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First help is best

First help is best

It's one of the realities of his job, says David Harkett, that almost anyone can recognize the costs of a badly run help desk, but few people understand the value of a help desk that solves problems quickly, consistently and with the fewest possible resources.

It's one of the realities of his job, says David Harkett, that almost anyone can recognize the costs of a badly run help desk, but few people understand the value of a help desk that solves problems quickly, consistently and with the fewest possible resources. "The costs of a help desk is a bottomless black hole -- problems never go away," says Harkett, the help desk practice technical solutions manager at London-based BT Group PLC's BT Global Services unit. "It's not so much the money but how you spend it, how you maximize support while not overstretching your resources."

That's no easy balance to maintain when the scope of the task is exploding. "Five years ago, IT help desks were supporting an average of 25 applications, a number that grew to 200 in 2001. Today, some are supporting in the range of 300 applications," says Kris Brittain, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "With the service and support delivery model, there's such pressure to deliver. But cost is king, so there's a real need for process refinement."

This need is bringing unprecedented attention to help desks' ability to resolve users' problems during the initial call and is driving them to automate support in areas such as diagnostics, self-healing, asset management and electronic software distribution. Not only are businesses increasingly implementing self-service channels and building knowledge bases to enable users to solve problems themselves whenever possible; they're also empowering front-line agents as never before. Remote support tools that were traditionally the province of Level 2 and Level 3 engineers are now in the hands of Level 1 agents -- and those tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated in using the Internet to deliver diagnostic, collaboration and problem-resolution capabilities.

"The automation segment is getting very interesting: From the mid-'90s until now, there's been a lot of focus on what's happening in Tier 1 support, so there's been consistent improvement at what's available at the agent level," says Brittain.

Although help desk managers still worry about security when supporting machines outside corporate firewalls -- and dealing with users who are reluctant to hand over control of their machines -- the ability to cut costs while keeping workers productive takes precedence.

"Assisted help technologies are adopted because they increase first-call resolution rates and reduce escalation to Level 2 support," says John Ragsdale, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "Average costs for Level 3 support (deskside visits) are between $85 and $120, and companies see 40 percent to 50 percent of that reduced by remote support. It's very challenging to walk people through a fix over the phone, particularly if they're not tech-savvy, and remote support eliminates that concern."

Support, From A to Z

Remote support products offer a range of assisted service functionalities. Using secure connections, they can inventory individual machines to put user information in the hands of agents in real time and provide collaborative capabilities so agents can communicate with users during support sessions. If needs escalate, an agent can remotely share a user's desktop, push the appropriate files or take complete control.

Some offerings provide their own intelligent knowledge bases for capturing support session data, while others integrate with third-party offerings. They also integrate with enterprise call management systems to facilitate trouble-ticketing, and in some cases they can be launched from the help desk console.

For its part, BT Group has made support automation a key component of its help desk centralization effort, which started several years ago under a single-point-of-contact model. "Everyone was working in a silo, with no one looking across to see what others were doing. We needed a bird's eye view to build a bridge from A to Z," says Harkett.

The scope of BT's support dictates such a view, he says. From three sites in England and Scotland, the company's 250 help desk analysts support nearly 105,000 employees in the U.K. and other parts of the world, many of whom are mobile. Support challenges are exacerbated by BT's push toward telecommuting, which means it must support home workers over a range of connections.

"Standardization is an increasing concern and something we're looking at closely, but with more than 250,000 machines to support, we have to be able to support anything from Windows 95 to brand-spanking-new laptops. It's hard work," says Harkett.

To automate support functions and provide remote support, BT has deployed a range of homegrown and commercial systems, including software from SupportSoft Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., whose suite includes self-service, assisted service, knowledge management, asset management and self-healing capabilities. There's also a pop-up screen mechanism through SupportSoft's Clarify call management console that provides agents with a user's desktop information as well as any previous trouble tickets that have been generated.

Thanks to improved processes as a result of support automation and other efforts, the first-call resolution rate has climbed considerably. "We aim for 80 percent fixed at the desk, and we hit that or better," says Harkett.

