Monday, March 20, 2006

Everybody to the Limit . . .

I've done a fair amount of tech support in my day. As a grad student at MSU, I worked with a team of grads and undergrads, providing tech support to researchers at the Case Center for CAD/CAM. I've done my time on a software help line too.

But most of my tech support has been more local and seasonal. I specialize in Christmas tech support, for members of my family. Christmas at my house consists of my boys, my wife and I all unwrapping a bunch of new tech gizmos and then rushing off to the four corners to "install" them. Things are better now, as my kids have grown old enough to do most of their own support. But I have spent untold hours of Christmas vacation searching the net for drivers and patches, installing, booting, rebooting, watching progress guages count in irregular intervals to 100 in order to get some new toy to do its thing.
This was all brought home to me a couple Fridays ago on a visit to the Polytechnic campus. I was working in the Computing Commons at about 6:00pm, waiting for traffic to thin out. Just me and the lab monitor. Nice. A professor walked in, with a digital camera that ASU had loaned to him an hour or so before. Said he was having trouble getting his laptop to recognize it.

Now this is just the thing that Christmas tech support is all about, so I figured here was my chance to do a good deed for the day. So after the lab monitor had tried what he could think of, I invited the good doctor over to my laptop to give it a go.

Of course, as it turns out, the camera was pretty old. No simple drivers, no installation disk. After a half hour or so of goofing around with drivers, patches, downloads, web searches and the like, we found one of those desperate solutions you find when you're looking hard...A Finnish web site with a goofy know edit some .inf file by removing three strategically placed semi-colons, uninstall the camera, then reinstall it and ignore all warnings...the kind of thing that never works...but at 6:45 on a Friday night, you'll try anything . . .

And lo and behold, it did work. On my computer. And half an hour later, after a lot more back and forth, it worked on the professor's computer too. Crisis averted. Good deed done.

But it really made me wonder. How can we hope to provide that level of support to every member of the community? The level of "work at it till we solve it, no matter what". But if its your problem, that's the only kind of support that is worth anything to you.
Any ideas?


Cameron Scholtz March 20, 2006 at 7:26 AM  

That is a really good question. There's no make-everyone-happy answer. Companies charge needy customers more...Dell sells extended support packages. Charles Schwab has tiered investor models. Neimen Marcus has better personal shoppers than Macy's. In each case, the level of service rises the more the customer spends. Supply and demand.



lparsons,  March 20, 2006 at 8:25 AM  

As someone who has worked in tech support quite a bit myself, I had a good chuckle after reading that post. Good thing that guy had a problem on Friday night and not Monday morning! ;-)

Seriously, though, I think that it underscores a very significant problem with tech support. We need to define limits to what we do and do not support. Certainly, standardizing efforts like the 1:1 initiative could help here. I'm sure that there are a myriad of discussions we could have about which hardware/software we will support, but I'll leave those for others. Suffice it to say, limits must be set.

However, something I think has not received much attention, but that I view as equally, if not more important, is providing varying levels of support to different segments of our user base. In the camera scenario you described, faculty, staff, grad student, or undergrad would all have gotten the same level of support. It does not make sense to me to divide our resources up evenly between anyone and everyone who asks for help. As we extend services to include alumni and admitted students, we stretch our tech support resources even further. There must be a difference in the level of support provided an applicant who can't get their activation code to work, a non-degree student registered for a few classes, a PhD candidate in physics, a faculty member working on major research projects and teaching classes, and finally a staff member supporting an entire department of staff, faculty, and students. Our current support structure does not adequately address these differences. This leads directly to inconsistent levels of support that depend on who you know, how you ask, and a lot of luck.

Nancy March 20, 2006 at 10:13 AM  

Part of the solution is to make the user as self-reliant as possible, leaving staff time for hand-holding real live people. If we could funnel all the problems people experience with university information technology into one giant searchable FAQ machine, like Indiana University's Knowledge Base, then we'd have more resources for the questions that have to be addressed physically, one on one.


