The support world is changing rapidly - the management drivers today. are cost reduction and service improvement - and we are bombarded by new tools that claim they can help us in the quest for the "holy grail" of better support for less money. This raises a number of questions:- More for less is possible - but how much more? What about the human touch that people want if we use even more automation? How do we use a combination of human and automated response to our advantage? To try and answer these, I've been doing a bit of research in the area to crystalise my thoughts a little. Two invaluable sources of help came up - one was the November HUG Regional Event, which focused on these issues, and the second was a very easy-to-read book, Customer Service on the Internet by Jim Sterne. The management drivers give us a clue to an underlying industry problem, and the Gartner Group has been banging on for ages about "cost of ownership" in today's support world being the key measure that we need to reduce. The more for less answer lies here - and I think we, in most cases, are attacking it in the wrong way. The sources above convinced me that we can do more for less, answering more queries and problems more effectively, more cheaply, with less people, and in a shorter time. The key hurdle we need to jump is investment. The tools are there, the people skills are available or trainable, and the customers want better support - the ingredients exist. My guess is that, compared to today's "average" helpdesk, we can all be twice as effective on behalf of our customers within two years. If that sounds like a long time, it is. Managers are groaning that they need to deliver results now, and ask about the tools they can use to help them succeed. I refer you back to the word investment. Our support problems today stem from short termism, and investment targets a steady, real gain over a longer term. The other danger of ignoring this principle leads into the answer to the second question - we can easily alienate the very customers we want to help if we whack in short term technology-driven solutions in an ad hoc sort of way. Onto a couple of tool areas that I've seen that can offer practical help - those that can be built into your strategy. The first has been with us for a while - the Web. Whether you are supporting in-house or external customers, you can use Internet or intranet-based support to help your customers. The problem is that many have charged into this and further hacked-off their customers by creating unfriendly sites or access methods. Sterne's book gives a wealth of case studies - good and bad. Often the bad is from attempts to be too helpful - HP's printer support offered 60 possible options to view for a simple printer problem. One of the best sites was Sun Microsystems, which uses the Excite search tool to help customers, enabling them to pin down their most likely solution much quicker. The principal problems with Web support seem to be that many sites are created by "techies" for like-minded people, and the sheer volume of information often available. Clearly it makes sense to involve customers or non-techies in the development of your support site to make it user-friendly for everyone, and to keep an eye on size and searchability. For example, the IBM Web site is believed to be in excess of 250,000 pages - without a powerful search tool it would be a nightmare. The other tool area that seems to be "hot" now is that of automated technical support (ATS). Most vendors, whether in software distribution or the network management fields, have auto options available to their users. The area has enormous potential, particularly in the "common" problem areas, where self-healing support is available while still logging the problem with the helpdesk. Whole networks of PCs can be scanned regularly and fixes applied remotely or transparently by an engineer. This proactive approach cuts helpdesk calls and allows the focus to shift to strategically managing support based on full support data - and after the initial investment, achieves our goal of "more for less". In every case mentioned above we are looking to add value or speed to the customer interaction - this is the key. The only reason real customers want to use our support is to fix their fault rapidly and effectively. Most would still prefer to talk to someone too, so any technology we use must recognise that and offer the option of a human on a phone. We have all been the victim of techno-loop calls before and know the effect it has on us - do we really want to do that to our customers? Test out any solution you apply with customers, as the investment will only work if they are happy to use your new support access routes. Lastly, the control and management of the support infrastructure is essential. With the twin aims of monitoring the performance of the "new" to validate the investment return, and to use the results to strategically focus on support quality for the future. The data you capture in the support cycle is your hottest decision support information. Whatever combination of automated and human support you go for - the data it throws up will give you all you need to keep adding more value - giving your customers more and more to be excited about with your support operation. Check out the options for your investment and remember, think longer term and start your new support show tomorrow. Howard Kendall is director of the Helpdesk User Group (HUG).
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