Although online assisted-service technologies have been a boon for corporate help desks, they've raised concerns in the areas of security and bandwidth use. Some products require companies to reconfigure their firewalls when they're connecting to desktops outside their secured network or to temporarily open up ports, both of which they're reluctant to do.

"I'm paranoid about security, and this industry is very regulated as far as information security," says David Langston, CIO at Allied Home Mortgage Capital Corp., a Houston-based mortgage broker managing $9 billion in assets. "Now it's not an option from a legal perspective, and never was from a business perspective. We need all the warm fuzzies of knowing we're working in a safe environment. We need to know we're negotiating a seamless connection to a remote user and that there's encrypted security built into the process."

With 652 remote offices in 49 states, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Allied had no choice but to adopt remote support. The company's help desk provides only Level 1 support, so first-contact resolution is key so support doesn't have to be escalated to independent regional contractors. Allied uses Desktop Streaming from Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Expertcity Inc., an application service provider that offers AES 128-bit key encryption to ensure secure connections. The offering requires an alert agent on the technician's desktop, but it doesn't require client software on the user's desktop.

Raymond James Financial Inc. (RJF), which uses the LANDesk Management Suite from South Jordan, Utah-based LANDesk Software Inc., deals with firewall constraints by complementing its LANDesk Management installation with LANDesk's Instant Support Suite Pro (ISSP) product. St. Petersburg, Fla.-based RJF uses ISSP to support independent contractors, which aren't on its frame-relay network and therefore aren't protected by its firewalls, says Andy Nosal, RJF's supervisor of LANDesk operations.

Previously, to set up a remote session, RJF had to open certain ports, or contractors had to move their PCs into the "demilitarized zone," which was time-consuming and left desktops vulnerable to breaches.

RJF uses ISSP under a hosted model for those situations. In addition to providing 128-bit SSL encryption, the product enhances security by uninstalling itself from a client after a session.

Win-Win Situation

Though a lot of users are initially reluctant to allow help desk agents to view and control their machines, they ultimately do so to remain productive. Many agents, meanwhile, are experiencing increased job satisfaction, and when they use chat during remote support, they can handle multiple sessions -- something they can't do when using the phone.

"We get great feedback from users on our remote assistance -- it wows them," says Mike Wiram, director of computer services at Phoenix-based U-Haul International Inc. U-Haul uses eCare from Emeryville, Calif.-based Netopia Inc. to support Internet-based point-of-sale systems used by 15,000 company-owned and independent dealerships.

"In the past, we had regionally dispersed computer techs driving around fixing broken computers, but it wasn't cost-effective," says Wiram. Now, when users are having problems, they click on eCare and automatically open up a chat session with a support representative. If they can't solve the problem during the chat, the rep asks permission to take control of the machine, which happens in about 10 percent of cases.

"We have a wide variety of user (platforms), from Windows 95 to XP with IE 6.0. Agents don't uniformly know what they're going to get, but once they take over, they can see what updates are missing, what settings need to be changed," says Wiram.

In addition to enabling quicker fixes, eCare allows agents to conduct multiple support sessions at once using online chat tools. "On the phone, human nature takes over, so if it's a minor problem, people tend to talk about unrelated things during the session. But if it's a chat session, it's 'Just the facts, ma'am,' and that's much more efficient," says Wiram.

"We don't recommend it, but I've seen an agent handle seven sessions at once," says BT's Harkett, adding that juggling multiple sessions is a huge productivity boost, since BT's three help desks each field 30,000 calls per month.

And at the end of the day, it's productivity that drives a business. "Let's face it -- it's about the bottom line," says Steve Kutzer, vice president of IT operations at Washington-based CarrAmerica Realty Corp., a real estate investment trust that leases commercial real estate in 10 markets. CarrAmerica uses a service from Fremont, Calif.-based Everdream Corp. to handle remote support for 92 locations in the U.S.

"We have to ask ourselves, How does quality support help us lease space?" says Kutzer. "Basic PC support in and of itself is not strategic to any organization -- everything becomes a cost-benefit analysis. For us, cost avoidance means the product pays for itself many times over."

Gilhooly is a freelance writer in Falmouth, Maine. You can reach her at kymg@maine.rr.com. -- Computerworld (US)

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