Derwin March 21, 2006 at 1:15 AM  

The quick and easy answer to the question concerning the solution to this specific case of a help desk perfect storm is simply “it can’t and shouldn’t be attempted”. You aren’t going to fix ‘em all. There is a need to keep cost/benefit ratio to reasonable levels as well as provide strategies to mitigate this problem from occurring in the first place. The question “Why is ASU loaning out unsupported technology” needs to be asked. Now, what is important in this case is that the solution was solved without official ASU support resources. This was more a case of peer to peer/good Samaritan which is probably the means by which the greater portion of support solutions are found on campus in the first place. Official support should be focused on 99% (99.9% … 99.99% … 99.999% … pick your favorite) of cases. You know, the “make a list of sanctioned technology otherwise use at your own risk” solution wins out as a feasible strategy. But don’t stop there. Let’s encourage peer to peer and empower the good Samaritans. Let’s put a computer co-op stand in most of the computer comfy sites around the university, man them with volunteers. Let’s create a cyber-co-op space with a “stump the experts” challenge. Techies do love a challenge.

carmean March 21, 2006 at 5:00 AM  

Adrian asked "How can we hope to provide that level of support to every member of the community?" Of course the easy, truthful and realistic answer is that we can't, never did, never will. But good tech support folks are analytical, helpful and kind. So we often throw ourselves at sticky problems until we're bleary-eyed. We hate to admit we can't make everyone happy all the time.

Not strategic and not effective, and it either stops us from going home to our families on Friday night or it stops us from supporting other services while we're on campus.

Where to start instead? Work on policy that stops these problems from occuring and on strategic consistency regarding when it's in ASU's best interestes to keep trying.

As cheap as cameras are these days, why is "ASU" still loaning out old cameras without usable drivers? If we are loaning old equipment, why aren't we set up to download the images and cut to CD for the loanee at the loan site?

If we really want faculty to use technology as simple as digital photos, loan them decent, intuitive equipment. I plug my little Mavica into any USB port on Windows or Mac and the images are up in my Flickr space within minutes.

Ok, part two of my rant:
Problems will still happen and support will be needed. How do we provide the level that people want? Start by creating a standard for what we do and do not support and then support people consistently. If we, as a community, stop spending hours on old equipment, printers, software, floppy drives, etc we could spend intensive time on problems that matter. It's not just the "only kind of support that is worth anything to you" that should matter, it's the support that should matter to ASU if we're going to get where we want to go.

How do we as a community create strategic focus and 'eye on the prize' services and support instead of being distracted by the one-off problems of the moment? That's what really makes me wonder.

saj43,  March 21, 2006 at 9:32 AM  

Try this recipe.

- VARIETY - multiple points of service with multiple talents, ready and willing to taylor support to individual needs
- VARIETY of ways to provide service. Could be one on one service, workshops (ie how to configure your laptop and keep it secure), on-line, by phone, self-serve, etc.
- Close alliances with all IT areas - sharing knowledge. And someone who can keep track of who's who.
- The right staff
- A persistant staff
- A well-trained staff. Staff that can think through difficult problems or quickly and gracefully fix the simple things
- A wide network of specialists
- A wide network of technology generalists
- A place or multiple places staffed with people that know who to contact and where to contact the right support person - a sort of centralized 'data' center for people and sevices
- And a work culture that promotes individualized services

lani,  March 21, 2006 at 4:00 PM  

In your case, I would say that your providing that level of customer service to the professor was a combination of a few factors: 1) you're a techno/gizmo geek and you like that sort of stuff; 2) you enjoy a challenge - never say die!; 3) you're knowledgeable enough about the subject to be of use.
When it comes to employees providing that sort of service on a regular basis, in a tech support scenario, I think those same traits apply. But basically, that level of service comes from employees who care. (No matter whom they work for.) Some people have an internal drive that compels them to excel. Some people want to excel, but may need a little coaching and direction. (This is where a strong leader comes in handy.) Some people are not going to excel no matter what because they are lazy or have a bad attitude. The trick is to find intelligent, motivated individuals with good attitudes and build your team with them.
Show me an untrained individual who's willing (and able) to learn and has a great attitude . . . and on the other hand show me an expert/guru in his field with a bad attitude . . . The greenhorn wins hands down every time in my book. It's worth the investment to train him/her. And it's worth the sacrifice to not have the expert around. Bad attitudes are like rust.
And you're right . . . When you're the customer with the problem -- no matter how big or small -- you want outstanding customer service. And the organizations that provide it are the ones that will excel in their business.

