Helping Hands

Both customers and employees expect IT systems to work 24/7, no matter what. As such, helpdesk support — whether it is acquired through in-house teams and dedicated software or outsourcing — has an increasingly important role to play in today’s knowledge economy.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  August 31, 2003

I|~||~||~|In today’s digital world, customers expect 24/7 services. As such, systems have to be always available and capable of delivering when called upon. This pressure is exacerbated by the demands of inhouse staff, who have become intolerant to downtime and the glitches that prevent them from carrying out their jobs.

To ensure that both of these demands are answered, and that customers remain loyal and employees productive, the region’s businesses are increasingly investing in IT support solutions, whether they be helpdesk applications or outsourced services.

“For an organisation’s business to run, its technology must also be up and running,” says Sotirios Papachristos, Middle East & Africa territory manager for Network Associates’ Magic Solutions offering. “That is why in companies that run 24/7 operations, helpdesks are just as mission critical as the rest of their business,” he adds.

Tony Goodwin, EMEA practice manager for Remedy service management, which was recently acquired by BMC software, concurs. “Today, customer expectation levels are very high and the acceptance of technical failure is very low. People want 99.99% availability and this is a very challenging environment. To work in it successfully, businesses need the right tools, and the right people in place to support their IT infrastructures,” he says.

||**||II|~||~||~|The advent of e-business, whereby customers can purchase goods and service online no matter what time it is, has made always on systems and constantly available support even more important. After all, if a user cannot carry out their real time financial transaction at the first time of asking, it is unlikely that they will return to try again.

“If a customer is logging onto a web site to make an online transaction, they are touching the company’s infrastructure directly. So if there is a glitch and they can’t place an order, the transaction cannot take place … To prevent this, a company’s systems need to be up and running all the time,” Goodwin confirms.

Another sector that requires high availability, and the IT support that ensures this, is banking & finance. Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, for example, has a maximum of 15 minutes to get its systems up and running again in the event of a failure. “We can’t afford to have any downtime,” says MSMK Rahman, quality assurance manager, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank. “If a customer is sitting in front of me and the system suddenly breaks down, I can’t afford to have a customer leave the bank without doing what they came to do as it affects our business. So we need to have in place a full time helpdesk that can support our needs and resolve problems immediately,” he explains.

However, maintaining the inhouse support teams that ensure 99.99% uptime can be both costly and ineffective, especially if an organisation does not have dedicated technicians to man its helpdesk. One way to ensure the requisite high availability while keeping costs down is to outsource IT support.

||**||III|~||~||~|Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank’s Rahman is already looking to do this, as he believes it will be more effective than the finance house’s existing set up. “We are in the process of looking into outsourcing [our helpdesk] completely because we need this service to maintain our requirements,” says Rahman.

“Right now, our receptionist takes the call, logs a complaint and then passes it on to a technician. However, this is not effective because our technicians are not always available at the helpdesk and there is a delay in servicing the customer. With outsourcing, it is much easier to manage the tools and the technicians,” he explains.

While organisations across the world are looking at outsourcing as a cost effective solution, companies such as Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank remain the exception rather than the rule within the Middle East. According to Torben Pedersen, senior analyst at IDC CEMA, this is because local businesses distrust service providers and prefer large inhouse teams.

“These are signs of an immature market. Most companies are not willing to take that step [towards outsourcing their helpdesk] yet, although a few medium and large enterprise segments are now starting to realise the cost benefit involved in outsourcing,” he says.

Furthermore, the small band of companies that have outsourced elements of their IT support have restricted it to just a few areas, such as networking desktop outsourcing (NDOS).

“We are seeing some companies outsourcing non mission critical parts of their IT infrastructure, like networking and desktop support. But the market for outsourcing of applications is still small,” explains Pedersen.

Despite this, one company that does however appear to be making the outsourced helpdesk model pay is HP. Through its managed services offering it has already taken on board the management of Microsoft’s local desktop support and a number of other key accounts. “We have been successful in running the regional aspects of worldwide or European deals, such as Microsoft’s desk side support,” says Mike Smith, head of HP services in the Middle East.

||**||IV|~||~||~|“Locally, companies are starting to think more about their core business and whether they want to run IT departments internally. Step one of this tends to be internal helpdesks and support, which is seen as a headache. We act as the aspirin for that headache,” he adds.

Despite HP’s proposition, and that outsourcing is the globally recommended choice for many companies, Ahmad Alhajj, helpdesk business technologist at Computer Associates Middle East (CA-ME), argues that it is not necessarily a more cost effective solution for the region.

