Companies, Cities Exploit Help-Desk Revolution

Companies, Cities Exploit Help-Desk Revolution<@VM>E-Everything<@VM>More Services<@VM>A Culture Change

By John Makulowich

From the systems integrator side, demand for solutions appears to be growing among state and local governments.

The paradox of the way most major software and hardware firms run their help desks strikes home when you find yourself stuck in your office on a Saturday afternoon. There you sit, frustrated, ready to defenestrate the monitor, trying to install the newest upgrade for the presentation software you need to prepare the president's slide show for the annual shareholder meeting Monday morning.

You carefully follow all the instructions at the prompts, accept all the defaults, wait patiently, then anxiously as the blue bar moves toward the 75 percent completion mark. Then it happens, again: Wham! The hated message hits you right between the eyes: "Operation Aborted, Incompatible Media, Error -132." And the operating system locks.
In a few moments, you recover from temporary insanity and turn to reflection. Among your first thoughts is the level of detail in the error message. More likely than not, there is no table of error codes in the instruction manual.

You call the company, which offers a litany of options accessed by pressing the phone pad. These include fax, e-mail, voice mail and World Wide Web page. Absent from the list is the human you desperately want to talk to. After all, the company is closed Saturday. Finally, you give up and call the system administrator at home, and ruin his Saturday, too.

With all that, it is not surprising to find this comment in the introduction of a white paper on developing a help desk at the Web site of the New York State Office for Technology (www.irm.state.ny.us/ helpdesk/hdwp.htm):"There is no one, set way to create a help desk. In fact, there isn't even one, set definition of what a help desk is."

Confirmation of the plurality of viewpoints comes when searching for a professional group that provides any semblance of standards. You find no less than three groups across the United States: Help Desk Institute (www.helpdeskinst.com) in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Help Desk Professionals Association (www.hdpa.org/home.htm) in Woodinville, Wash.; and Incoming Calls Management Institute (www.in
coming.com) in Annapolis, Md.

Industry best practices are the most one can hope for. But one of the groups offers courses for a hefty fee that yield the designations "certified help-desk professional," and "certified help-desk manager." Whether anyone outside the group recognizes the certification is open to question.

If you wonder why help desks are important, you do not need to look far to confront the economics of product support, the general lack of a solid business model to make the customer pay or a way to reduce the overhead of help-desk staff.

And you need look no further than IBM to see whether support for developing help desks can generate corporate revenue. IBM Global Services (www.as.ibm.com/hds.html) profiles IBM Help Desk Services in these words: "Today's sophisticated IT environments require comprehensive, streamlined support organizations. With IBM Help Desk Services, you get the industry-leading knowledge and assistance to assess, design, implement and integrate a progressive help-desk solution for your business. We can work with you to improve the quality of help-desk service, expedite resolutions of problems and service requests, and reduce service costs to help deliver responsive, effective assistance to your customers, whenever and wherever they need it."

Such services include consulting to evaluate the operation, implementation to design and support the help desk on different platforms, and integration to make the operation more efficient and productive using today's technology.

With the emergence and acceptance of the Internet and the stress on e-everything, evidence mounts that the face of help desks as well is changing from the traditional software and hardware support function.

Among the fastest growing private companies in the Pacific Northwest is one named 800 Support (www.800support.com) in Portland, Ore. The firm, a customer service specialist founded in 1989, supplies technical and customer support to Internet users and services providers, software publishers, e-businesses, corporations and government agencies.

One year after opening its second call center, with employment nearing 500, the company has just signed a letter of intent to build a new call center that will add as many as 500 new employees. 800 Support operates traditional help desks and what it calls "eCare" corporate and end-user help desks under contracts to organizations, ISPs, banks, educational institutions and companies ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 firms.

Dan Mendell, the president, attributed the growth to the Internet and the shift to e-business, and sees more growth in exploiting "the emerging eCare revolution."

The company trouble-shoots telephone calls and eCare transactions around the clock, seven days a week, helping with items such as Internet browsers, dial-up connections, modems, Microsoft Windows and hundreds of software titles, hard drives, installation and configuration and other computer hardware, software and Internet problems.

Another company exploiting the help-desk revolution, and one of the leading providers of NT help-desk solutions, is Network Associates Inc. (www.nai.com) of Santa Clara, Calif. It counts the Defense Logistics Agency as one of its satisfied customers.

It recently launched Magic Total Service Desk, a product it claims is the first 100 percent browser-based enterprise IT support solution, handling complete problem, crisis, asset, change, event and network management through a Web browser. Sporting the bells and whistles of the latest technology, the application uses dynamic HTML, takes advantage of thin client computing and, according to the company, has "problem-sensitive tool linking." This allows problem resolution tools to be launched directly at a problem identified in a trouble ticket.

From the systems integrator side, demand for help-desk solutions is growing among state and local governments. Earlier this year, VC3 Inc. (www.vc3.com) of Columbia, S.C., which specializes in creating virtual government applications for local governments, completed Web-based help desks for the Georgia cities of Conyers and Canton.

