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Help desks encourage do-it-yourselfers

There's a clear message emerging from the help desk industry -- User, heal thyself.

Whether your users or customers need assistance from an internal help desk or an external one, the goal these days is to get them to help themselves.

Self-service isn't "make believe or magic anymore. It's real," said Ron Muns, CEO and co-founder of the Help Desk Institute (HDI), a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based association for the service and support industry "There's a lot you can do with self-support. Companies like Oracle and Cisco have driven 80% of support to the Internet. [Many] smaller clients don't even offer phone support anymore."

Crossroads Customer Service, a help desk outsourcer in Fort Worth, Texas, recently adopted software from UniPress Software Inc., in Edison, N.J., to enable self-service. Depending on the nature of the ticket and the application, companies can save 30% to 40% by processing a problem through a self-service system instead of a live agent, according to Calvin Dennis, Crossroads president.

Based on the HDI's 2003 survey, implementation of new support technologies appears to be slowing. Growth is centered on empowering the customer with FAQs, intranet access, and Web- and knowledge-based search tools.

"There's a lot of pressure toward driving costs down," Muns said. "People are going to need to improve by orders of magnitude."

Cost-cutting efforts can be seen in the declining number of organizations offering 24/7 help desk support. According to the HDI report, the number in 2003 dropped to 22%, from 33% the year before.

The potential for slashing expenses remains the top reason clients come to Crossroads, Dennis said. Yet companies are also focused on retention as people begin to realize it costs more to acquire new customers than to keep existing ones. Customers who call in to speak with a live agent have different expectations if they've already been through automated self-service, Dennis said.

"They expect you to know what they're talking about," Dennis said. "It's like a follow-up call. Whether they gave information through our agents or [entered it] themselves, they're looking to see if we've completed the ticket and how far we are in the process."

It's a situation that WebEx Communications Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based Web conferencing vendor, is well aware of.

"Because more and more people are doing self-service, the calls coming into tech service tend to be more complex," said Jack Chawla, director of product management. "[Customers] want the problem solved immediately, on the first call itself. If a customer is paying the premium of doing self-service, when they come to technical help they want excellent service."

Additionally, many companies are moving toward proactive customer service, identifying potential issues and notifying customers before complaints come in, Dennis said. That makes ticket tracking -- whether a customer went through self-service or an agent -- extremely important. Even though Crossroads is an outsourcer, many of its clients want access to tickets because "there's no substitute to reading in a customer's own words what kind of problem they were having," Dennis said.

Despite the cost savings, none of Crossroads' clients force their customers into self-service, Dennis said.

"There's nothing more aggravating than a site that won't give you a phone number without making you go through 30 self-help screens," Dennis said. "There are some things that require an immediate answer."


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