Dec 31 2009

Do-IT-Yourself Help Desk

By helping users help themselves, an agency's tech support team can focus on the big problems — and save money in the process.

Back when CD-ROM drives first became popular desktop PC components items, a story — perhaps apocryphal — surfaced of a user who called customer service with a complaint: “My cup holder broke,” the user allegedly said of the CD-ROM tray that snapped under the weight of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp.

Today’s user calls may not be as humorous, but it’s tempting to wish some common and even not-so-common tech problems away. Why can’t users handle this or that on their own, a frustrated IT manager might ask. Why, indeed?

Although exact numbers on help desk spending aren’t tracked agency by agency, it’s clear that a percentage of tech support money — and manpower — can be better spent. The Help Desk Institute’s annual survey showed that 69 percent of government respondents reported incidents increasing in 2005. And, though 44 percent of those help desks offer self-help tools, the do-it-yourself help is generally underutilized (see below).

The good news is that today’s computer users, by and large, are more computer literate and sophisticated than those of 20 years ago, when “What’s the ‘any’ key?” was not an uncommon help question, triggered by a “Press any key…” screen message. Users now can solve many problems on their own and are more likely to avoid some problems because of their basic understanding of how their PCs work.

52.9% Percentage of time the support staff spends on the phone during a typical shift

$27.60 Mean cost to resolve an incident that first comes in via phone, of which 62.1 percent do

$13.50 Mean cost to resolve an incident through self-service

The better news is that many of today’s PCs and operating systems are better at self-healing, too. Microsoft Windows XP can fix many of its own problems, and, when connected to the Internet, the OS regularly polls Microsoft servers for software updates.

Those two factors alone make it easier for systems to stay healthy, and for users to easily recover from problems. According to Jonathan Epstein, the former systems director for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, more often than not, just rebooting a system will cure what’s ailing it.

Desktop Self-Service

Here are six do-it-yourself rules that every user can follow to be more self-reliant:

ONE: Start with a backup image. Having a disk image on hand can make it easier to recover from a serious problem without calling tech support. Programs such as Symantec Ghost offer a way to create a backup disk that can restore a system in as little as half an hour.

TWO: Reboot when necessary. A good reboot will solve many of the most basic glitches and hang-ups. “I just tell users to reboot — that solves about 99 percent of problems,” Epstein says.

THREE: Let the (operating) system help. Self-healing features in Microsoft Windows, for example, can help users solve problems without a service call. Vista, the next Windows version — set for release later this year for enterprise users — promises even more built-in utilities.

FOUR: Make macros work for you. Macros and other small programs can automate tasks. The help desk staff can create the macros and then provide the keystrokes to users to try to solve problems before a staff member makes a desk call. It’s also important for users to regularly clear out their Web browsers’ cache files and to carefully examine menus on Microsoft Office applications to see whether they are creating conflicts.

FIVE: Create utility players. Users can take advantage of utility programs, such as Symantec Ghost Solution Suite, which can often resolve a host of nit-picky problems — things such as sluggish operation because of application bloat or inactive files. Regular use of utility software can keep computers fighting trim.

SIX: Know when to call in reinforcements. A user won’t be able to fix every problem. Serious disk failures or other hardware woes will require a specialist’s touch. The help desk needs to teach users to know when they can’t do something and when to call for help.

Epstein, whose team in the House supports more than 50 users on the majority side of the panel, says he makes liberal use of macros and other small programs to overcome difficulties: “It depends on the problem, but if there’s something that automates that process, I use it.”

Behind-the-Scenes Assist

One of the great advances in recent years is archiving and disk-imaging software, such as Symantec Ghost, that allows backups while users are working with their systems.

“We can pull the data off the computer — even from another computer — and make a perfect image of it. If the drive crashes, [we just] put it back on. To put it into a single file, just click on the file and it will mount your old system as another drive and [you can] just browse on through it,” Epstein says.

While that move doesn’t count as a do-it-yourself fix, it dovetails with one feature of Ghost: the ability to create a bootable image of a system, which users can keep and use to restore at their desk, without bringing in an IT person.

According to Jody Gibney, a product manager for Symantec of Cupertino, Calif., arming users with Norton’s utility suite can enable them to catch some problems almost before they start.

Gibney cites the program’s “One Button Checkup” feature, which he says lets users “maintain the performance of their systems and correct errors before they become more serious problems that would require the assistance of IT staff. One Button Checkup scans and removes Internet clutter — such as cookies, temporary Internet files and ActiveX controls — that can slow PC performance — as well as checks and corrects shortcut and registry problems.”

But, Gibney says, there are times when a user needs to step back: “I would not recommend that average users try to fix serious computer problems — for example, hard drive errors or complicated device driver problems.”

For those problems, he says, call the help desk.