Tech Support � Help, I Need Somebody

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted June 08, 2004
Most small businesses don't have information technology departments or PC help desks. When employees run into problems, an administrator or the office geek will try to help — which reduces the helper's productivity and typically means users get less-than-expert assistance.

Small businesses that sell computer-based products face an even tougher technical support challenge — how to economically provide good help desk service to end customers. The quality of after sales support can make or break a company's reputation and drive repeat business — or kill it dead.

Help Me if You can I'm Feeling Down
So what can small under-resourced companies do to ensure a high level of IT service to internal and external customers?

Hiring a professional help-desk staff is one obvious option, but good IT people are expensive and scarce. Besides, if you hire enough personnel to cover peak periods, you may not be able to keep them busy the rest of the time.

Outsourcing is becoming more popular among medium-size and big enterprises, but many small companies don't even realize it's an available option. In fact, it's often an ideal solution.

Of course you'll find low-priced off-shore outsourcing companies in countries such as India, but you can also find many U.S.-based suppliers, including www.ghdsi.com/index.shtmlGlobal Help Desk Services Inc. (GHDSI) of Hartford CT.

GHDSI delivers services to either a company's external customers or to its employees. We spoke with two companies that rely on GHDSI to handle all tech questions from their staff, their customers and even their customers' customers.

Keep You Satisfied
Bonded Builders Service Corp., a Boca Raton company that provides insurance and warranties to home builders, faced a typical hire-or-outsource decision on help desk services a little over a year ago.

IT manager Scott McCarthy, who had started at the company two years before, was doing all the user support himself. "But as we started automating the business processes, the support demands grew," McCarthy says. "We got to a point where I couldn't do it all anymore and we had a choice to outsource the help desk service or hire a PC tech help desk person. We decided against hiring."

The company had also grown in the meantime from about 65 employees to 100 today — 50 in-house plus another 50 agents and sales people spread across the country. They all needed support, on both office productivity tools and company-specific applications based on Microsoft's .Net platform and the FileMaker database management platform.

When You Know What Money Can Bring
The decision to outsource was fairly easy. For one thing, it cost a lot less. McCarthy estimates he pays GHDSI about $12,000 a year: $25 for each call its agents answer plus a monthly minimum of about $500. "A good PC tech will cost you $30,000 a year plus benefits," McCarthy says. "Financially, outsourcing works out really well."

There was one other key advantage. GHDSI has four employees trained to handle Bonded Builders calls. At least one is always available. If the company had hired a single internal help desk person, whenever that person was off sick or went on vacation, it would be up to McCarthy to handle calls.

Not that he took the decision to outsource lightly. McCarthy started by researching a number of companies that provide help desk services. About half of them considered his company too small and weren't interested in his business, he says.

In evaluating the remainder, he had two main criteria. The service provider had to charge by the call with "reasonable" monthly minimums, and it must train its agents on Bonded-specific applications.

It came down to two companies. GHDSI won out because it had technology that let its agents take remote control of Bonded's computers to help resolve tech problems.

Going to Try with a Little Help From My Friends
Still, McCarthy remained cautious. He wanted to avoid what he calls a "cookie-cutter" help desk — where help-desk agents don't actually learn the company's applications or computing environment, but just read problem resolutions from a handbook over the phone.

"That just kills your end users," he says. "They lose faith in the help desk and they end up calling in-house staff and bypassing the help desk anyway."

McCarthy told GHDSI that he would give the company a one-month trial. If it delivered the quality of service he wanted, he'd stick with it. If not, he'd hire his own help-desk staff. GHDSI met the challenge.

There were a few issues to resolve in the beginning. In some cases GHDSI agents were trying to be too helpful, trying to solve problems with applications they hadn't been trained on. This resulted in long, fruitless calls, that frustrated users. It's one of the lessons he learned, McCarthy says. Companies like his with moderately complex computing environments need to provide detailed routing instructions so contractors know how to respond in each situation.

The GHDSI agents all now know that if they get questions about certain applications, they're to immediately refer the call to McCarthy.

Another lesson McCarthy learned is that to be effective, the help desk agents must be able get a quick response from McCarthy or one of his two software developer employees when they run into problems they can't immediately resolve themselves.

That wasn't happening at first, but now GHDSI agents can reach Bonded staff using an instant messaging system. They often get the answers they need while still on the line with the user.

When asked today if he's satisfied with the service, McCarthy says, "Absolutely. Extremely."

Can't Help Myself
Auction Management Solutions Inc. of Tampa, FL may be a somewhat atypical GHDSI client. AMS developed and markets an auction management software solution that lets big auction houses run online auctions simultaneous with their live auctions.

Online bidders can compete with live bidders, submitting bids in real time over the Internet while viewing pictures or videos of the auction items and listening to the auctioneer on their computers.

AMS offers its solution as an application service provider (ASP), meaning customers don't just buy the product and install it on their systems. AMS hosts their auctions and provides technical support on setting up and running the auction. For this, it uses in-house experts.

The problem was providing help desk support for online bidders — AMS's customers' customers. They are often high-profile dealers with whom the auction house has cultivated a long-term and highly valued relationship.

"Right from the start, we knew we didn't want to get in the way of that relationship," says AMS vice president of auction systems Brian Hardway. "And also that we didn't want to have to staff the help desk function."

For one thing, the bidders need help mainly in the half hour just before an auction starts. AMS could have run a bidders' help desk as a profit center, Hardway says, but scheduling would have been difficult given the usage patterns.

So AMS went looking for an outsourcer. The help that desk agents provided would not require a lot of specialist training. The problems bidders encounter are fairly simple — an Internet connection that's gone down, or they've input the wrong user name and password. Very few AMS- specific software problems crop up, Hardway says.

The company did a competitive analysis of several outsourcing firms, asking each how it would handle different situations — including scaling up on fairly short notice to handle hundreds or even thousands of bidders on a single auction. Cost was only one factor it considered.

GHDSI, then called Ikon, was not the least expensive service provider AMS looked at, but "it was pretty clear after our analysis that they were the folks we wanted to go with," Hardway says.

I'm Happy Just to Dance with You
As with any outsourcing deal, confidence in the supplier is critical — but especially so in this case. "The concern," Hardway says, "is that our customers' need to keep their customers happy — theyre all they have. These dealers can't be upset or they may go to a different auction house. So we had to be very sure that the company we chose could look after them — even if it cost more."

AMS has been very happy with the GHDSI service. "It has worked out well for our customers and for us too," Hardway says. "I've been on calls several times with these folks and they do a very nice job."

He also gets detailed reports on how many calls were handled, how many calls were resolved, the average time callers waited on hold, and the number of callers who abandoned their calls when left on hold.

The service level agreement SLA — a key component in any outsourcing deal — stipulates quantifiable service levels that must be met; calls must be answered by a live agent within 120 seconds, for example. If GHDSI doesn't meet them, it pays a financial penalty.

GHDSI receives payment — sometimes by AMS, sometimes by its auction house customer — per resolved call. Hardway won't say the exact price, but it's under $25.

"I think a lot of small businesses take a short-term look at the costs and think they're quite high per resolved call," Hardaway says, "but when you look at it in the longer-term it's reasonable and you get experts for that price."

The cost of resolving a call for an online bidder is nothing compared to the cost of AMS's customer of losing a client, Hardway adds.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980's. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine. Blackwells knowledge is vast and his wit eduring.

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