Agencies can lend a hand to users via online help desks

Shawn P. McCarthy

In an era of dirt-cheap and even downright free PCs, one important component has suddenly gone missing: the help desk.

In years past, reputable systems makers ensured that customers' PCs stayed up and running by sponsoring toll-free help numbers. Some even operated service centers where software glitches could be fixed. Agencies picked up on the trend and set up their own help desks, then began to outsource the work to contractors.

As the price of a PC has slipped below $1,000, makers' slipping profit margins oblige them to discontinue phone help. Tech support over the Internet is stepping in to fill some of the gap. Specialized help sites are starting to give both automated support and one-on-one consulting for users who need technical advice. Call it e-support.

The goal is to cut the labor cost of handling help calls, especially for questions that can be answered without a human. When they cannot, the goal is to use tech resources more efficiently.

Helping hand

Agency help desks can pick up some cost-cutting ideas by studying the way this new breed of service is structured.

Instead of leaving a downsized impression, the automated help desks in fact make a computer manufacturer look good. They streamline ease of use to the point where subscribers can sometimes fix their PCs with a click of a Web link.

In a competitive market, it's worth looking at which vendors offer such services when your agency has a new contract to fill.

The online help function starts by feeding inquiries through an automated system. Although it begins with questions and a decision tree, it's not limited to that. Subscribers can make real-time data exchanges for remote diagnosis and downloading repair patches. If the problem isn't as simple as resetting defaults, scripts can be run to check for and resolve conflicts.

Such service is likely to expand far beyond PC makers. It could become a major new type of online service. I can foresee government offices and large companies setting up accounts with help services because they are cheaper than maintaining armies of tech support personnel or buying service contracts to cover every machine.

At least two big players in the automated help desk space have set up service sites for PC makers and service providers. of Redwood City, Calif., specializes in software support. It has a knowledge base on operating systems and applications, including how to set them up in their out-of-the-box configurations. is capable of remotely checking systems for problems or stepping users through self-help pages. has agreements with companies such as Tivoli Systems Inc. and Excite@Home to provide automated support systems over the Net. The Excite deal is interesting because it broadens the help desk's scope beyond PC problems. You can find out more at

Motive Communications Inc. of Austin, Texas, has services called Solo and Duet. Solo provides self-service for common, repetitive help desk calls. Duet offers a technical analyst but guides users through several questions first to save the consultant's time. Visit

Motive has agreements with Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc. to give services over the Net.

I can imagine a time when help service providers push their help tools into full portals where users can get help but where marketers can also target their specific operating systems, applications and needs.

As government sites outsource their help desk needs to such portals, they will need to deal with the marketing issues.

That's the twist. If help desk providers on the Net can turn what's now a costly support function into a near-free service, would you subscribe if you knew it meant marketers would have access to your specific help desk business? Each agency will have to decide for itself.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at

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