Gene,  March 22, 2006 at 2:21 AM  

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." - Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke, 1676

This quote establishes the frame work of creating that level of customer support.

First and foremost, we all need to be willing to take ownership of a problem. Position has no relevancy. Like a pilot of a plane who chooses to help a ground crew member with baggage. If you can help, help. I applaud you for stepping up and helping when you could have given an excuse to not be involved. When we are willing to do this, we can exhaust all our resources to give service to the point of liability.

An escalation resource is a vital resolution for our community. The strength of each level of support is based on the previous work done. If each level can eliminate more and more irrelevancy, the nimbler and quicker we can solve problems as an organization.

The “shoulders of giants” is the accuracy of the problem, the information we gathered to solve it, and the attempts we made to fix it. Only in our initiative and escalation precision we can provide “work at it till we solve it, no matter what.”

Gene,  March 22, 2006 at 2:27 AM  

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." - Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke, 1676

This quote establishes the frame work of creating that level of customer support.

First and foremost, we all need to be willing to take ownership of a problem. Position has no relevancy. Like a pilot of a plane who chooses to help a ground crew member with baggage. If you can help, help. I applaud you for stepping up and helping when you could have given an excuse to not be involved. When we are willing to do this, we can exhaust all our resources to give service to the point of liability.

An escalation resource is a vital resolution for our community. The strength of each level of support is based on the previous work done. If each level can eliminate more and more irrelevancy, the nimbler and quicker we can solve problems as an organization.

The “shoulders of giants” is the accuracy of the problem, the information we gathered to solve it, and the attempts we made to fix it. Only in our initiative and escalation precision we can provide “work at it till we solve it, no matter what.”

Nate March 22, 2006 at 2:47 AM  

"How can we hope to provide that level of support to every member of the community?"

In 80% of cases offering this level of support more consistently across the entire community can be best acheived by starting with unifying the "support storefront" if you will and handling the assignment of the work on the back-end. Provide our customers with a single place (both physically and virtually) where they will not be turned away and ownership of their technology is nearly guaranteed to be taken from them. Thusly, the customer of our various technology services isn't required to recall the who/what/when vagaries of our organizational ability to support their particular need.

marty,  March 23, 2006 at 1:56 AM  

This is a software problem right? The hardware is a side issue. It's the software that isn't working. Here is a good article about software: link Apache's Greg Stein says commercial software will go away as software becomes more commoditized. What will be sold is assistance in using software. These are issues that will be taken over by the private sector in time. We should focus on accelerating that takeover (thereby relieving ASU of a really ugly job) by using as much open-source software as possible and by figuring ways to use the web as the platform.


marty,  March 23, 2006 at 3:12 AM  

I would also like to suggest that it isn't just the students who should be getting their own tools like laptoops; it's also the faculty and staff. Why should ASU be buying cameras? There are plenty of good cheap digital cameras out there. We all should get used to buying our own stuff to do what we need to do in our jobs. Then when problems arise they go to the place they bought it and generally learn to handle these kinds of problems themselves.


Pat,  March 23, 2006 at 9:11 AM  

Just a clarification, the equipment was NOT ASU equipment, but rather a camera owned by the person seeking the help!

quagmire,  March 24, 2006 at 2:10 AM  

iPod use in classrooms:


iacnld,  March 24, 2006 at 4:40 AM  

Three tid bits regarding outstanding customer service to share….
1) OWN your customers job! Make it your own.
2) Organize technology resources (inside and outside UTO) around the customer.
3) Feedback, FEEDBACK, F E E D B A C Kkkkkk!!!!!

