Dealing with Client/Server

Issues in Purchasing and Implementation

The Help Desk: Key to Customer Service

Some software vendors are offering useful help desk packages that can make a difference in your enterprise.

By Sally Atkins

One of the outcomes of the widespread implementation of integrated client/server applications is chaos in operations and support organizations. Because many large enterprises have been slow to enforce standards and commonly supported product sets, they have unwittingly developed uncoordinated pockets of support that can be costly and inefficient to maintain. The decentralization of IS groups into multiple support organizations following the growth of client/server in the late 1980s and early 1990s has added to the chaos of supporting multiple products. Many large companies are now swinging back to centralization to bring discipline and order to client/server environments.

This creates an opening for PC help desk software, among other applications. This class of workgroup software has come into its own as IS struggles to support the growing array of products and configurations from multiple vendors. Help desks are a key enabler in bringing coherence and "end-to-end" support for applications. They offer a way to track requests for change, problems, glitches and bugs from initial customer contact through resolution. Help desks provide knowledge bases so that prior solutions can be retrieved easily and reused. They encourage better use of specialized technical support personnel, because entry-level people can handle the first line of support, while experts in various technologies may be saved for second-level support. Help desk support is a valued new entry-level position in IS departments in both vendor and user companies.

Building a Successful Help Desk

A recent survey by the Helpdesk User Group (HUG, which is supported by the nonprofit Helpdesk Institute of Colorado Springs, CO) warns of a shakeout of the industry within the next few years. It is best to base such projects on a solid workflow and data model before turning to the vendor implementations.

Several successful enterprise-wide help desk implementations use commercial software packages that contain frameworks for distributed architectures. Regardless of vendors and products chosen, these successful projects have four things in common: careful pre-implementation planning of process and data to be used in handling service requests; a CIO-level sponsor with the authority and the will to make the organizational changes necessary to revamp workflows; careful help desk package selection; and experienced consultants and facilitators to lead the IS organization through the implementation. Each of these aspects is worth elaborating upon.

Planning: A help desk cuts across organizational boundaries and involves many disciplines. Project staffing, workflow and database design, systems implementation, and eventually staffing and operation of the help desk should be thought out before you begin evaluating packages. The most successful projects include several levels of IS and executive staff. They are led by a core team and supported by an enterprise design team. The core team will include experienced consultants who can guide you through the entire process from design to implementation along with the internal project manager and developers who can customize whichever package you select.

For help desk operations and phone staffing for customer service, some organizations choose to outsource. With consistency in the solutions between the outsource provider and the in-house staff, the levels of outsourcing can be fine-tuned over time and can ebb and flow with the priorities of the organization. Regardless of whether the actual work is outsourced, IS departments need to plan and budget for support and tie it to their operations plans. In one successful implementation I witnessed this year, the user company implemented a Unix server in a 7-by-24 operations environment for the first time. They began staffing up on Unix systems administrators even before the help desk design team was in place.

Sponsorship: Help desks usually represent changes in customer service workflow. As a result, chains of command, departmental structures and staffing levels are subject to change with the advent of the help desk. The project budgets can be sizable and, without a sponsor in a position of authority to secure the funding and carry out the workflow and organizational changes that are required, the project can waste time, money and energy. This is not a middle-level or bottom-up initiative in the corporation. It is the solution to the holistic issue of client/server technical support, from the user's desktop through the network and server, back to results to the user or completion of a transaction on the other end.

Package Selection: Here the rules of software and vendor evaluation apply. Look for vendor reference accounts that have successfully solved change and problem request tracking problems like your own. This will help ensure that they meet the scoping requirements you have set. If it is important to tie in the Web, look for vendors who have or will soon have Web tie-ins. This is a rapidly moving field.

Experience: Individuals who have successfully implemented help desks are a key to your success. The vendor you choose can point you to consultants, or the Helpdesk Institute can point you to members in user companies who have contacts among consultants. Buy the experience, because this is unlike other IT projects. Done well, it can provide happier users and better management reports, which can be used to justify the staffing levels you need to support the client/server environment.

The future of help desk software includes better integration with the Web and Internet and associated multimedia technologies such as video and audio. An answer to a customer question might be sent as a video clip demonstrating how to solve a hardware question, for example.

In this brave new world, users and customers will need all the help they can get, at least at first. Be sure to do what it takes to provide that help.

Sally Atkins is president of IST Consulting, an affiliate of NetSource, Inc., based in Boston. She can be reached at