Put the help desk on hold

You spent a bundle on software, legacy integration, CRM, ERP and custom applications. The last thing on the agenda is support. And that's where it stays at the bottom, a poor stepchild of IT strategy. Indeed, for most companies, tech support is inefficient and lacking direction and is therefore an expensive, unmanageable burden. The reason: Fixing crashed computers, changing printer settings and answering ambiguous how-to questions doesn't generate revenue. It sucks up time and money.

But new Web-based software tools designed to trim costs, speed up fixes and keep down tech-support head count are beginning to show promise. For example, Eaton Corp., a Cleveland-based industrial manufacturer, uses software from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Kintana Inc. to speed code changes. Eaton eliminated two full-time IT positions (at US$120,000 per year), reduced deployment times by 80 percent and cut the time needed to do routine software configuration changes from seven days to one. Many emergency fixes are now completed in less than four hours, down from 24 hours, according to Eaton.

Another user of automated support software, Excite@Home Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based provider of broadband Internet access, initially determined tech support needs based on the kinds of problems customers reported. "We looked at trouble tickets and saw configuration was the overriding issue. . . . We decided anything we could do to keep people connected without a lengthy telephone call would save time and money," explains senior support director Gerald Anderson. Excite@Home went with a product from Support.com Inc., also based in Redwood City. The result: "Thousands of customers literally helping themselves; they use the telephone as a last resort," says Anderson.

Eric Rocco, vice president of IT service research at Gartner Inc. in Lowell, Mass., says a typical tech support call costs approximately $30 to $35 per incident, compared with about half that for an automated fix. Obviously, forestalling a live call can save money.

Support.com's offering includes what's called a self-healing mechanism, which can remember the configuration of individual desktops and then automatically restore them in the event of a crash. The software can identify differences from a unique Web address located behind a firewall or via a company's portal. This drives self-service and centralizes support functions.

As vendors develop increasingly complicated software, the need for consistent central tech support increases. "This is a deep-rooted, systemic problem in the IT industry. As upgrades proliferate, technical support must remedy the complexity; you have to automate the solution," says Tony Adams, an analyst at Dataquest Inc., also in Lowell.

Consider the case of the telecommunications company that's had to apply 6,000 patches since adopting Oracle Corp.'s 11i database software.

Kintana's technology chain management software was designed to let ordinary business users as opposed to tech support professionals deploy such changes and fixes. It also defines IT processes to make it easier to roll out more complicated patches, provide upgrades and introduce new applications. In one Oracle implementation, Kintana says it slashed the number of manual operations from 86 to eight.

"These kinds of automated software solutions allow you to remotely fix and manage that which you would normally have to send a person to do," says Richard L. Ptak, an analyst at Hurwitz Group in Framingham, Mass.

"Look at the cost of a phone call avoided; do the ROI analysis for your business," Ptak advises, noting that automated support frees IT professionals to work on more strategic projects. "IT should be focused on providing competitive business advantages, not on this day-to-day maintenance," he adds.

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