Organizations and their employees are rapidly moving away from the traditional fixed, employer-provided working environment connected by typically just three channels –voice, e-mail and IM. They are increasingly instead carrying out their tasks anytime from anywhere over a widening array of other media, most notably the social channel.
IT support has had to adapt to this anytime, anywhere, any channel reality. The days of sending over the support or help desk rep to sit down at a staffer’s terminal is fading, when that person could be at their home or in airport and on a wireless device using Facebook (News - Alert).
And while IT support has traditionally been seen by organizations as cost centers – they do not generate revenue through sales or customer retention – the smart outfits are gradually getting it that without support performance, productivity and profits suffer. The receipt of this message is timely because today’s new work environment will require investment in the right support tools.
Elisabeth Cullivan, product marketing manager of Numara Software is seeing that most organizations are trying to move IT away from being cost centers. To enable this movement they are also purchasing ITSM (IT Service Management)-focused software; ITSM processes stress focus on the users rather than on the technology.“IT support really does have a place in an organization and without IT support productivity would certainly drop and the organization as a whole would suffer,” says Cullivan. “It’s up to the IT organization to demonstrate the value of the services they offer and how they align with the goals of the business. “
The Anywhere Revolution
The rapidly accelerating wireless revolution has IT support benefits and challenges. On the plus side, smartphones’ architecture and operating systems and their networks’ bandwidth enable field reps to diagnose and fix more problems faster on the spot. Field reps now or will have equivalent or near-equivalent access to the same information that is available on desktops. And should field reps need help that can collaborate with second level engineers, Oded Moshe, director of product management at SysAid (News - Alert) Technologies points out, “Collaboration translates to better service quality and higher efficiency.”
There are potential obstacles with supporting anywhere users though. The IT support team must be on top of mobile technology to provide service and stay relevant to the organization, says Moshe. Also, the solutions must be network-reliable.
Bomgar has come out with one such solution: a remote support representative console designed for the iPad. The Bomgar iPad Representative (Rep) Console allows reps to access, view and to fix remote computers or mobile devices directly from their iPad or iPad 2.
Moreover, mobility is the trend of users rather than IT choosing their devices i.e. laptops, tablets as well as cellphones. This poses a major technological challenge for support/help desks Moshe points out, as they need to support most any device, such as helping users define their e-mail settings without ever holding it.
SysAid offers an array of help desk applications that operate on four leading smartphone platforms – Windows Phone (News - Alert) 7, iPhone, BlackBerry and Android. These tools allow support managers to portably view all service requests assigned to their teams; filter help desk and asset lists per field and update the status, priority, due date, and other fields. These professionals can also create new requests, as well as update asset names, locations, owners and other fields.
Moshe recommends support/help desks run periodical training sessions about the common devices used in their firm, create quick guides with screenshots and to check online guides, which are available for all devices. An internal forum/community should be set up to permit users to share solutions and thoughts.
As a last resort, and if practical support desk staff can ask users to stop by ask if they can play with sample devices to familiarize themselves with them. Once done with a single device, one should be set with the others of the same kind and capability, says Moshe.
To make working from anywhere, anytime practical requires effective self-service support tools. They can solve many of the most common problems, thus avoiding calls or field visits. Self-service also saves money and decreases downtime in any environment.
IT solutions suppliers are continually upgrading their self-support tools. For example, SysAid is now adding a Reset Password tool to its self-service portal.
Another critical issue with supporting anywhere work is obtaining access to users’ assets to diagnose and repair problems and perform software updates. Oftentimes mobile/home these workers do not have access to VPNs (virtual private networks) to solve these issues and manage the equipment and applications. That is because VPNs are usually provided only to full-time employees for security reasons, leaving part-time and contract staff off these networks.
Numara Software’s Numara Asset Management Platform (NAMP) version 10 includes Service Anywhere, which is secure on-demand remote service management obviates this issue by running over the public Internet. This feature permits IT to securely take inventory, push critical patches and deploy software to those users, allowing providing a consistent level of support and service to them, anywhere.“There will definitely be more remote handling of issues with the increase in a remote workforce and telecommuting opportunities,” explains Cullivan. “The need for remote desktop management solutions is going to be huge in the coming years. Lower level IT support reps are going to be required to handle those remote issues and that is going to require more integrated ITSM and desktop management tools.”
Social Media and Support
There has been a long tradition of peer support in IT at the higher end usually amongst engineers, developers and programmers, such as through bulletin board posts. Social media has now greatly expanded this practice, which provides the near-immediacy of self-service while providing “on the fly” human assistance.
