Will e-support save you money?

Every time an IT problem occurs, it costs an average of $25 to put right. With the cost-savings associated with e-commerce...

Every time an IT problem occurs, it costs an average of $25 to put right. With the cost-savings associated with e-commerce service models, it seems only natural to turn to the Web for support

In depth

The spiralling cost of IT support is eating into business budgets and giving senior managers nightmares. Each IT problem costs an average of $25 to fix and fresh research is pointing to a steady increase in the IT support burden. The Internet has spawned proliferation of IT devices for communicating with the office but which require support to be effective. According to ancient wisdom, every problem contains the seeds of its own solution and the Internet is no different, with a new breed of company looking to e-support to look after their IT users.

John Warne, senior program director of service management strategies at Meta Group analysts says the chief reason behind increasing IT support problems is the growing diversity of computing platforms such as laptops, desktops, appliances and Internet-based systems. Each platform has different intricacies and support issues, made more complex when these devices are connected to one another, the company network or the Internet.

Compounding this is businesses' sheer dependence on IT. A survey by research group Xephon reveals that calls to helpdesks have risen by an average of nearly 50% over the past three years. This rise is even more acute for companies with critical online systems within the financial and legal organisations and some would argue that support has to increase in proportion to the importance placed on technology within organisation.

And the straw that could break the camel's back, according to Warne, is the increased awareness of IT users. With a rich diversity of applications and operating systems comes a myriad customisation options. Warne believes that choice has contributed to increased support calls as users demand that technology is customised to fit their unique preferences. The endless list of features that make a program attractive to a buyer, inversely cause headaches to the help desk staff.

E-support certainly offers hope to those companies who are doing their budget projections with mounting dismay. A study conducted by Meta Group demonstrated that moving to an e-support model demonstrated a reduction from $25 to $18 for each support call. And for companies, such as General Electric who have made similar claims, this can equate to millions of dollars in savings.

The efficiencies derive from using a combination of smart software and the Internet to improve the effectiveness of support staff. Tools generally come in three flavours: those that enable helpdesk staff to access and control their clients' computers via the Web; Internet-based knowledge bases containing detailed technical advice; and Web-based software that monitors systems and reports to support staff when things go awry.

On top of this, the Web enables a global approach to support as Radha Basu, CEO of support.com, pointed out at a conference on the topic in San Francisco earlier this year. "We are now seeing support becoming a global issue," she said. "For example, the technician best suited to answer a support call generated in the UK could be situated in the US. This throws up a lot of potential problems such as language, security and compatibility. What we as a industry are addressing now is providing an infrastructure so that e-support is consistent across companies, geographies and IT systems."

Basu, a former general manager of Hewlett-Packard's electronic business software division believes that support in general will become the key differentiator between competitors. At the E-support convention held earlier this year in San Francisco, she said, "The fundamental understanding that good support will differentiate between you and your competitors is something all companies are starting to wake up to. I believe that support is the one of the most important factors for companies creating a viable business model within both the new and 'old' economies."

Basu believes the future for support in general and IT-specific support is Web-enabled. However, she pointed out that "the European markets have yet to embrace the concept of support via the Web, unlike the Far East which is much more focused on this area". Support.com is currently the largest player in the US but has had difficulty recruiting European customers. Its client list includes multinationals such as General Electric and Cisco, but it's European client list remains small.

Figures from Meta Group and IDC analysts support Basu's contention that the adoption of e-support is increasing. They report that spending on support is growing at an almost 50% compound rate and will reach a total spend of $14.2 billion by 2003.

Many of those at the sharp end of technical support agree that e-support can help, although few believe it is a perfect solution. Charles Bonfante, a support manager for one of the world's largest service companies, CSC, commented,"We use the same help-desk technology more or less across the company. But we have a few accounts in which we liase with in-house support staff. In these cases, we have to effectively learn different terms and interfaces to try and make sense of what their diagnostic and fault reporting tools are trying to convey. Mostly we just try convince them to use the software were using".

CSC, whose accounts include Nortel, British Home Stores and Ford, have deployed technologies to access users' screens remotely via dial-up connections, allowing support staff to fix problems without user "assistance". Unlike the world of networking, where technologies such as SNMP and TCP/IP provide a common underlying structure, e-support lacks the unifying glue. However, with system integration giants such as CSC and EDS servicing large, multinational support accounts, standardisation is starting to happen through a process of natural selection. A vast number of users have now aligned their own e-support software to that of their outsourced help desks.

E-support tools are not inexpensive and before trying to find a software widget to solve all your ills CSC's Bonfante offers some useful advice. "I would estimate that the majority of calls I receive can usually be solved or could have been avoided by RTFM (Reading The Friendly Manual) either before they changed settings or after things had started to go wrong. E-support tools are useful, but companies need to offer their staff better training if they are going to reduce their support cost in the long term."

With 20% of all IT problems directly related to the operating system, E-support can help but many argue that Microsoft, with their dominance of both the desktop and application server market need to get it's house in order to reduce the problems at source. Microsoft now describes NT as a legacy product and insists that by upgrading to Windows 2000 customers will now "be able to run the mission critical applications, traditionally associated with Unix." according to Mark Tennant, Windows 2000 server product manager. One of the important additions to Windows 2000 is a set of smart diagnostic tools and e-support software as Tennant explains: "We are now deploying self-healing and fault-analysis tools throughout our software range. However, this technology evolved from our Office 2000 applications suite where it helped to dramatically improve reliability". The self-healing technology checks the integrity of key files and is able to rectify version conflicts and common installation problems. The new operating system can be configured to send diagnostic and current configuration data to remote support staff, via the Internet.

Tennant also feels that Microsoft's work will benefit others. "Through our work with independent software vendors, we are encouraging them to incorporate technology. One of the problems with NT was the large potential for error. NT gave users and administrators a lot of freedom to change settings and use uncertified drivers - this was one of the reasons why the legacy NT products were viewed by some as being unstable. Instead Windows 2000 manages many of the complex functions transparently, with digital signing of drivers and memory allocation just some of the areas where 2000 uses the self-healing systems."

"Windows 2000 is also able to integrate with third party diagnostic and e-support tools. From simple hardware probes to network management, we now look at e-support as a major benefit for users of Microsoft products" adds Tennant. However, he disagrees that technology is solely to blame for the rising support cost. "I've seen a recent Gartner report that attributed over 20% of support calls down to user error. We believe that the biggest challenge is to improve the training given to users and the establishment of codes of practice to avoid potential problems later on. We wholeheartedly support schemes like the UK IT infrastructure library, which provides solid guidelines on how companies can reduce their support costs by following independent, expert advice. "

Even with Windows 2000 performing admirably in reliability testing, it still too early to see if the significant portion of OS related problems will be reduced. Even with Gartner attributing 20% of all support calls to user error, this still leaves 20% due to the operating system and a massive 40% attributed to application or hardware failure.

Will Garside

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