JiscMail and me: one year on

JiscMail's website

Just over 12 months ago, I took over managing the JiscMail helpdesk for Netskills. It was pretty scary as JiscMail is an established, well-respected and well-loved service with well over a million subscribers.

All eyes would be on us when we took it over. Would we sink or swim? A year on, I want to look back and review where I was, where I am now and what JiscMail did to me in the middle.

Looking back

It seems ages ago; a hot day in June 2012 when I was at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory spending time with the old JiscMail team, learning EVERYTHING.

I’d been using the service for years as a subscriber and list owner but I was there to understand what went on behind the scenes and there was a LOT to take in. A trip to the The Shoulder of Mutton pub in Wantage for food and real ale helped me digest it all.

Back in Newcastle I had to make sense of it all, interview and recruit a suitable helpline administrator, set up new office space for the team and learn how to use the new helpdesk-email system before the service was handed over to us in July. It was a busy couple of weeks, but in a good way.

I was excited. It was a brand new challenge, something to get my teeth into and put my stamp on. This was my chance to take JiscMail to another level but I didn’t want to mess it up, or do it wrong. Mind you, I was at the bottom of a steep learning curve and stepping into some very big shoes.

I felt a little bit paranoid too! Would my every move be scrutinised. I could hear the voices now: “it was never done like that before.”

The stabilisers were off

On 1 August support from the old JiscMail team stopped and we were flying solo.

I spent the first three months working closely with Dan, our new helpline administrator, understanding the queries, the customers and the best way to support them. About 60% of our enquiries were variations of those which we’d been trained in. The other 40% were ‘scratchy head’ ones, which took a bit more exploration.

I learnt about the fine art of using a second tier support service who weren’t based in the same country, let alone the same time zone! Send an email to them before you go home and you’ll have the answers in your inbox when you get into the office in the morning.

I did make some practical changes to procedures too but I’d say the majority of my time was about filling my head with life on the helpdesk.

Lumps & bumps along the way

Of course we’ve had a few problems. I accidentally caused a surge of 300+ emails to be pushed into the helpdesk, created a couple of mail-loops (I didn’t know what one was until I started here), managed complaints about posts on lists, dealt with spam attacks (damn those tins of meat – they really hurt when they hit you), people impersonating other subscribers and varying degrees of service interruptions.

I think I’ve been through an entire staff development programme of personal effectiveness skills. I’ve come out of these unscathed and more knowledgeable, all par for the course as they say.


By March the helpline was running smoother than ever. Our target of answering every query on the day it arrived (except weekends) was generally being met. Categorising queries helped us to build up a picture of what customers struggled with the most and think of ways the information we provide can help them.

I’ve initiated ‘a service-wide housekeeping exercise’ which involves contacting owners of lists that haven’t been used and providing them with information about what they can do – and carrying out the request. It helps us keep information up to date, whether it’s memberships of lists or closing lists which aren’t needed, which in turn ensures that JiscMail is as current as it can be.

But even though we close lists and remove subscribers, it still continues to grow. It gives me confidence that the education sector is still very passionate about mailing lists as they’re as popular as ever!

It’s all about the customer

At the start of the role I wasn’t clear what the ‘focus’ of the service should be. It wasn’t like a baton that was handed to me when I started but it quickly became clear that JiscMail needed to be 100% about the customers and their experience. It was our place to make things as easy as possible for them and this became my priority for the rest of the year.

I made several changes to processes and procedures to focus on giving the customer the best experience from JiscMail helpline as possible. I made a start by using social media, our own JiscMail-newsletter, and free online tools which I’ve been harping on about using in admin for years. I wanted these channels to be the voice of JiscMail.

Using social media tools is a growing trend amongst service helpdesks, and JiscMail is very much part of that trend!

How was it for you?

Getting feedback from our customers has been really important. From October onwards we asked customers to fill in a short form about how satisfied they were with the helpdesk in emails we sent out. The message they gave us: “very satisfied”!!!

I get a real buzz when I get good feedback. Doesn’t everyone? It’s nice to feel that the people out there are giving us a pat on the back for the job we’re doing and reassuring the doubter in me that the changes I’ve made have been for the better.

The right team for the job

Dan & Lisa in the original JiscMail office last year

Dan & Lisa in the original JiscMail office

Dan’s expertise has been growing since he began in June. I’ve been really pleased that we took him on. He’s tackled all the challenges I’ve set and continues to help the service go from strength to strength.

I think I was most impressed when Dan changed the code of the JiscMail website, adding a quick link to each list homepage. Although a small change, it was huge in terms of helping customers get support in a quick and convenient way. I think I said WOW a few times.

JiscMail 2013-14

Well we must have done something right. We’re being funded to run the service for another year. Am I happy? Yes.I’ve really enjoyed doing the job and, dare I say it, more so than the Netskills job.

Of course I’ve struggled with my own crisis of confidence, making a few bad decisions and doing things the long way as everyone does (sometimes). I’ve become more confident as a manager, I see things (most of the time) with a wider vision and I’m learning new things every week – and I love to learn.

My focus continues to be the customer and plans include changes and updates to the website, delivering some online training, and giving myself a kick up the backside to do more as the voice of JiscMail through social media.