No matter how smart the software is, there will always be a case for having people about to explain when things do not work as expected.
Software has come a long way since the bad old days of DOS when documentation was considered an afterthought. With the advent of Windows, Microsoft introduced a common way for end users to help themselves by pressing F1 and entering the Windows Help system. This was extended with the introduction of wizards, which guided users through relatively complex procedures step-by-step.
But there is a hidden cost in self help. For instance, if a user turns to a colleague for help on how to achieve something in Excel, that results in two people being tied up with the problem. And nothing costs more in a company than its people. According to Gartner's May 1996 PC Total Cost of Ownership report, the largest portion of client-server computing costs - some 41% - comes from users attempting to help themselves on their own.
This is why a human being at the other end of the telephone is so important, which is where help desks come in. A study from the Defense Department in the US suggests that for every minute a user spends with a qualified helpdesk person, the user saves seven minutes of self-support time.
So people are a pretty important requirement for a helpdesk. When someone needs assistance there should be a single point of contact. Everyone throughout the company should know the number of the help desk. Looking at how a helpdesk should be structured in terms of people, Andrew Dawson, EMEA marketing manager for Remedy Corporation, says that typically medium to large organisations will structure their help desk into two or three tiers.
The first tier (or front line) logs the initial call and attempts to use the helpdesk knowledge base of historical problems and their solutions to determine the most appropriate course of action.
"Some of our customers have a two-tier help desk structure, while others prefer three. However, the norm in both instances is that they attempt to clear most of the calls at the first level. The call centre operators have a general technical competence."
If first-tier engineers are unable to solve the support query within half an hour or so, they should refer the call to second-ine engineers.
These people are normally expert all-rounders with specialisation in a particular area, such as two years or more experience of Novell NetWare or Microsoft Office. Along with taking on more tricky support problems, the second line engineers also provide back-office support to the first-line engineers. This group in the support hierarchy tends to comprise the highest number of permanent staff.
Second-line engineers should not really spend more than about an hour on a problem. If they cannot do a fix in this time the call should be passed onto third-line support engineers. These people are experts in the support structure - extremely competent engineers with four or more years worth of experience in the vertical sector in which they work. Normally they would be educated to the level of certified engineer and have expertise in more than one technical area.
How many "hands-on" helpdesk personnel are required will be specific to each organisation, but will be determined by the number of users and systems to be supported and the expected number of calls. Typically, in a company of 3,500 staff, the call centre would employ four to six people.
Another factor determining staffing levels is whether a Web interface to the helpdesk is planned for problem submission which will deflect calls away from the front-line telephone staff, thus reducing their loading.
"By allowing end users to interrogate the helpdesk knowledge base using a Web browser for the most trivial problems/solutions," says Dawson, "they can have self-help facilities which reduce the support overheads and possibly staffing levels."
But people are only part of the story. They may staff the helpdesk, but they need some way to track the progress of calls to it. In a new regular technology update, due to launched next month, researcher Ovum defines the helpdesk as the mechanism through which queries and problems from users are dealt with.
As a business function, Ovum sees the helpdesk as the business function which captures, tracks, resolves and reports on events that affect all users. This is why helpdesk software is important. Along with call-tracking, Ovum sees a key requirement of such software being the ability to resolve problems, otherwise it helps no one.
Graeme Pitts-Drake, managing director of Magic Solutions UK, which develops SupportMagic, claims helpdesk software can help drive down support costs.
"In a consumer-oriented age, a key differentiator for companies is customer service and support. Products no longer compete on features, quality and price alone."An obvious requirement of setting up any helpdesk, is the knowledge base, which is built from a database of known problems. When a new version of a product is released, there is often a simultaneous release of knowledge bases. For Windows users, a worthwhiles tarting point is the Microsoft Knowledge Base, which is used and maintained by the company's own support staff. Microsoft has revamped this knowledge base into a product called TechNet which is available by monthly subscription. This is aimed at technical professionals who administer databases or networks, integrate products and platforms or support and train users.
TechNet includes 150,000 pages of information designed to provide a technical reference for all Microsoft products. It includes the Microsoft Knowledge Base, resource kits and integration information. The Knowledge Base is a library of technical tips used by Microsoft's own support engineers.
It includes 50,000 questions, troubleshooting tips, work-arounds and demonstration usage and optimisations techniques.
The resource kits include in-depth information, technical references, utilities and accessories aimed at optimising the configuration of IT systems. Other resources include supplementary drivers and patches for all Microsoft products. Integration information includes articles such as Integrating Windows NT server DHCP and WINS into a Novell NetWare IP Environment and Windows Integration with DB2.
While some feel the introduction of helpdesk software can be used as an argument to reduce the number of the helpdesk staff, Ovum believes this is not a good idea. It has found no evidence to suggest that helpdesk tools actually cause a reduction in staff. Instead, Ovum sees the software as a benefit to help desk staff by enabling them to handle calls more efficiently and so raise overall standards of service. In turn, this increases the number of calls being received by the help desk.
Ovum has outlined eight features to look for in a help desk software.
The capability to receive, log, track and record work on events arriving at the helpdesk. It is the core skill of all helpdesk tools.
The features that aid in identifying a solution to a reported or potential problem.
Helpdesk tools are a vital source of intelligence concerning product performance in the field. This information must be made accessible through reports.
Administration of data within the helpdesk domain. It includes customer, inventory and network information.
Helpdesks do not operate in isolation from other businesses, so helpdesk tools must interface with a variety of systems and technologies. The integration with external technologies is an important feature in helpdesk tools.
This allows the helpdesk tool to be altered in appearance and/or functionality, in order to meets the business needs of the helpdesk operation.
