Tips for providing help desk services online

Kyle Harmon presents some tips for eliminating extra help desk calls by developing an effective support Web site.

All too often, I run across support Web sites that don’t really help at all. Often, all that the Web site has is a few inadequate documents, along with the phone number for the help desk (which is very often long distance). Here are some features that you should be sure not to leave out when you are building your support Web site.

One of the simplest, yet most often overlooked aspects of a support Web site is the inclusion of online manuals. If your company sells a product, try simply typing up the manual and posting it in HTML form on the Web site. Additionally, Adobe Acrobat and a scanner can work wonders in a situation where proper formatting must be maintained.

If you are providing support for a corporation, post the manuals for all of the products that your users might have on their machines. If the collection of manuals gets too large, try subdividing them into categories, each with a different page.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Almost every support desk encounters a few of the same questions day after day. Try compiling these questions into a single set of FAQs. Include in these questions about general usage, possible software or hardware quirks, or any other way that the user can gain more functionality out of the software. These can also be instructions on how a user can troubleshoot common problems on their own.

Some of the most powerful tools that you can put on your support Web site are bulletin boards. Usenet is a great example of how bulletin boards can be used to provide support (unfortunately, Usenet is also a relatively untapped resource). With bulletin boards, you can allow your users to post their questions, and have your help desk staff answer the questions. In many cases, other users can answer the questions, too, which allows your users to browse through the topics and see if perhaps a solution has already been posted before calling you. Plus, it allows your users to post little tips that could help other users gain more functionality from their computers.

You can provide a simple web-based bulletin board system for your clients using one of many CGI/Perl solutions out there. My personal favorite bulletin board system is the Ultimate Bulletin Board. It provides easy installation, consumes relatively few system resources, and will not break your pocket book—$90-$170 depending on the license. For NT systems, I am also a big fan of O’Reilly’s Web Board, which is used extensively by Dell Computer for their DellTalk system. Unfortunately, WebBoard is considerably more expensive, $1,799.

Online Help Desk
While you’re at it, why not allow your users to submit their own trouble tickets through the Web site? I have found two systems, based on CGI/Perl, that allow your users to submit their own trouble tickets. They also allow the users to check the status of their tickets at any time. Plus, both packages have simple trouble-ticket management interfaces.

The first of the two is called WebSupport 1.0. This script was designed primarily for Web hosts and ISPs, but it can be modified to just about any use. It allows users to submit their personal information, a description of the problem, and its priority. The help desk staff can then manage the requests through a simple interface, and once the job is completed, they can mark it so. It is also designed so that someone can automatically be e-mailed when a new ticket is submitted. Plus, the user can check back on the status of the trouble ticket at any time. The script is free for personal use, and $100 for commercial use.

The second of the two is called WonderDesk. WonderDesk has many of the same features, but it is more extensive. It provides easy field modification, plus more e-mail options. It also can allow customers to create their own tracking account so they can have multiple open trouble tickets but not need to know each individual tracking number. Unfortunately, all of these features come at a price. WonderDesk costs between $499 and $8,499, depending on the version. The $499 standard version is fine in almost all cases.

Talking to a live person
Regardless of all the technology available today, in many cases there is still no true replacement to talking to a real person in real time. To facilitate this, first of all, be sure to include a support telephone number in a prominent place on the Web site (it becomes very frustrating to search for a phone number).

You can also provide a real-time chat room that is monitored by a support desk staff member. So, whether you are trying to make your support information more accessible, or just trying to eliminate a few support phone calls, an effective support Web site can help you do it all.

Kyle Harmon is the owner of

To comment on this article or to share your thoughts on Web-based help desk services, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Kyle.

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