Help Desks, Call Centers Move to the Web

Anytime, Anywhere Customer Service<@VM>Customer Service Glossary<@VM>Solving a Logistics Problem

Help desk and call center vendors are finally catching the Internet bug ? albeit quietly ? as a number of major and minor players over the last year have begun transitioning their solutions from a client-server architecture to a browser-based one.

The new trend, while still in its infancy, is slowly growing in demand among organizations looking to lower costs and the ability to support help desk and call center agents in various locations.

Client-server systems require organizations to store applications on the client desktop and communicate back and forth with local back-end databases. With a browser-based solution, call center agents are able to hyperlink to distributed Web-based databases and
application servers. This eases the workload placed on desktop systems and information technology staff and allows organizations to quickly and easily roll out a solution and make changes to applications and business processes.

The new model will also improve the ability of outsourcing firms, particularly application service providers, to take over an organization's help desk or call center operations.

"With your browser as access modus, it becomes a lot easier for remote people to serve as help-desk or call-center agents, which can significantly reduce an organization's operating expenses," said Chris Martins, research director within the customer relationship management practice at the Aberdeen Group, an IT market analysis firm in Boston. Market studies by Aberdeen predict the help-desk market will grow to $1 billion in 2001, with an expected annual growth rate of 25 percent.

Scott Friedlander, executive vice president of Sideware Systems Inc., a leading developer of online customer service solutions located in Reston, Va., put it more succinctly. "With browsers, it's anytime, anywhere for everything," he said.

Despite the potential of browser-based solutions, call centers and the help-desk market, in particular, until now have remained holdouts in the mass migration to the browser-based world, in large part because of the high demand for performance on a back-end system.

"Help-desk users tend to be heads-down power users who really need not only robust performance, but all the features and functions available to them at their desktop," said Gary Oliver, vice president and general manager of the IT service management business at Remedy Corp., Mountain View, Calif. "It's been just recently that the Web technologies have been enabled for a much more robust, scalable and high-performance infrastructure to run these technologies over."

As a result, most help-desk and call-center solution providers are moving to this architecture in different ways. Martins said the process has been hamstrung by the complication and time involved in transitioning to a browser-based solution.

"It's not a trivial challenge for vendors to move an application that was originally client-server to this new model," he said.

In fact, the lesser-known Magic Solutions, Santa Clara, Calif., is leading the major vendors in this field, because it took the time a few years back to completely rewrite its client-server product from scratch. Today, its Magic Total Service Desk 7.0, released in February, is not only 100 percent browser based, but uses wizards to enable creating and customizing business rules, allowing help-desk and call-center administrators to automate their processes.

Wizards are automated software modules that walk end users through the complicated processes of installing and customizing applications to meet their unique requirements.

"Traditionally, if you wanted to change the database, you would have to get the database administrator involved and find a coder to code the screen, which could take ... days, weeks or months to get it back," said Les Vaughn, president of Magic Solutions. But wizards enable companies to change the database and populate it with data without programming or getting the administrator involved, he said.

Major vendors such as Computer Associates International Inc., Remedy and Clarify Inc. (recently acquired by Nortel Networks) have eased into the market, offering customers the same version of product in both a client-server offering and a Web-based variation. The follow-on versions of many of these products will be entirely browser based.

Computer Associates, Islandia, N.Y., will enter the fray in the near future when it releases the follow-on to its Unicenter TNG Advanced Help Desk Option, a 100 percent browser-based solution.

Alan Kasper, product manager for Computer Associates' Help Desk Initiative, said the company made a big leap forward with Unicenter 5.0, replacing its front end with a Java-based rendering environment and making it completely compatible with the Web world. The product offers a browser and a graphical user interface; the next version will only support the browser.

Remedy, meanwhile, plans to release its total browser-based solution later this year. The firm offers Remedy Web, which has Web-based capability, but Oliver said the product is somewhat limited in its capability, performance and scalability and is really meant to offer the end user a view into what's happening on the system, such as submitting a request for service or viewing its status.

Oliver said that to get the benefits of client-server performance and functionality and all the flexibility the Web offers, along with the ability to run across all types of platforms, including wireless devices, "you've really got to go in and re-architect or upgrade the foundation that these applications are built upon."

"There's a lot of hype right now in the industry about Web-based help-desk applications, but a lot of those just don't have the kind of performance necessary to meet the needs of help-desk teams," he said. "Our next version will be a big step toward giving them all that they want and need."

However, observers said that organizations transitioning from client-server to this new breed of browser-based help desk and call-center solutions will require help from systems integrators. Although the rollout of the new system is quicker and simpler than implementing a traditional client-server system, integrators still have a role to play in helping organizations figure out how to deploy the business processes associated with delivering those solutions.

"The model may be different, but you still need to do all the fundamentals, and the most important first step is to define the business processes," said Kasper. The basic questions are the same: Who does what to whom and when and how? What are your escalation rules? What are your notification policies? What does the work flow look like?

"The workload for systems integrators will likely go up, not down, with the rollout of browser-based solutions," he said.Help Desk: A support center that deals with customers internal to an organization, such as employees, contractors and partners.

Call Center: A support center that deals with customers external to the organization. In the case of a federal agency, they could range from commercial vendors to congressmen to citizens.

Client-Server: A type of computing architecture in which the application resides on a "client," typically a desktop or laptop computer, while the data and other information resides on a "server," a back-end system that could be another workstation or even a mainframe computer.

Browser-based Solution: A type of computing architecture, also known as n-tier, in which the browser interfaces with back-end resources residing on Web-based servers, such as those holding applications and databases.Although browser-based call centers are relatively new, the Defense Logistics Agency got a jump on the rest of the federal government when it recently decided to implement Magic Solutions' Total Service Desk 7.0 as the standard call management system for its four customer support operations.

The Battle Creek Customer Support Center, which supports the Defense Logistics Information Service (DLIS) and the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, is the first DLA operation to implement this 100 percent browser-based solution. The organization answers about 20,000 calls per month.

Duane Henderson, program manager for the DLIS, said his call center agents had long-needed the ability to route calls to and from the other three DLA centers. In the past, if a customer called with a question or request that the Battle Creek center couldn't answer, agents either would have to take the information and e-mail it to the appropriate support center or tell the customer to call another number.

"It just wasn't efficient at all," he said. "We needed to find a better way to do this, because we advertise to customers that our call centers are a single point of contact for customer support."

In fact, with the client-server system, it took callers an average of two minutes to reach an agent and, as a result, the center was experiencing a 50 percent abandoned call rate.

The new browser-based system was put in place in early April. Since then, callers have been getting an agent within six seconds, dropping the abandoned call rate to less than 1 percent.

There have been plenty of other benefits as well. The solution has allowed the center to eliminate call redundancy, provide a seamless and central source to respond to all customer queries and free up resources on the client PC, which makes for much quicker data transmission and retrieval.

"Furthermore, the user's ability to customize the software and use it through a Web browser allows us to order off the shelf, without having to invest in potentially expensive and time-intensive programming," Henderson said.

About the Author

Heather Hayes is a freelance writer based in Clifford, Va.

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