Help desks need to teach customers self service

Support departments have always been overworked. They can make life easier for themselves by implementing self-service customer...

Support departments have always been overworked. They can make life easier for themselves by implementing self-service customer support - as long as they don't take things too far, says Danny Bradbury

If there's not already a patron saint of IT support professionals there should be. Better than that, why not just canonise them all? They deserve it. They have to deal with end-users who are annoyed, or uneducated - and in many cases both.

The "help" in helpdesk should be as much about helping support professionals as about helping customers. Automating support as much as possible frees support executives from the mundane, annoying calls and lets them concentrate on the harder problems that take more time to solve.

The question is, how much of the support process can you automate? It's easy to go too far. Customers who call for help are often annoyed to start with, so channelling them through endless touch-tone phone options is likely to leave them livid.

But it is nevertheless possible to automate certain aspects of support, says Anthony Rondoni, vice-president of marketing for Support. com, which is an outsourcing organisation specialising in handling the support process for overworked customers.

One way that companies can automate support is by using good systems management techniques to head off problems before customers even know about them, says Rondoni. Using systems and network management technologies, it is possible, for example, to measure motherboard temperatures and other key system parameters, watching for potential problems.

Geoff Willett, business manager at IT consultancy Lynx Technology, explains that remote monitoring can save a company plenty in support costs. "A more limited resource can be shared among the customer base. It only takes a couple of hours a week to manage the network of servers," he says.

Similarly, remote system rebuilds can be used to repair software that has become corrupt on an end-user's desktop. Companies such as ON Technology, for example, provide software administration services that enable you to remotely repair software installations that have, say, a DLL file missing. Such software problems are one of the main causes of erratic behaviour in software, and the consequent loss of application services.

Many support professionals believe that it is possible for support staff to hide behind machines, only engaging the customer when all the automated channels of support have been tried. Interactive voice response (IVR) is one tool that you can use to offload some work from the support staff, but you should keep it simple. A rule of thumb for Web-based support is to get the user to where they want to go in three clicks or less. Similarly, the rule for IVR should be to get their problem resolved or put them into an agent queue in three steps.

Bruce Leith, managing director of customer relationship management company Primus, believes that the Web is probably the cheapest support automation tool that a company can have. "There are many things you can do in terms of simple, follow the bouncing ball stuff," he says, alluding to the conventional self-service support tools on the Web such as lists of frequently asked questions. But he argues that there are other, more sophisticated types of Web support too.

Using tools that monitor the users' activities on the Internet can create lots of information about the difficulties that they are most likely to experience. This can then be used to build more relevant lists of FAQs, and can also help the company to solve faults within their product or service.

The idea of finding out what types of questions end-users are asking and building FAQs in response to them is only a step away from one of the other great traditions of self-service support, in the form of the knowledge base. These repositories of searchable information about a product or service can be a great help for people trying to navigate their own support on the Web, claims Leith, who believes that it can benefit support staff and end-users alike. "The cost of getting an agent active can be halved, because you have this knowledge base of FAQs," he says. "Because it uses simple language, there's nothing to learn."

However, there are drawbacks. Knowledge bases have be carefully queried to avoid getting too much information back that is not relevant to the problem.

Many companies, including Microsoft, have promoted natural language searching as a means of returning a more relevant set of queries. But the value of these is limited, especially if end-users don't know what to ask for.

All being well, judicious use of prevention and self-service mechanisms should filter out the majority of support calls, leaving you with the more difficult ones. You can still automate some parts of these calls, thereby reducing the time spent on each individual caller, and decreasing your overall support cost.

Using remote diagnostic tools will help your staff to find out what is wrong with an individual's software or hardware even when they don't know themselves. Simply having them describe the symptoms of a problem can help your support staff to analyse data delivered to the helpdesk remotely over their network and then find the solution.

Remote control tools enabling support staff to gain control of an end-user's PC and manipulate it for them have existed for years. It can be difficult and time-consuming for support staff to try and guide non-technical end-users through menus and dialogue boxes, especially if they can't see what the user is looking at on the screen. A better option is to do what needs to be done for them, using a remote session.

Of course, if all end-users had a basic level of technical awareness they wouldn't have to make so many support calls in the first place. Training users will help them to help themselves out of the less problematic situations, and if they are properly trained in how to use things like personal productivity applications, they will be less inclined to call and ask how to do this or that in Word or Excel.

Anita Monteith, co-founder of online training portal, says support engineers can be proactive in helping the human resource department decide which training courses end-users should be sent on. "I came across a lot of people who said they needed a Word for beginners course, when they have actually been using Word for a year," she says. "The IT support guys can recommend courses on the types of question that are being asked."

The portal offers a service for companies where support engineers can log into their company's dedicated page on the portal and make course recommendations that can then be accessed by the IT department. In this way, she explains, companies can use support calls as a source of information to make end-users more aware of relevant IT issues, and less likely to call about similar issues in the future.

Clearly, you're never going to be able to do away with all end-user support calls, and support automation can only go so far. But by following sensible practices and creating an environment in which both end-users and support staff have access to more information and are more proactive, you can go a long way towards easing your support burden and saving your IT department some valuable cash.

Ten tips for keeping end-users happy

The world would be a better place without end-users, as far as many support staff are concerned. But they're not going to go away, so it's best to learn how to deal with them. Ideally most end-users' calls should be kept away from the support desk by encouraging them to help themselves. Here are 10 top tips:

1. Forewarned is forearmedThe best way to deal with end-user problems is to stop them happening in the first place. Implement remote monitoring tools in the form of systems management software so that you can spot problems both on the server and the desktop. You can then rectify them before the end-user knows there's a problem.

2. An educated user is a less troublesome userMinimise the number of "idiot" calls by educating end-users. Give them the skills to sort out the basic problems themselves.

3. Use self-service toolsÉMaking end-users access self-help tools in the form of Web-based support will filter out some of the simpler support queries.

4. But keep them simpleSelf-help tools are useless if you need a support engineer to help you use them. Make sure that Web sites are easily navigable, and ensure that any interactive voice response systems you implement to help route calls through the network don't have too many options.

5. Keep a record of user informationThe more information you can gather about end-users the better. Your asset management software should tell you what systems and software they're using, and a good customer relationship management system should enable keep a record of support calls they've made in the past, so that you have an idea what to expect in the future.

6. Maintain a decent knowledge base. Use support queries to compile a knowledge base of problems and potential solutions. Make it as easy to search as possible, but don't rely too heavily on this as a self-service tool. They can be difficult for non-technical staff to use but they can make life easier for support staff.

7. Gather as much information as possible from the end-user's desktop. Ideally, remote diagnostics software should tell you a lot about the performance of an end-user's desktop. Is he complaining about poor application performance? You should be able to check the size of a Windows swap file without asking them to do anything.

8. Remote control is an invaluable tool. Once you know the cause of the problem it will save you time and money if you can solve it yourself, remotely, without having to guide the end-user through the software interface.

9. Centralise your software. The best way to ensure that your customers' software is working properly is to put it all on your own server. Run a thin-client installation where they access as much of the application infrastructure as possible over the network. Of course, that means that your network infrastructure must be able to cope.

10. If a job's worth doing, get someone else to do it. If all else fails, outsource your support. End-users' problems can be a nightmare. Get some other schmuck to deal with it, but be prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege.

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