Increase Help desk efficiency with a well-chosen support application

With IT budgets cut to the bone, Help desk administrators are scrambling to find more efficient ways to provide technical support. Help desk software vendors have seen the light: The current crop of products offers improved customization and integration and new capabilities that can reduce your workload while increasing end-user satisfaction. If you haven't updated your Help desk software in the past few years, you might find that some of the new features justify investing in an up-to-date product.

Help Comes in All Sizes
Help desk software capabilities range from basic small-business call-tracking tools that provide trouble ticketing and reporting to feature-rich, highly scalable enterprise solutions that offer tight integration with your network and systems management tools and the flexibility to adapt to almost any business process. Basic products typically cost from $1000 to $10,000, depending on features and the number of licenses needed. For products in this price range, vendors often make available separate modules that provide PC discovery, inventory, change management, remote control capabilities, browser-based access, or other functions. Some entry-level products also provide a knowledge base to help analysts and technicians resolve problems.

Unlike large-enterprise products, which can take weeks or months to install and customize (at an extra cost if the vendor does the installation), basic products are typically easy to get up and running and have a gentle learning curve. However, many of these products use proprietary and sometimes less robust databases rather than open relational databases, so they might not be able to handle the call volume of more expensive products. Basic products also are likely to be less customizable than are products that are designed for larger enterprises.

Between the small-business Help desk software packages and enterprise support-center products are several offerings suited to midsized Help desks or to small installations that expect to grow. Selling for $5000 to $100,000 (depending on features and the number of Help desk analysts and technicians that need access to the software), most products in this category allow a fair amount of customization, support the most commonly used relational database products, and include knowledge bases. Figure 1, page 70, shows the screen that a technician can use to add a new problem resolution to the knowledge base for GWI Software's c.Support for .NET product (pricing for this product wasn't set at press time). Like their enterprise cousins, midrange products typically provide automatic trouble-ticket escalation and notification capabilities, making them suitable for multi-tiered support environments in which problems are delegated to specialized workgroups.

Both midrange and enterprise-class products usually provide proactive management of service level agreements (SLAs). Typically, when a support call comes in from an end user or department governed by an SLA, the software alerts the analyst to the call and to the action that the SLA specifies should be taken. After the trouble ticket is generated and assigned to a technician, the Help desk software alerts the technician if the ticket isn't closed out as the deadline specified in the SLA approaches. As in basic products, some components, such as SLA support, asset management, or change management, might be optional in midrange products.

More than 30 Help desk products run on Windows 2000 or Windows NT. I don't have room to discuss that many products, so I limit my discussion to a handful of major vendors that together supply most installations. In enterprise support centers, Computer Associates' (CA's) Unicenter Service Desk and Peregrine Systems' Remedy Help Desk and ServiceCenter products have large installed bases. In small or midsized installations, Magic Solutions' Magic Total Service Desk Suite, Front Range Solutions' HelpDesk Expert Automation Tool (HEAT), UniPress Software's FootPrints and FootPrints for Exchange, and Blue Ocean Software's Track-It! and Track-It! Enterprise Edition are popular. These products employ a client/server architecture, which in the past required a client to be installed on the Help desk analyst's desktop. But the trend now is toward products that Help desk analysts can access with a Web browser (a Web server—typically Microsoft IIS—must be installed on the network). All but the most basic products support common open relational databases (typically Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle8, or Oracle9i), but the customer typically must supply the database software.

Integrated Assessment and Customization
Gathering detailed information about the user's hardware and software configuration and problem is crucial to smooth Help desk operations. But a lengthy information-gathering process for each call creates long call queues and frustrates both users and analysts. In the past, analysts needed to gather and enter a lot of information: Even when companies had asset-management software in place, the Help desk software couldn't access that inventory information. Now, most Help desk products can integrate with standalone asset-management products and enterprise frameworks, and many provide inventory and audit modules for companies that haven't invested in that technology. Blue Ocean Software's recently released Track-It! 5.0 ($995 for as many as five concurrent users) and Track-It! Enterprise Edition 5.0 ($2995 for five named users; $495 for each additional user), for example, feature inventory and workstation auditing modules.

Even if users' configuration information is instantly available to the Help desk analyst, the information should be organized so that the analyst doesn't need to wade through multiple screens to get commonly needed data. Furthermore, the analyst might need one set of information when assisting sales personnel with thin clients and another set when working with Macintosh-equipped art-department staff. Some Help desk products let you customize their interface, but you'll need to evaluate demonstration copies of the products that are on your shortlist to know which ones can deliver an interface that works for you. When choosing a product, you'll want to consider how easily you can modify the user interface after you install the product. If programming expertise is required, interface modification could be expensive and time-consuming.

Web Interfaces
The most significant recent advance in Help desk software is the adoption of Internet technologies. Many products let end users use a Web browser to access the Help desk's knowledge base and trouble-ticket status information on a server. This interface makes possible self-service for common Help desk chores such as resetting passwords, solving printer problems, and answering questions about desktop applications. If you choose a product that provides a Web interface for end users, employees will have the advantage of being able to access the software's knowledge base even when the Help desk is closed.