“Cost is a big factor in outsourcing. Businesses that prefer worry-free computing may go for it as somebody else has the responsibility of fixing the problem within the timeframe mandated in the service level agreement (SLA),” he says. “However, don’t forget that these people live inhouse too and that if they leave you, you would not have the knowledge to continue functioning efficiently,” he adds.

Rather, Alhajj recommends that companies go for other helpdesk aids, such as specific applications and an inhouse support team. One organisation that has already pursued this route is Sharjah Municipality. The government body completed a 100-user installation of Lan Desk last year and is scheduled to implement a further 100 licenses during 2003. The solution allows the inhouse team to support critical users located at different clinics, labs and other such time-sensitive areas in both Sharjah city and on the East coast of the UAE.

“We needed something that would help us with trouble shooting and software deployment and, of course, inventory management. This is especially important for our critical users because they deal with the public and cannot afford a long downtime. So we have to be prompt in supporting them and facilitating their work. Using a helpdesk tool has helped us do this successfully,” says Dr Ibrahim Miligi, an IT consultant at Sharjah Municipality.

Furthermore, by utilising Lan Desk, Sharjah Municipality’s five-member IT support team has been able to service not just the organisation’s power users, but its entire 500 strong workforce. “We can still manage with just five people because of this tool. That’s the beauty of it,” says Dr Miligi. “Earlier, our IT guys had to keep running to every PC that had a problem, and on an average we get about 10 to 15 complaints a day. But now, most of the problems are being solved remotely and saves everybody a lot of time,” he explains.

For many organisations, using a helpdesk application has enhanced the productivity and efficiency of both their IT teams and their other employees, while also keeping costs down.

||**||V|~||~||~|Arun Majumdar, executive vice president of Intertec Systems, says the economic connotations of using a helpdesk tool are becoming increasingly attractive to the region’s users as qualified manpower can be difficult to come by and expensive to maintain. “Organisations are having to tackle more technology problems with less skilled people. This is what is increasing the demand for help desk products in the market because with it, you can run the show efficiently with a few people,” he explains.

According to Majumdar, the demand for helpdesk tools are, therefore, increasing at a much higher rate than the total average IT growth rate. “The helpdesk market and the systems management tools market is growing at 30-35% per annum,” he says.

Meanwhile, helpdesk solutions themselves have matured and today incorporate many additional functions, such as the ability to load software on all networked PCs from one central server and inventory/ asset management.

“The difference is phenomenal,” says Dr Miligi. “Earlier, our IT personnel would have to go from one PC to the next loading a particular software. But now they can sit at a single console and with one command, load it on all the PCs. This saves our IT people a lot of time,” he says.

Likewise, the support team no longer needs to be physically present to solve every problem an end user has, as remote working capabilities now come as standard with most helpdesk applications. Network Associates’ Papachristos has himself benefited from this recently as, when away on business, he could not log into his company’s network.

“I called them [our helpdesk] up and two minutes later my team asked me to take my hands off the keyboard. Then I saw the cursor moving, because they had taken control of my PC from the UK with the help of a tool called remote desktop. They went into the application, identified the problem, resolved it and I was up and running in a few minutes,” Papachristos explains.

Although end users are still picking up the phone and calling the service desk for help, BMC Software’s Goodwin says more vendors are beginning to incorporate an automation function in their helpdesk tools so that they pick up a fault before the user notices any service degradation.

||**||VI|~||~||~|“Database management teams are automatically picking up technical glitches and logging tickets on the system before end users know it,” he says.
“This can be done by a helpdesk solution in conjunction with network management systems and database management systems and is the sort of standard integration that is being deployed at a lot of sites today,” Goodwin explains.

While organisations are thus seeking to improve their inhouse technical support in order to improve customer service levels and enhance performance, they must simultaneously urge employees to help themselves. Furthermore, they must empower them to do so by implementing bulletin boards and providing self help tools on company intranets. At the same time, processes have to be established that allow employees to log problems that they cannot solve themselves quickly and efficiently.

By encouraging users to support themselves, companies not only accelerate the support process but also cut costs. Papachristos explains that as soon as a user has to contact a member of the IT support unit, the problem costs the company between US$5 and US$30. This cost rises to between US$50 and US$75 when a helpdesk agent has to physically investigate the problem at the PC. In a worst case scenario, where suppliers have to be called in, the expense incurred grows substantially to US$100 plus. “Imagine an organisation that has hundreds of such calls a day,” says Papachristos. “It would be a nightmare,” he adds.

The secret, therefore, is to ensure that all of an organisation’s engines are well oiled — its tools, its people and its processes. “If you have all these three things in place, you will be able to resolve most of your problems at level 1 and save yourself a lot of money. This will improve your customer service and in turn, raise your bottom line,” says Papachristos. ||**||

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