Help desktools are often used by unskilled staff. Usability is therefore a significant issue to be considered.
Set-up and administration
The effort required to set up and administer a helpdesk application is often considerable.
Interestingly, a low number of calls to a helpdesk is cause for concern because it indicates a poor level of service. As a general indicator, the more a helpdesk is used, the more successful it is. From this, Ovum concludes that using helpdesk tools may result in an actual increase in staff to meet growing demands.
SOFTBANK PSC: HAVE YOU HEARD THE ONE ABOUT ...
Softbank PSC is a large provider of telephone-based helpdesk services to the IT industry. It supports a variety of hardware and software manufacturers, including AST, Commodore and Lexmark and employs 300 people at its Dublin and Watford facilities, solely dedicated to telephone support. Here are some of the more bizzare queries it received recently.
A customer complained that his computer kept giving disk errors and General Protection Faults. The machine was returned three times and each time the repair department couldn't find anything wrong. On the third complaint a technician visited the customers office and fixed the problem in a few minutes by removing around two dozen fridge magnets the customer had used to decorate the computer.
A caller was experiencing problems because his software was looking for a printer driver and he had no printer. The helpdesk told the caller to install a printer driver from the Windows disks to kid the software into thinking there was a printer installed. The caller didn't understand so the help desk instructed the caller to go into Control Panel/Printers.
The caller inquired, "When you say go into Control Panel/Printers, is this a specific place in London or somewhere else?"
Key to removing lumps
Caller:"I have two keys on my keyboard - F and J - which have lumps on them; do I need to file these down?"
PRUDENTIAL: GUIDELINES FOR OFFERING SUPPORT
Prudential Portfolio Managers Property (PPMP), the property division of the Prudential, focuses on the successful management of investment properties. In order to keep track of property movements and financial transactions, the division's software applications, hardware and networks must remain functional during working hours.
PPMP has a support team of four and 30 additional in backup staff in the systems department. The support team handles in excess of 200 calls a week, from the 350 staff on site, as well as users at 37 remote locations.
Support is mostly concentrated on a PC environment with a mix of Compaq, Dell and NEC machines and a variety of printers. Software support encompasses the Microsoft Office suite, along with a number of in-house developed software and bespoke packaged applications. It gets a large number of calls asking for help solving routine tasks such as user registration.
The team at PPMP's help desk has designed and created a set of standard guidelines so that first and second-line support staff can standardise the service they give. "The helpdesk analysts and supporting staff at PPMP are able to plan ahead and concentrate on assisting the company to reduce the cost of maintaining its IT infrastructure," says Katy Meiklejohn, help desk supervisor at PPMP.
The company has decided to establish an internal support infrastructure because it wants to create an efficient partnership between its business needs and the systems department. The software underpinning the helpdesk at PPMP used to be based on an in-house developed Visual Basic database application . In a bid to take a more proactive role in support, last May, the company opted for an off-the-shelf solution based on Magic Solutions' SupportMagic software.
Through its SupportMagic-based helpdesk, PPMP says it is now able to resolve problems more rapidly than before and can inform users of solutions to typically-encountered problems. Meiklejohn adds: "Our team of analysts are now able to look at the most frequently occurring problems and turn what used to be a fire-fighting support function into a more strategic IT planning tool, by pre-planning the necessary IT maintenance requirement." She says the software allows the support team to log and track more calls efficiently: "We can resolve problems quicker and get more users back to doing what they do best."
LLOYDS TSB: CUSTOMER CARE HELP DESK
Helpdesk are not just limited to IT. Lloyds TSB has implemented a helpdesk for its customer care department at the TSB offices in Birmingham which deals with customer queries and complaints that cannot be handled at branch level.
Contact with customers takes many forms, either direct via phone, fax, letter or Email, or from branches, the chief executive's office or from the Banking Ombudsman. Geoff Booth, senior manager for customer care at TSB, says: "Customers are precious and it is vital to the business that they remain your customers. Handling complaints efficiently means we are more likely to retain customers."
With the new system, based on HelpDesk for Windows, the 31 customer care advisors can respond to a call armed, with all relevant information about the contact at their fingertips. "If you know about things that happened days before, it gives customers the comfort that there's someone here that knows what's going on," says Booth.
There are two strands to handling the contacts, explains Mark Edmonds, customer care project manager. "We need to consider the action that we take with the customer to resolve the issue, and also the action that we need to take to resolve the issue internally either within the department, with other departments, or with the Banking Ombudsman."
Among the benefits of the new system, according to TSB, is that it is now easier to track if and when things go wrong. The HelpDesk for Windows software time and date stamps calls into customer care, which allows TSB to quantify problem areas. Edmonds adds: "Better management of the department also helps us to give a better service to our customers, which is, of course, the bottom line."
MICROSOFT: REVAMPED TECHNICAL SUPPORT
Microsoft has traditionally taken a lot of criticism for its helpdesk.
Historically, customers could not get through. But in the run-up up to Windows 95, Microsoft totally revamped its technical support. PC Week met up with Stuart Anderson (below right), product support services marketing manager at Microsoft PSS (product support services) to find out how technical support now works at the company.
For a start, PSS employs 300 people. It also set up a whole new telephone exchange, which, Anderson claims, could handle more calls than the local town, Woodleigh. The call centre currently takes about 5,000 calls a day.
There are 40 to 50 call screeners who meet and greet customers, validate whether the call is a genuine query on a Microsoft product and check the call history of the customer. Between 15% and 20% of calls are non-Microsoft product related. Part of the call screener's job involves referring customers to the correct company when this is the case. Behind the call screeners there are teams of support engineers specialising in specific Microsoft products.
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