Help Desk: Tech Support and Market Opportunity

by Eddie Rabinovitch, UniNews Correspondent

As difficult as it is to confess to one's own weaknesses, I have to admit that I read airline magazines. Some industry analysts claim these magazines are the ones to blame (or praise, depending on your viewpoint) for some of the recent trends in Information Technology. According to them, some of the ideas nurtured by many CEO/CFO/COOs... (e.g., down/rightsizing, client/server, Internet/Intranet, etc.) are based on the information they read in airline magazines, suggesting that only their organization is behind all competitors in implementing the latest and the greatest of IT. Is this the reason for my interest in airline magazines? Or maybe it's because I like to follow the route maps to make sure the airplane is still on course? Whatever the reason, I do read (or actually - browse) the in-flights.

A recent in-flight article gave me a pleasant surprise - a technology column by Joshua Shapiro entitled " 'You Mean I Need A Computer To Run This Software?' And Other Amazing True Tales from Tech support". One of the interesting help-desk calls, cited by Shapiro, included a tech support staffer asking a customer if he/she is at a C:> prompt. The answer given was "No, I am working in the kitchen". There are also funny stories about customers looking for the ANY key, or those trimming their 5 1/4" diskettes to fit into a 3 1/2" drive.

Reading this entertaining but not-funny column, I decided to address the important issue of help desk and technical support. As the computer industry changed over the last three to five years, so too did the problems and challenges tech support people deal with. Although, some problems may sound humorous, the sad part is that there is a substantial cost associated with computer ignorance. Perhaps most of these problems will probably be resolved by the computer education and training received by today's toddlers. However, that is going to take some time. In the meantime there is much room for improvement in help desk support packages.

Not only is the help desk market important and challenging, it also holds some not insignificant marketing potential for vendors. Help Desk Institute, Colorado Springs, CO., estimates this market at $5.9 billion by the end of 1996. The Help Desk Institute was formed to provide targeted information about technologies, tools, and trends of the help desk and technical support industry, both for vendors and users. It offers a variety of services, such as an annual International Conference and Expo, training, and publications as well as:

Outsource for Cost Containment and Efficiency
One of the approaches to minimize the cost of network management in general, and help desks in particular, is outsourcing. Interest in outsourcing MIS services remains very high and will grow according to all industry surveys. The Gartner Group, Stamford, CT., estimates this market at $6.4 billion. According to Help Desk Institute surveys, the scope of services being outsourced include:

For vendors to succeed in the outsourcing market they must effectively address customer's concerns on how the outsourcing of their help desk complement their overall support structure and produce cost savings. Preferred outsourcing vendors are those who master not only help desk tools, products, and procedures, but who also demonstrate experience in system integration, client/server implementations, and break-fix services. The ability to expand these services to include fault management, configuration management, change management, performance management and service level management is very important for almost any customer. Premier outsourcing vendors can also offer software metering and distribution, security management, availability management, backup and recovery, with a series of standard and custom-tailored reports, to allow continuous monitoring of service levels, as well as valuable input for performance management and capacity planning. The span of service must cover servers, clients, and both wide and local area network components.

It would have been difficult to foresee some of the help desk calls of today. Most of us have heard the stories of mice being mistaken for foot-pedals or people moving their computers to a desk adjacent to a window when asked to execute a program under Windows.

When computers and their networks were simple, so were most of the problems managed by the help desk. Statistics from the late 1980s showed that 85% of the problems were being resolved by one call to the help desk. Help desk support software packages of that time included some good suggestions and scripts for problem diagnostics and resolution. It would have been difficult to foresee some of the help desk calls of today. Most of us have heard the stories of mice being mistaken for foot-pedals or people moving their computers to a desk adjacent to a window when asked to execute a program under Windows. However, the vast majority of help desk calls can be properly scripted, providing assistance for the help desk personnel with possible causes and recommended actions. And expert systems, based on past experience with problem calls, can provide the help needed to improve and shorten the troubleshooting process even in today's complex, heterogeneous computing environment.

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