Ensuring accuracy and consistency across channels can be an issue with peer support. Well-intentioned but poor advice can turn make bad problems worse.
“Today, when users need information they first turn to Google, then they check it out on Facebook and only afterwards do they turn to IT reps for help,” observes Moshe. “The challenge is to make the best out of both worlds.”
Hornbill Service Management offers Supportworks ITSM Enterprise v.3.2, which integrates Twitter and smartphone-based support with the help desk. Supportworks ITSM Enterprise v.3.2 enables help/support desk staff to search, save and run Tweets. It tracks what followers are ‘tweeting’ and enable immediate access to them and can broadcast service updates. The software can reply to a tweet from within Supportworks or raise an incident or service request directly from it. There is an auditable record of these interactions in the Supportworks database.
“Having the ability to proactively address support issues is an ongoing challenge for IT,” says Patrick Bolger, Hornbill chief evangelist. “We are increasingly seeing examples where users air their frustrations via social media channels long before contacting the service desk. In these instances IT is the last to know, which not only let issues fester but can damage the reputation of support teams.”
ITIL Benefits and ChallengesOne trend is using the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), which provides a logical, systematic and sophisticated framework of best practices to manage IT operations and services: including support. ITIL says Wikipedia “gives detailed descriptions of a number of important IT practices and provides comprehensive checklists, tasks and procedures that any IT organization can tailor to its needs.”
There are ITIL training and certification courses available. One of the most comprehensive is offered by the RCCSP Professional Education Alliance. The courses cover foundation certification; release, control, and validation; operational support and analysis; planning, protection and optimization; service offerings and agreements; service design, operation, strategy and transition; and continual service improvements. There is also a session on managing across the lifecycle.
Global BPO firm Sitel is an ITIL shop. It has 600 employees operating from help desks in the U.S., the Philippines, India, Germany, Morocco and Columbia, supporting more than 60,000 and handling approximately 20,000 service request interactions monthly.
Change management is a big component of Sitel’s ITIL framework. And the firm has extended its change management process to tie into those of several of its global clients.
“These extensions helps increase our success rate of changes and drives availability improvements on service level agreements,” explains Anthony Crutcher, senior vice president of Global Infrastructure, Operations and Shared Services. “All of this ties back into the ITIL process.”
The challenge with ITIL reports Numara Software’s Cullivan is that it is not always easy to understand. ITIL provides organizations with guidelines when they may not have a clue as to how to organize or begin to improve their service management. Some organizations are overwhelmed because there is a lot to ITIL and it doesn’t clearly define how you do things.
Numara FootPrints gives customers the path to implement ITIL without the complex administration or lengthy professional service engagements required with other tools in the market. Numara FootPrints delivers highly integrated, comprehensive service management capabilities that work together and are designed for easier administration, extensive configuration without programming and faster implementation.
“What needs to be understood is that you don’t have to do it all,” recommends Cullivan. “Pick and choose the pieces that work for you. ITIL is there to help IT deliver services that align with business requirements, ultimately improving services.”
Supporting the Cloud
More applications are going to the cloud both OEM-and third party-hosted and in-house virtualization. FoxIT, a subsidiary of U.K.-based 365 iT, has a blurb from Gartner on it site that says “within five years one out of five companies will have 100 percent Cloud-based IT infrastructures”.
FoxIT has created ITSM 2.0 a framework that has been designed to help organizations manage their IT functions in this shift, covering and integrating both on-premise and cloud infrastructures. ITSM 2.0, which is free to access online, is based on VMware’s virtualization and cloud solutions and is enabled by frameworks such as ITIL and Cobit.
The cloud trend decreases IT demand and, with it, the need for IT support. On the other hand it introduces, when it is outside-hosted, a new management challenge: managing services and suppliers. SysAid’s Moshe recommends creating a new policies and procedures or adapts current ones to the cloud.
“If companies haven’t managed SLA (Service Level Agreements) properly, now is a great time to start,” advises Moshe. “It’s the right time to track and monitor services and to use the five nines (99.999 percent) your vendors promised to deliver.”
ShoreTel supports its contact center customers both directly and indirectly through its channel partners. It has been seeing virtual server technologies, such as Citrix, Hyper-V and VMWare, becoming more popular. It is responding by introducing client and server software tested and certified to run on these devices.
“We believe this growth will actually drive down the overall IT support cost for our customers as system management can be more centralized and standardized,” says Mark Haynes, director of technical services.
Keeping Knowledge Management Knowledgeable
IT help desk support has long relied on knowledge bases for both the reps and for self-service. Yet as information and knowledge change rapidly how effective are they? What must service organizations do to keep knowledge accurate and current?
