Whether your network consists of two or three desktop
systems at the office wired together in a peer-to-peer configuration, a couple
hundred clients connecting to a handful of servers over Ethernet with a
wireless DMZ for visiting laptops, or a multi-site, multi-vendor conglomeration
of Windows domains, UNIX segments and departmental mainframes, one thing
besides death and taxes is inevitable: at some point your end users will need
technical support.

For both small and large businesses, computer problems
result in downtime and that means lost productivity and resultant lost
revenues. And regardless of the quality of your hardware and software, Murphy’s law
will always catch up with you eventually: there will be problems. When those
problems can’t be solved by end-users, you need a plan for technical support.

Tips in your inbox

TechRepublic’s free Strategies that Scale newsletter, delivered each Tuesday, covers topics such as how to structure purchasing, when to outsource, negotiating software licensing or SLAs, and budgeting for growth.

Automatically sign up today!

Outgrowing vendor support

When the business is small, you may rely on the hardware
and/or software vendors’ tech support lines to solve your computer problems. When
a user has a problem, he calls the support line for help. This may seem like
the logical answer, but it has several disadvantages:

  • Users
    may spend a lot of unproductive time on hold.
  • Users
    may have trouble explaining the problem adequately to a stranger over the
  • Many
    vendors are outsourcing tech support to other countries, with resulting
    language differences that make it even more difficult for users to
    communicate the problem and/or understand the advice offered.
  • Some
    vendors may charge for telephone support services or limit the number of
    calls your organization can make at no cost.
  • The
    vendor support staff members are not familiar with your network’s infrastructure
    or proprietary applications you may have deployed.

Additionally, having each user handle his/her own computer
problems can create unnecessary redundancy in the process: several users may
have the same problem, but each repeats the entire process (sometimes incurring
support fees from the vendor) to reach the same solution instead of benefiting
from the experience of the first user to have the problem.

As your organization grows, it becomes more cost-effective
to create an in-house support infrastructure.

In-house tech support

In the beginning, your in-house “tech support department”
may consist of one tech savvy employee who handles the problems on a part-time
basis along with other duties. As you move from a workgroup situation to a more
complex network configuration, you’ll probably add one or more full-time IT
administrators and they may handle tech support along with administrative

This is a step up from the “every user on his
own with vendor support for backup” method you started with. In this
case, once a problem has been identified and solved once, there’s no need to
start all over from scratch if it happens to another user. The IT person will
already have the answer since he’s dealt with it before.

Unfortunately, as the IT department expands, you may lose
this advantage. When you have several different IT people handling users’
problems, they may not coordinate these efforts with one another. A user who
calls with a new problem this week may not get help from the same person who
helped her with a different problem two weeks ago and thus won’t recognize if
the two problems are related or the second problem stems from the solution to
the first.

However, this won’t happen if you created a scalable,
well-thought-out in-house tech support solution from the beginning.

Professionalizing tech support

A good in-house tech support program will dedicate one or
more people to manning the “help desk,” and more importantly, will use
technology to track problems and document solutions, keeping all tech support
personnel “in the loop” on all of the problems as the tech support staff grows.

Luckily, there are software
solutions designed for this purpose. These systems allow for continuity when
you have different help desk people working with a user at different times, and
make it much easier to spot trends and address them early. Help requests are
logged and assigned to a support rep, then tracked through the resolution and
follow-up stages. You can read more about various HelpDesk
software solutions at http://www.help-desk-world.com/.

Good support systems will also include self-help databases,
so that users can search for solutions that they can implement themselves prior
to submitting a service request.

A good in-house tech support system will be designed to
handle reports of problems through different formats, such as phone, email, and
web interface. One of the biggest challenges for tech support is the difficulty
of diagnosing software and hardware problems based on users’ descriptions.
However, it may be difficult or impossible for support personnel to visit the
desk of every user who has a problem. New operating system functionality,
however, means the support person can “be there” without leaving the helpdesk.
You can incorporate Windows XP’s remote assistance feature into your in-house
support program so that the support person can view exactly what’s happening on
the user’s computer desktop instead of relying on vague descriptions. Even
better, the support person can take control of the user’s computer remotely and
walk the user through the steps as the support person fixes the problem.

Outsourcing tech support

At the enterprise level, help desk services may consume a
large proportion of IT resources and personnel costs can rise
as it becomes necessary to recruit and train operators and managers and, in
some cases, maintain round-the-clock coverage. Some companies turn to
outsourcing their support services. This can reduce operational costs and may
improve user satisfaction if handled properly. There are many companies that
can provide help desk services on a local, national or international basis. Here
is a list of such

Making it scalable

There is no “one size fits all” technical support solution,
but if you plan ahead, you can design a strategy that will help you handle the
tech support problem on any scale and make the necessary transitions with as
little disruption to your business process as possible.