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Help Technology Gets More Sophisticated

Despite all the technology questions it handles, the help desk has never been a particularly high-tech place as far as the tools available to do the job. If companies are going to keep up with the growing volume and complexity of calls, they need to change that.

Call volume is going to keep rising. By 2003, it will have risen 2-1/2 ...

Despite all the technology questions it handles, the help desk has never been a particularly high-tech place as far as the tools available to do the job. If companies are going to keep up with the growing volume and complexity of calls, they need to change that.

Call volume is going to keep rising. By 2003, it will have risen 2-1/2 times, predicts a Dell Computer survey of its customers, and businesses will face a cost-crunch trying to increase staff proportionally to meet that volume. Yet help desks are still spending an inordinate amount of time fielding password and printing problems, so there are great potential gains from offloading simpler calls to Web and E-mail channels, including lists of frequently asked questions and more-sophisticated, searchable knowledge bases. "What we'll see is the simple, consistent, and mundane get automated and the more complex get moved into the people area," Gartner analyst Kris Brittain says.

Some companies are trying to cut down on help-desk costs by doing more prevention. BellSouth's Fast Access digital subscriber line group uses tools that analyze and help repair customer machines without a technical support person having to walk the customer through the procedure. It deploys "self-healing" software from Support.com Inc. that sits on the customer's computer and resolves connectivity problems. If a customer has slow connection speeds, for instance, the software first looks at the computer and downloads the necessary drivers, then moves on to search for any problems in the network. Self-help software appeals to the more sophisticated and demanding customers who tend to use BellSouth's DSL services. "These customers are very receptive to doing things for themselves," says Jan Hester-Daniels, VP of broadband customer operations.

Another solution is to let technicians spend more time fixing computers and less time traveling to those computers, through the use of remote diagnostic and repair technology that can work on increasingly complex problems. The Regional Medical Center at Memphis uses software from Magic Solutions that reaches out to computers on the Tennessee medical center's network, analyzes them, and creates fixes for software-based problems.

More than three-quarters of the medical center's support calls are now resolved on the telephone in about 15 minutes. Previously, nearly all required a technician to walk to the user's desk. That meant a fix could take as much as two hours of a technician's time. That time difference is critical when the users work in a hospital, says Wes Boston, director of technical services. "There are instances when patient care is linked to the quick response of our service people."