Organizations should make it a policy to constantly document incidents so that the knowledge base remains relevant, accurate and insightful, recommends Oded Moshe, director, product management, SysAid Technologies. Although it requires administrators’ time to update, if done properly and consistently, the knowledge base remains an efficient tool which can decrease resolution time. Also, make sure you enable users to see the most viewed topics.
SysAid has an automatic mechanism that after the resolution of an incident suggests to the administrator to add the solution to the knowledge base.
“A good practice would be to bring topics to life by encouraging user discussions around the subjects,” recommends Moshe. “A community is also a powerful driving force in keeping information up-to-date, as it enables different users to have access to relevant and useful information.”
M2M and IT Support
One emerging area that could help firms resolve equipment support issues faster – while cutting costs – is by employing machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies.
An outgrowth of remote and automated computer hardware and software diagnostics and repair, M2M uses wireless to connect equipment and their applications to help desk servers and staff via chipsets and modems implanted inside the devices. When activated they can transmit status, usage and performance data and can be programmed to perform self-diagnostics and software upgrades, explains Tom Nelson, group manager of Sprint’s Emerging Solutions Group.
“Before a human would typically call in a trouble ticket, driving additional care and support costs,” says Nelson. “Now machines will be talking to machines, proactively addressing before issues even arise.”
These features will help determine whether there are potential problems that can be resolved remotely. With that information, field reps need only be sent out when required and proactive measures can be implemented before the devices and machinery breaks down, prompting help desk calls. The M2M units also can track and send asset locations, which saves time and money finding them, shortening downtime.
Together the M2M applications save on labor costs, vehicle wear-and-tear and fuel. With the rising fuel and labor costs, this drives savings to the bottom line; sending out a field tech or “truck roll” can range from $75 to well over $100 based on the labor, vehicle and location/proximity.
“Companies are asking themselves ‘How can I prepare for the growth of M2M technology and what can I do to avoid my service calls including field support truck rolls?’” says Nelson. “Sprint and our broad ecosystem of M2M partners can offer enterprise and their supporting organizations, the information they need to make that call.”
Supporting the Agents
Contact centers depend on able and responsive IT support. Here’s how one firm, InfoCision (News - Alert), which has 32 contact centers in 12 locations plus home-based agents and totaling over 5,000 employees provides it.
* InfoCision has a dedicated IT Support Services team, which includes a nine-rep help desk located at its Akron, Ohio corporate headquarters. It also offers troubleshooting tips and tools on a specialized support Web site
* If an employee is experiencing a technical issue, they may submit their support request via a call or through a web portal utilizing the Cherwell incident management software. InfoCision uses Cherwell to document support issues, track troubleshooting steps taken, along with what was ultimately done to restore service for the end user and for hardware and software requests
* The firm uses Microsoft’s (News - Alert) System Center Configuration Manager to manage/remotely control its computer systems. The solution’s robust reporting allows it to keep up with licensing, overall desktop counts and track changes to its environment
* The firm also uses Microsoft SharePoint for its internal intranet, client extranets, learning Management System, workflows and for document management and collaboration
* 75 percent of incidents are handled within the Support Services team. The other 25 percent are escalated such as to database administrators, data communications and software development
* One of the biggest challenges InfoCision’s Support Services team is facing is supporting its growing constellation of home-based agents: given their remote and varied hardware and software environments. It continues to look at new ways to improve its support website through such tools as detailed walkthroughs, troubleshooting tips and tools, as well as updated/centralized documentation. The support team regularly meets with the InfoCision Work At Home management staff to ensure we are meeting their needs. Its internal Work At Home Support Specialists also use call metrics and trend analysis to provide the highest level of support for staff
* InfoCision’s Support Services team is well-trained and qualified and team members maintain their proficiency. The firm requires a minimum associate degree or equivalent from a two-year college or technical school; or minimum of two years working in an IT help desk and/or training; or equivalent combination of education and experience. The majority of IT staff members hold bachelor’s degrees or higher
There is continued education through an internal training center, InfoCision Management Corporate University (IMCU). Classes taught include time management, project management, conflict resolution and motivating a workforce. IMCU also offers technical classes such as SQL and Microsoft Office Suite products.
All IMCU classes are offered free of charge and on company time to enable it to stay ahead of the competition “and continue to deliver top notch service to our clients,” reports Greg Swaino, manager of support services at InfoCision.
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:
Hornbill Service Management
RCCSP Professional Education Alliance
Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.