Help desks for IT have undergone an evolution from slow, cumbersome, and intrusive to fast, automated, and hands-off, giving employees more time for productive work.
The help desk has evolved just as enterprise IT has changed, passing through important phases such as client-server architectures. Now that we’ve entered the age of distributed workforces and cloud computing, new requirements and possibilities for the help desk await.
The early days: Phone-intensive support for non-technical users
In the early nineties, I worked on the help desk for a major pharmaceutical company, supporting several thousand users. Our toolset was just a ticket-logging system and a telephone. We used the ticket logging system to record our work for the day. We didn’t have a knowledge base. The only knowledge we worked with was the knowledge we had gained from the courses we had taken.
Employees would call with problems, and we would try to resolve them over the phone. Obviating the need for the call in the first place — what’s known in the IT help desk business as “call deflection” — was the ultimate goal.
When it came to intelligence about the endpoint devices (laptops, iPads, etc.) employees were using, we were flying blind.
We had no way of tracking endpoints, hardware models, software releases, patches, or any other data that would be useful for monitoring or troubleshooting the computers that employees relied on every day.
When things broke, we tried to fix them quickly. If necessary, we visited the employee’s office. Employees always appreciated that, but it was costly and time-consuming for the help desk to have agents wandering around the building.
If a help desk did need to speak with an employee, the next best outcome was “first call resolution.” Resolve the problem on the first phone call, preferably in 15 minutes or less. Of course, resolving issues commonly required many more phone calls and much more time.
The middle ages: Collecting information in a client-server world
In the mid to late 1990s, this telephone-based system underwent an evolution to a client-server model. A help desk server was installed on-premises, and help desk agents connected to the server with client software over the local area network (LAN). The server software included a database, which made it much easier to track and manage requests.
The server also made it possible for agents to begin collecting and organizing information into a knowledge base. Of course, a knowledge base is only great if it’s up to date.
In those days, knowledge collection was largely manual and ad hoc. One agent’s description of a problem might differ from another’s, and both agents might overlook some issues altogether. There was no complete catalog of endpoints, endpoint problems, and resolutions to those problems.
These new help desk systems also included remote control software, enabling a help desk agent to connect to an employee’s computer and perhaps take control of it. But that kind of interaction was always intrusive.
The employee had to stop work while the troubleshooting took place. Although better than no control at all, troubleshooting without interrupting work is the ideal.
These client-server products typically required a lot of customization as well. Then that work might need a revamp with a new software release. That’s expensive, time-consuming work that doesn’t deliver any real value to the company.
Finally, client-server systems weren’t scalable or cost-effective. As companies continued to grow, they grew frustrated that they had to invest so much in servers and infrastructure.
The early modern period: From client-server to the cloud
Around ten years ago, a new generation of IT help desk tools appeared: cloud-based solutions.
These tools were built for the web, not ported to the web. They were SaaS applications. They were much easier to configure than earlier client-server products, didn’t require extensive customization, scalable with little-to-no infrastructure investment required, and companies could pay for them through a subscription, growing their usage as needed.
When cloud-based help desk solutions became available, customers were ready to make the jump.
Still, there was room for improvement. Even these cloud platforms had several shortcomings, including:
- Old, incomplete data
While they made it easier to monitor endpoints, they still didn’t detect all the endpoints in use. They typically missed as many as 10% to 20% of endpoints. And data collection about endpoints was static: maybe collected once a day or even once a week. To get real-time information about an endpoint, help desk agents still needed to connect directly to the endpoint, interrupting the employee’s work.
- Lack of automation
Because help desks didn’t have comprehensive, real-time information about endpoints, they had trouble developing scripts or programs that could automate their work. As a result, a lot of help desk work was still manual and time-consuming.
- Lack of support for proactive maintenance
The lack of data also made it difficult to discover problems, quickly determine how many other endpoints might be affected by those problems, and push patches or configuration changes to endpoints before employees even noticed the issue occurring.
- Lack of support for self-service interactions
A new generation entering the workforce grew up with computers. They’re used to ordering everything from food to furniture on smartphones, and they expect fast, frictionless experiences online. Given a chance, many of these employees would prefer not to interact with the help desk at all. If something needs fixing, they’d like to navigate to a screen and quickly fix it themselves. To date, most help desk products haven’t been able to support the self-service features these younger employees prefer.
- Too many tools
All these traditional toolsets, including those from the first years of the cloud-computing era, are incomplete. Help-desk agents spend a lot of time context-switching between tools. That slows things down. And it increases the costs and training requirements for help-desk agents.
The modern era: Real-time data
The next phase in cloud-based help desk software includes solutions, such as Salesforce’s Work.com front-facing help desk called Employee Concierge and back-end tool for agents known as IT Service Center, which solve the problems still found in the first generation cloud-based help desk platforms. This new phase in the evolution of help desk platforms provides:
- Real-time data about endpoints
With real-time data and performance monitoring, agents can discover at a glance what’s happening at an endpoint, eliminating the need for lengthy telephone conversations or intrusive remote control sessions.
Detailed data about endpoints enables a help desk to automate repairs and maintenance, confident that the scripts are doing the right things to the right endpoints at the right time.
- Proactive maintenance
Real-time data also lets agents detect problems before they interrupt an employee’s work. They can make repairs before interruptions occur without disturbing employees at all.
- Support for self-service interactions
Real-time and trustworthy automation makes it easier to create self-service interactions for users. Help desk teams can turn basic maintenance tasks previously assigned to level-one agents to employees themselves. Employees can finally have the online experience at work that they have everywhere else. Through quick clicks, a requester can leverage knowledge articles, use features in their browser, or even from their mobile device to diagnose and fix problems without involving help desk agents at all.
- Truly integrated toolsets
Instead of patching together disparate tools, this next generation of cloud platforms offers cohesive tool sets built into platforms that help desk employees already know. With less context switching, work becomes faster and less error-prone.
IT help desk software has come a long way — from telephone calls with no systematic intelligence about endpoints to 24/7 access to real-time data on endpoints in the enterprise and self-service tools for tech-savvy employees to solve problems themselves.
Learn more about how Tanium and Salesforce are transforming the help desk and reimagining the employee experience.