1. I spend a lot of time helping ASU folks get information they need. Sometimes it comes from the Warehouse... but other times from somewhere else! When a person asks "How do I get the average GPA of my undergrads,?" in order to answer that.. I need to know WHY they ask. I need to know when they need it. I try to OWN the task the person is trying to accomplish. I try to know ALL the information resources out there.. .not just the Warehouse... Control D, SIS, DARS, ARTS and find the easiest, best way for the person to accomplish "THEIR" job (not mine!). This strategy requires a lot of "line crossing" for which I have had my hand slapped on more than one occasion by the way :-) It seems that so many of our UTO resources are organized around systems and technology that there are barriers to helping customers whose problems may cross these organizational barriers. What if... we organized around groups of customers? What if... the IT support folks were familiar with different types of customers and their jobs? What if the customer didn't have to think... is this a VPN problem? Is this an MS Access problem? Is this an ODBC problem? Is this an operating system problem? Is this a CICS problem? Is this a research cluster problem?

2. A very important question is, how do we organize technology support staff around our customers? The answer to this question must involve all ASU technology support staff. We have technology wizards all over four campuses plus dispersed across the net. How do these folks best organize to support the customer? Once upon a time, there were the technology “have-nots” and the technology “haves” (Engineering and Business) among our customers. More and more, every area is becoming a technology “have.” How is UTO partnering with the technology staff in colleges, departments, and business areas? How many folks in UTO know folks in the distributed areas? It would be awfully hard for UTO staff to know what a particular program coordinator is doing with technology in their job over in the Nursing building. Support staff in the Nursing building might have a better idea. How can we partner with them to solve problems and improve the technology culture at ASU?

One more frustration I have that is age old….. lack of FEEDBACK! Once we help the customer (in our view)... how do we assess that the customer actually thinks we helped them? How many web pages have you been on where you were asked to complete a satisfaction survey?... Heck... forget the web, I get them at the car repair place every time I go in. They are sent out by an "independent" source that accumulates hopefully unbiased measures of satisfaction. Oh how I have wished for the time and money to implement something like that with our Warehouse support. The best I can do right now is at the end of every solution I send by email to a Warehouse customer, I say…”Please let me know if this works ok for you. THANKS!” The majority of folks will report back to me that they successfully accomplished their job task. Recently a UTO person said to me… “communication takes time” with the intonation that we just don’t have that much time. But communication with our customers, in a way they understand… that is such well spent time!

And Adrian… please do tell us that you crossed organizational lines and provided feedback to the folks who loaned the camera….. so they could prevent this in the future?

Nancy March 27, 2006 at 2:10 AM  

Fabulous discussion on this topic. Being an information-holic who hates for potential gold to get lost, I was thinking how cool it would be if we could collect this good stuff and port it to the TechPlan wiki, where people could reorganize the information, if they wanted, and see what kind of support plan we could come up with. So I just moved the discussion, kit and caboodle, to an "archive page" called "BlogArchive - Everybody to the Limit", and will add more comments from this topic to the archive as they arrive.

The archive page is linked to a new page called "ASU Technology Support", where anyone can contribute ideas and articles about this topic.

If you haven't been on the TechPlan wiki for awhile, it's been reorganized a bit. There are "published articles" (see "Categories" tags at the bottom of each wiki page to find out whether something's "published", which means that Adrian and James have got them at least semi-finished, and "active articles" (not tagged at this point), which are the places where you can go to town, adding new stuff and editing. For an explanation of the "published", "active" and "archived" categories, see the TechPlan Wiki "Contributor's Guide".

This is fun! :)

leo@asu,  March 27, 2006 at 7:14 AM  

Jeni, you made some excellent points. I just read an article in Technology & Learning mag that has a small blurb on You create a list of 43 things you want to accomplish, and then are connected with people who share the same goals. I could see the help desk having a resource like this where one could search and list IT staff that has experience with digital cameras or digital photography? We all have experience in areas that aren't necessarily listed in our job description. Knowing who to escalate a support call to is just as important as knowing how to troubleshoot. And in times of desperation, a phone call or an e-mail to the right person is priceless.