Some products provide self-service through a separate module that runs on an IIS server. For example, for an additional $7500 (for an unlimited number of users), FrontRange Solutions offers a HEAT Self Service module for its HEAT 6.4 Help desk product (approximately $3250 per Help desk seat). As Figure 2, page 70, shows, HEAT Self Service lets users use keywords or a decision tree to search HEAT's knowledge base and find solutions to common problems. If the search doesn't turn up an answer, users can initiate a trouble ticket for Help desk personnel to act on and can use their Web browsers to track the status of the ticket. Allowing end users to solve common problems on their own speeds problem resolution and reduces Help desk workload, potentially reducing the number of analysts needed or letting them concentrate on solving more complex problems.

Some products also let technicians use a Web browser from an end user's machine to close out trouble tickets or view a list of open tickets. Thus, technicians don't need to return to their desks before going on to their next call. Figure 3 shows this capability in FootPrints for Exchange 5.5 ($1000 to $2000 per Help desk seat, depending on volume and configuration). Some products, such as CA's Unicenter Service Desk (approximately $3000 per Help desk seat), even let roving technicians access trouble-ticket status on Palm PDAs, as Figure 4 shows.

Other vendors have gone a step further by letting analysts use a Web browser to access the Help desk application, thus eliminating the need for a dedicated client on analysts' desktops. Because remote analysts can interact with such applications without using expensive leased lines, this capability lets companies with offices around the country more easily centralize their Help desk applications and databases. Magic Total Service Desk Suite (from $1796 to $3056 per Help desk seat) uses this approach, as Figure 5, page 75, shows. Other products that employ this approach include Unicenter Service Desk, UniPress Software's FootPrints 5.5 (approximately $1000 per Help desk seat) and FootPrints for Exchange 5.5, and Track-It! 5.0. Track-It! Enterprise Edition 5.0 and Peregrine Systems' Remedy Help Desk 5.0 (starting at $30,000 plus a license for each Help desk seat) and ServiceCenter (starting at $20,800, including 10 Help desk seat licenses) come with fat clients as well as a Web-based interface. Figure 6, page 75, shows Track-It!'s Web interface.

In addition to supporting customer self-service through browser-based access to its Help desk and knowledge base, Unicenter Service Desk (which is available separately or as part of CA's Unicenter enterprise management system) tries to further improve customer service and reduce the Help desk's workload through the concept of Help desk—aware applications. Toward that end, CA has developed what it calls service desk—aware components to enhance its applications, those of its partners, and custom-developed corporate applications. The IT department can configure these components to take specific actions when an application fails or a user is having a problem. For example, when a user encounters a specified error condition within an enhanced application, the service desk—aware component might notify the Help desk to call the user, bring up a list of FAQs on the user's screen, or launch a natural-language search engine in the user's Web browser. CA says that other vendors are working to implement these Help desk—aware components in their applications, but a list of those applications wasn't available at press time.

Peregrine recently released a Call Optimization option for its ServiceCenter and Remedy Help Desk products. The Call Optimization option (which starts at about $65,000) can frequently reveal the cause of a problem without requiring Help desk analysts to spend time gathering information from the end user. Call Optimization agents run on end users' systems and continually gather information such as PC hardware configuration, network settings, information about installed printers, and email client configuration. When a problem occurs, the agent can provide relevant information to the Help desk analyst. For example, if a user receives an error message while sending an email message, the Call Optimization agent puts an HTML link into the error-message dialog box. The user can click the link to automatically generate a trouble ticket. When the analyst opens the trouble ticket, the Call Optimization Viewer presents faults it has gleaned from comparing the mail client configuration with the last known good configuration, as Figure 7 shows, and the analyst can choose to revert to a good configuration. Call Optimization can't help analysts deal with application usage questions or forgotten passwords, but it can help analysts answer more calls, thus shortening call queues.

Making the Move
Selecting a new Help desk software package can require a substantial time investment, but if your software is simply inadequate for your current needs, the time and money you spend to investigate new offerings should prove worthwhile. The first step is to define your current requirements. Meet with Help desk staff to determine the strengths and limitations of your existing software and to identify new features that you might need. Also meet with managers from departments that use the Help desk: Their needs can help you prioritize the features that your new software should have.

If your organizational structure has changed substantially since you last upgraded your Help desk software or if you've revised your support model, you should probably define how information should flow in the support structure. For example, if a call comes in from the sales group indicating that a crucial application is unavailable, who should be notified, and should notification be by pager, phone, or email? If an end user requests a new application or peripheral on his or her desktop computer, who needs to approve the purchase? This exercise will help you define the workflow capabilities your new product must have. After narrowing your choices, obtain evaluation copies of each product and evaluate features and ease of use firsthand before you decide which product to purchase.

Contact the Vendors
GWI Software * 360-397-1000 *

UniPress Software * 732-287-2100 or 800-222-0550
FrontRange Solutions * 719-531-5007 or 800-776-7889

Magic Solutions * 972-308-9960 *

Peregrine Systems * 858-481-5000 or 800-638-5231

Blue Ocean Software * 813-977-4553 *

Computer Associates * 631-342-6000 *