Computer, heal thyself
(IDG) -- Probably the only person who worries more about technical support than the traditional CIO does is someone like Ron McIntire, vice president of help desk operations for CompuCom Systems, a Dallas-based provider of technology products and services.
Since CompuCom provides help desk services for a range of companies, McIntire is concerned about thousands upon thousands of desktops. He and other CompuCom officials have expended much time and energy thinking how to best serve both their clients and their profits.
Rather than just focus on keeping technical support costs in line, McIntire recalls, they decided to go one step further and look strategically at ways to reduce the total cost of ownership of a computer. Their first tactic: the burgeoning field of "call avoidance" technology.
It's a simple theory: The fewer support calls a company has to field, the more money it saves. A simple problem can take anywhere from five minutes to three hours to resolve, according to Christopher Hoffman, worldwide director of software services at International Data Corp. (a sister company to CIO Communications Inc.). One that's more complex can take hours and sometimes days, and the incident can cost the company as little as $25 but as much as $200. Seventy percent of that cost is labor.
End-user self-help is limited as a call avoidance tool, not only in the problems it can address but also in the people who will use it. As Aberdeen Group Senior Research Analyst Chris Martins notes, a large class of users aren't interested in or willing to pursue self-help; they just want the problem fixed. He adds that for certain kinds of problems that require getting under the hood of the system-modifying registry entries, for example, where a misstep can render a computer unusable÷the IT staff probably doesn't want the user doing the fix without guidance anyway.
Is there a middle ground? Perhaps. New diagnostic tools are designed to diagnose the problem, and perhaps even fix it, either automatically or with limited user involvement. If self-repair proves to be impossible, these tools also shorten the service call by reporting to the help technician the diagnostic work it has already done.
Technology is racing to save companies money in support costs while keeping users from having to get involved. One category of solutions is software that will reside on a client's desktop computer, monitor its configuration and operations, and act when÷or ideally before÷a problem develops.
Fujitsu PC Corp. in Milpitas, Calif., plans to launch a pilot project that runs Aveo's Attune on its laptop computers. This system includes a small agent that will monitor the computer and warn users if it detects an impending problem. If it does spot a problem, it will display a notice and, depending on the problem, may offer a fix.
John VanZandt, Fujitsu PC's CIO and vice president of engineering, anticipates that installing Attune will provide a better customer experience and improve customer satisfaction. He says that the company explored other available support utilities, but "most solutions we saw looked at a problem after the fact and relied on the customer to know how to look for the solution. Our expectation in that situation is that most customers will call first and ask questions later."
Attune takes inventory of the laptop's hardware and software configuration. When the computer is next connected to the network, the agent downloads a set of alerts, each one describing potential problems.
As the computer is used, Attune runs invisibly in the background, monitoring operations for the preconditions specified in any of its alerts. New alerts, as long as they are relevant to that particular notebook, are loaded whenever the user connects to the network. When a specified set of conditions occurs÷for example, the user double-clicks on an icon to load an application for which a key DLL (dynamic link library) is missing÷the software cautions the user that he or she may face a problem. The alert can also offer a remedy or direct the user to a Web location for a fix.
VanZandt says Fujitsu wants Attune to initially monitor standard Windows problems. As the company identifies other problems that generate frequent support calls, new alerts will be created and downloaded to the computers.
Since Attune is using the PC's CPU and memory as it runs in the background, it could potentially affect performance and battery life. But VanZandt notes that his tests didn't reveal any degradation. Beta versions of the tool did reduce battery life, but he says that problem was improved substantially in later versions. Another drawback: It's only effective for known problems.
At CompuCom, McIntire has deployed a new tool from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tioga Systems that works a little differently from Aveo's tool.
Tioga's auto-diagnosis tool, called the Self-Healing System, records all the components of a desktop PC, including the Windows operating system and the file, driver and other dependencies of designated applications. When the PC is booted or runs any of those applications, it checks for unauthorized changes in configuration. If it detects any, the agent will automatically undo them, using data it has stored either locally or on the network to return the unit to a known operable configuration. The system thus doesn't require a database of problems and solutions; faced with a problem, it simply rolls back the malfunctioning software to the operating state specified by the company's IT department.
If the company prefers to involve the user, the software can run its repair agent in a browser window, allowing it to interact with and provide repair guidance to the user. It can also deliver diagnostic data to help desk personnel and support remote repair.
Initially, CompuCom has installed 800 copies of Tioga's tool, and McIntire is thinking about offering it as part of the company's solutions package in its help desk outsourcing contracts. Setup is simple, he reports, and the company can easily use the tool to enforce standard configurations for either the entire PC or for selected applications. McIntire adds, "It's very valuable in reducing calls to the help desk by providing means for users to easily repair many of their typical issues without other assistance. This is our primary goal." Another advantage: Companies running the Tioga tool can also use it to safeguard existing Y2K compliance÷once they know a computer is compliant, no unremediated applications can be loaded unintentionally.
Making support easy
The diagnostic tools in this new category are not just for hardware; they work with software applications as well, whether custom built or off-the-shelf. As part of its support maintenance agreement, PeopleSoft offers a diagnostic tool called Duet, from Austin, Texas-based Motive Communications, because it supports a range of problem-solving interactions, from self-repair to remote help. For the Pleasanton, Calif., ERP software developer, good support services mean good customer relationships.
"We need to make support easy for the customer as well as to keep tools available for our analysts to be able to support complex applications," says Gladys Barnes, former director of support services at PeopleSoft's Global Support Center. PeopleSoft's technical support system consists of a client module that resides on the customer's servers or PCs, a middleware server and a help desk client. The system ties into the Vantive Corp. support software that the company uses.
Unlike Attune, the Duet client doesn't constantly monitor the PC, and it doesn't provide proactive warnings. Instead, a customer with a problem clicks on the PeopleSoft eSupport Assistant icon and specifies a problem with a running application. The client agent then downloads and runs a troubleshooting procedure for that application, generating diagnostic data that is fed back to the server.
Using Motive's help desk console, a support analyst can then diagnose the problem, check the configuration and state details of the PC, and gather any other information needed to resolve the problem. In a later phase of the project, PeopleSoft will also deploy a Motive component called ActiveContent, which provides procedures for addressing specific problems and even self-service support, so that users can diagnose and fix problems themselves.
Barnes is delighted with the capabilities of Duet. It allows the company to collect data proactively and seek out ways the information can be used to add value, such as notifying an administrator that a particular upgrade hasn't been loaded.
These tools are just the beginning. Aberdeen's Martins sees a promising array of support tools rolling out over the next several years as vendors target different aspects on a continuum of customer care that stretches from self-healing through facilitated diagnosis to remote repair. These tools are being designed to allow companies to simplify routine repairs, empower customers and end users, and cut help desk and call center costs, all the while conveying the message that the company cares about its customers.
As CompuCom's McIntire notes, the earlier you can catch and solve a problem, the better job you're doing for your company÷and your bottom line.
Alan S. Kay covers business and consumer technology from San Francisco.
Survey ranks computer companies' tech support
RELATED IDG.net STORIES:
Support calls cost money, so why not let customers help themselves?
Aberdeen Group, Inc.
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.