Looking after the simpletons

IT support staff are constantly rescuing dim-witted users, but don't expect any thanks, writes Nick Langley

IT support staff are constantly rescuing dim-witted users, but don't expect any thanks, writes Nick Langley

What is it?
Support covers a range of activities, from highly skilled systems administration to acting as a human answerphone on a helpdesk. Support staff provide answers for users with technology problems and supply technical fixes if they are required.

First-line support tries to fix the problem there and then. It may then be passed to back-room specialists. If they cannot handle it, it goes in turn to the supplier and ultimately the manufacturer. Costs as well as delays escalate sharply when first-line support cannot fix things.

Where did it originate?
The spread of end-user computing has vastly increased the number of support staff, but diminished their status. Twenty years ago you approached them with trepidation and, if they felt like it, they helped you.

However, the boot is on the other foot these days: support staff have to pick up the phone after three rings, and if they cannot help you or find a man who can within the next 10 minutes they will find themselves in breach of their service level agreement and be sacked in favour of an outsourcing company based in India.

What's it for?
There are still places where support staff spend their time visiting users at their desks, installing software, configuring machines and showing them what to do. However, tools such as Microsoft's System Management Server (SMS) and systems management architectures such as Computer Associate's Unicenter and IBM's Tivoli allow most support tasks to be done without leaving the datacentre.

The Remote Assistance facility offered with Windows XP enables staff to take over the user's PC for troubleshooting and training.

What makes it special?
A good support centre should be constantly working to make its users self-sufficient, in order to reduce lost productivity as well as its own overheads.

How difficult is it?
For first-line support all you need is a good telephone manner and the ability to look up solutions in a database of common problems. This kind of support is steadily being replaced by Internet-based self-service.

Alternatively, you may specialise in operating systems, applications or databases, in which case you will need appropriate professional certification.

Patience is an asset.

For example, you can expect users to ask you where the "any" key is (as in "press any key"). The Internet is full of "helpdesk humour" sites set up by exasperated support staff, many oozing venom and contempt for the people they serve.

Where is it used?
Within large organisations and software and hardware suppliers. There are also companies that provide outsourced support and helpdesk services.

Not to be confused with
Victim support. Sending a letter offering counselling instead of investigating your problem seems to work for the police, but would probably breach your service level agreement.

What does it run on?
Suppliers such as Intel, Novell and Microsoft provide service management tools. Many old helpdesk products have been subsumed into customer relationship management packages.

Few people know that
According to Forrester Research, solving a support problem over the phone costs about £23. On the Internet, it falls to 70p. This is the proposition offered by suppliers of automated support software such as Support.com.

What's coming up?
The British Standards Institute's BS15000 is the world's first standard for IT service management. It is on its way to becoming an ISO standard.

Rates of pay
There is always plenty of support work about, but it is often poorly paid. Junior positions offer as little as £10,000. Support management posts command between
£25,000 and £35,000.

There are more than 20 courses in supporting Windows, available through Microsoft's certified technical education centres. Some of the bigger independent training organisations also offer general training in customer care.

To gain a professional qualification, contact the British Computer Society, which offers IT services certification at various levels, including practitioner, manager and network services manager.

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