Sure, this wouldn't solve every problem, my boss might be pretty upset if I received calls and spent time away from my projects. But it does expand on the CCC concept of tapping into the great resources found on this campus. Great discussion.


pchorner,  March 28, 2006 at 6:32 AM  

I have been thinking about this subject some more and have a couple more thoughts to add. Existing in a 1:1 environment to me would mean that ASU provides the services and resources which virtually any machine or smaller footprint device could access with an almost identical experience. I'll find a place on the wiki or here in the blog later to go into my virtual session and resource provisioning model. But given that, I would not expect ASU to provide hardware and OS support. It is kind of like me using a telephone to call a movie theater and order tickets online. I would not ask them to help me fix my call waiting service, nor would I ask them to help me program my new phone. It is the device I am using to access them and their services. I would expect them to let me know what movies are playing and allow me to purchase tickets and help me with that process. The more we can design and deliver our information and services to be receiver neutral, the better we can align our support around those services for the best experience possible. ASU is not a computer store, nor a camera shop, it is a higher education institution. Our product is not a computer or cellphone, and to some respect a trade skill, it is the application of critical thinking to knowledge and information which results in something greater.

lparsons,  March 30, 2006 at 3:52 AM  

I agree with pchorner regarding the delivery of "receiver neutral" services. The key to doing that is providng services with *standard* interfaces, not proprietary ones. In some cases, proprietary has become the standard (e.g. Adobe PDF) but to the extent possible, we should focus on open standards. Open standards foster the type of community driven support strutures that are so vital to organizations like ASU. That same open spirit complements the academic environment as well.

rbogan,  April 18, 2006 at 4:10 AM  

To me this camera problem points out that customer support starts with being proactive. Why was the camera handed out for the Professor to find out there was a problem?

We need to get into a mode of resolving knowable issues/problems before we pass off items to the end user. The camera should have been tested with various OS and any applicable drivers provided for the user when they picked it up. The user should have been asked what OS it was going to be used for and if no drivers existed they should have been made aware of this.

There are enough problems that can not be anticipated with out having to support issues that can be anticipated.

JamesRobertAllenCSE,  June 15, 2006 at 2:18 AM  

I think it says something that this little story invoked so many and so divers responses and suggestions.
Here’s mine:
Each of us has come a long way through a lot of (insert favorite injective here) to get to read and comment on this blog. We are a divers (cool, I got to use ‘divers’ twice!) group of very savvy, experienced, and dedicated individuals. If we could pool our accumulated knowledge in a wiki or similar remotely accessible easily searchable data (knowledge) base that was organized in a useful and meaningful way the result would be awesome to say the least.
Secondly, keep in mind that old one minute manager adage that 80% of your problems come from 20% of your clients.
We should establish a clearly defined hierarchic of support personnel based only on the likelihood of the person being able to solve the problem presented. I know we’ve had something like this and still do but it is fractured and poorly defined.
My son works for OneNeck where support is all they do. I’ve seen their setup and it’s not only impressive but it works. They have a group of personable, skilled people that serve as the ‘front-line’; greeting the clients, and defining the problem and if possible solving. it. Then, if they can’t solve it, they have a structured list of second-level people that have established their experience toward certain types of problems. The front line person finds the second level person that is most likely to solve the problem and passes the client on.
This continues to five levels. Each time the problem is escalated the new person owns that problem and will see that it is solved or elevated. Their stated target is to solve 50% at the first level, 25% at the second level, and so on so that only about 2% ever reach the fifth level.
This allows the complex problems to advance rapidly while solving simpler problems immediately, while allowing experienced personnel time to stick with tougher problems until a solution is found.
All we need is unlimited funds.

Saniya January 1, 2009 at 9:19 PM  

Excellent - thanks! Personally, I like the extra degree of continuity better

than I like looking like another Yahoo customer.

Slim Digital Camera February 8, 2009 at 12:58 AM  

It is one of those questions that will never really have a definitive answer for. I myself have had problems with tech support.. most recently with a large name manufacturer that supplies networking equipment. I think the best way of having tech support. Is to get the staff to not look at their "list of responses" and actually listen to the problem in the first place.

It could have saved me 2 hours if the guy on the other end of my phone did that in the first place.