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Agencies can lend a hand to users with less costly, automated 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.

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.

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.

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

Looking good

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.

It's worth looking at which vendors offer such services.

The online help function starts by feeding inquiries through an automated system. Subscribers can make real-time data exchanges for remote diagnosis and 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. 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.

Two big players in the automated help desk space have set up service sites for PC makers and service providers.

Support.com of Redwood City, Calif., specializes in software support. You can find out more at www.support.com.

Motive Communications Inc. of Austin, Texas, has self-service for common, repetitive help desk calls. Visit www.motive.com.

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

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