staff can also give presentations in staff meetings and offer other learning sessions at the firm. Henley finds peer-to-peer learning to work best and looks for "software champions" among his firm's CPAs to work alongside IT to help explain how programs work to their colleagues.

It's also important to include your IT colleagues in company events and outings, to create working relationships that go beyond just responding to requests for help, Staut said.

"It's OK to invite them to other team events," Staut said. "IT people can be introverts as well, so sometimes they need a specific invitation." 

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this story, email Chris Baysden, AICPA senior manager, newsletters.

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