On-line tools and internal help desks

A growing number of corporations- from J. C. Penney Co. to General Electric Co. to Cisco Systems Inc.- are rolling out e-support tools to their employees as an inexpensive way of replacing in-person and telephone-based desktop support.

The two leaders in the market for Internet-based PC diagnostic and repair tools are Motive Communications Inc. and Support.com Inc., both of which have increased sales dramatically this year. Unlike tech support Web sites for customers, employee-oriented e-support offerings include both client and server software that work together to provide a higher level of automation.

Corporate e-support systems offer features such as:

Self-healing, which involves automatically discovering a faulty application or setting on a system and fixing it.

Self-service, which lets end users find answers to questions and solve problems on their own.

Communications via chat, messaging and remote control with a support analyst if the end user can’t solve his own problem.

“About 30 per cent of the problems can get addressed through self-service. The rest have to be escalated to a support analyst,” said Dave Malcolm, vice-president of development at Motive. “We cut the time it takes to resolve the other 70 per cent of the calls because of the context and intelligence gathered by our tools.”

Corporate e-support tools are used primarily to fix misconfigured applications, faulty network settings, printer and modem problems, and dial-up access difficulties.

But corporate e-support solutions are not for the faint-hearted or cash-strapped. They cost upwards of US$100,000, require customization, and a typical rollout takes several months.

Cisco, for example, began rolling out Support.com’s tools to its 35,000 employees in September. Cisco’s global help desk offers on-line documentation and frequently asked questions on an internal Web site, but the company is looking for new capabilities such as automatically fixing a user’s system without losing personal settings or data.

“We were looking for a product that would allow us to avoid the tech support call in the first place,” said Gail Potter, IT analyst with Cisco Desktop Services.

Potter said empowering end users to solve their own problems will let Cisco’s global help desk scale to meet the growing number of Cisco employees. “[Otherwise] we would have to throw body after body onto this problem to provide the same level of customer satisfaction that we do today,” she said.