The virtual government system creates 24-hour, seven- day support for citizens through the Web. Tying city departments together also allows residents to register noise complaints, report if their trash did not get picked up, pay property taxes or anonymously post crime tips to the police any time of the day or night. The application serves as one stop for citizens to request city services.

According to Ardalan Shokoohi, regional manager for VC3 in Atlanta, the implementations used Microsoft's IIS and NT servers and HelpDesk Expert from Applied Innovation Management Inc. of Fremont, Calif. That company released HelpDesk Expert Version 5.0 in April, which it claimed is the industry's first and only end-to-end, Web-based help-desk solution for call tracking and problem management. It combines an HTML user interface with a database back-end to create a platform-independent, customizable, remotely accessible system.

"One of our major challenges was to tailor-make the (user) interface to look different for different departments. The help-desk tickets were routed to the proper departments in the background," said Shokoohi.

He said what is most challenging in setting up a help desk is not the technical implementation, but encouraging management to revise the official processes to take advantage of the help desk. For example, Shokoohi noted that the help desk uses e-mail to communicate between departments about whether a new ticket has arrived. For the system to work, reaction time is important and requires that staff pay more attention to e-mail rather than phone messages and notes. Otherwise, the status of the ticket may expire.

And while metrics were not an issue at the start, they have become important as the system is being used by more staff, including the internal computer support team.

"Cities find technological advance inviting. One of the advantages of the help desk is to move toward a paperless process, to rely more on information in digital form, on an electronic medium more than on paper," said Shokoohi. "It is only a jump to refer users to forms on the Web and encourage them to use it in that format. It is definitely another culture change."
In the future, Shokoohi said he sees more reliance on help desks for replying and responding to short-term issues. For the long-term, he feels the help desk will need to store more complex information than it does now, that it will have to become more sophisticated, storing images and databases, for example.

"On the government's side, more services need to be provided to the public via help desks. As more becomes available to the public via the Web, we will come to realize that we need to improve the tool to address the demand," said Shokoohi.

Another approach to the help-desk solution is seen in Telamon Inc., Oakland, Calif., a maker of wireless enabling software. Their TelAlert application lets field personnel from companies such as IBM, Lucent Technologies and Hewlett-Packard help customers by more efficiently responding to order desk requests.

An automated notification system for alerting and remote management, the software supports paging, voice messages, escalations, duty scheduling and environmental monitoring. TelAlert accepts messages from computer applications and sends those messages to people on campus or in the field. Personnel then can operate the application remotely, run diagnostic routines or even control systems and networks from their two-way pagers or touch-tone telephones.

According to Guy Smith, marketing director, the lion's share of what makes up help desk is software steps and processes.

"There is a gray area between help desk and dispatch, customer service-type operations," said Smith. "In the home-grown repair system, you report back and are tied into billing. The customer has to describe the program, then the help desk need to figure the right person to do the job, find that right person and then get them to report back. We offer a two-way glue so people in the field can update a database using two-way pager and telephone."

He sees the help-desk concept moving in two directions. First, there is a desire to make the systems' end user self-service. That requires creating a knowledge base. The other direction is to allow personnel in the field to manage their own tickets by automating notification.

"According to data I have seen, 83 percent of the help- desk budget is for help-desk staffing. That means that too much time is spent managing the process, not the event, or satisfying the customer. The purpose of our product is finding the right person to do the job," said Smith.

It is all part of letting field staff manage the trouble ticket on their own and making help-desk software more flexible. One company, Peregrine Systems Inc., San Diego, in trying to respond to corporate demand that the software adapt to company work flows and not the reverse, has a mission to get a new help desk up and running out of the box in 25 minutes. That mission also is driven by the thin ranks of IT professionals.
One person who takes the notion of help desk completely outside the box is Elliott Masie, the founder and president of The Masie Center, an international think tank in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that focuses on learning and technology. He sees today's help desk transformed into a knowledge desk.

"Historically, ER [emergency room] is the help desk, where you treat pain and crisis on the spot. If we can imagine a service center for a user that has a lot of what ER does and is Web-based, you will have the knowledge desk. There will be transactions with a low cost per unit and extensive use of such things as video clips and wizards," said Masie.

Masie said the help desk already is a major provider of training, with a high percentage of calls being telephone-delivered, short, granular coaching sessions on how to use a technology. The help desk's role could be expanded to provide a wider range of teaching and learning services.

With such a knowledge desk comes the ability to call and get coaching, which is the most expensive activity among knowledge workers. For Masie, the knowledge desk maps to the corporate phenomena known as corporate knowledge management and maps to how we get our knowledge, for example, from the person in the cubicle next to us.

And such a notion will require a culture change. As Masie noted, you may have to develop a reward system for using it, with deposits and withdrawals from the knowledge desk.

"Today, the bulk of help desks are within organizations. The reason why is that no one has created a business model that allows the organizations to help the general public while getting cost recovery," Masie said. "It calls for a different value proposition since software is much cheaper now. It is just not a great value proposition for help desks."

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