The help desk needs an update and video is its killer new feature

Credit: Victor1558 via Flickr

Many companies are hoping to capitalize on the BYOD and mobile-first trends by encouraging their workers to become self-supporting rather than relying on the traditional help desk and desktop support model. Encouraging self-support is a great idea and has the potential to reduce support and IT costs as well as to increase employee productivity and satisfaction -- both of which go hand in hand with the overall aims of BYOD and enterprise mobility.

Users can take many questions and device-related issues to an Apple Genius Bar, Best Buy Geek Squad, a manufacturer's support line, or even to their tech-savvy friends instead of to the corporate help desk. 

The move to self-support hasn't gone unnoticed by IT leaders or vendors. During a conversation earlier this year, MobileIron CEO Ojas Rege pointed out to me that the corporate help desk, which has been the first place to call with technology problems for decades, is gradually becoming the technology resource of last resort for workers in many companies.

None of this means that the help desk and related support teams are going to disappear completely. There are often company-specific aspects to user and device support/management -- corporate network access, integration with internal resources like file shares or SharePoint sites, and restrictions imposed by IT to comply with industry or government regulations -- that outside agents simply aren't aware of or know how to support. Another major stumbling block is that companies that span multiple sites or multiple continents tend to have large numbers of employees that don't have immediate access to a mobile shop setup at headquarters or at flag-ship locations.

Still, the helpdesk can be re-imagined for the 21st century. In fact, getting beyond the idea of the help desk as a phone number to call is critical to efficiency and effectiveness. In the last decade, that process started with email addresses and a web portals that let users report issues without waiting on hold -- more recently texting and other forms of messaging have joined these earlier solutions. The ability for help desk agents to use remote desktop tools to take control of PCs remotely expanded on that trend significantly and greatly reduced the need to assign desktop techs to handle many minor issues.

So how can companies move forward in a way that encourages self-support, particularly for BYOD devices?

One surprising yet powerful candidate is video.

Video -- be it calling, chatting, or conferencing -- has proven effective in almost every business or academic niche. Remote collaboration, meetings that include attendees spread all over the globe, remote teaching or training, sales presentations and contract negotiation with far off clients, and even diagnosis and treatment protocols for remote or understaffed hospitals. Why can't those advantages be brought to the corporate help desk and related services?

Despite having heard arguments for video as a support mechanism for a while now, I remained a bit of a skeptic until this week.

The power of video as a support tools was made evident to me this week when I used Apple's FaceTime to talk to my dad instead of a phone call Christmas morning.

It wasn't the first time I'd used FaceTime (or Skype or another video chat product), but it was the first time my dad had used anything of the sort on his iPhone. Excited by this futuristic event (my dad is a 76 year old die hard Start Trek fan), he asked me how to take a picture of the chat to show it to one of my aunts whose only experience of the Internet was in the nineties via Microsoft's WebTV (now called MSN TV).

As I started to tell him to press the home and lock buttons at the same time to take screenshot, I realized it would be much easier to show him. Although my father often knows what buttons or onscreen controls do, he rarely remembers the names for any of them -- a challenge that many help desk agents and IT professionals face on a daily basis. Showing him the process to take by holding up my own iPhone (I'd called from my iPad) rather than trying to talk him through the process easily saved us several minutes and a few degrees of frustration.

That's a simple example, but it illustrated very clearly why video can -- and should -- become part of the help desk toolkit.

  • Some actions require using physical controls on a device -- not something that can be displayed using remote control solutions to identify problems or correct them.
  • Absent a remote control solution, video allows agents a visual check of a device to be certain the issue has been resolved.
  • Like my dad, many people learn and absorb information best visually and interactively. That means a video encounter is more likely to stick in their minds rather than a description or list of instructions -- consider it the IT equivalent of the old adage about why teaching a man to fish is better in the long run that giving him a fish.
  • Having seen and accomplished a task, many people are likely to feel more comfortable showing others how to accomplish that task and are more likely to volunteer that information, which can reduce future calls about a common issue while also giving employees a greater sense of ownership over the technology they use (and possibly own).
  • Video chat is becoming a staple form of communication for many people in their personal and professional lives and is beginning to make voice-only calls seem old fashioned or out of date. The option of video shows that IT is keeping up with modern technologies and adapting to the realities of today's technological world.
  • At the same time, the approach can make users that haven't adopted video communication more comfortable using it in other aspects of their jobs as well as in their personal lives.
  • Video can replicate the mobile shop experience to some degree -- including support for multiple users to collaborate in a chat -- the result is somewhere between an Apple Genius Bar and Google Hangout type of experience. That can extend the mobile shop beyond major corporate hubs.
  • Interacting visually rather than by text or voice alone provide a much more human encounter -- that makes it easier to feel and display empathy to the person needing support. It also shows that the help desk, which is often referred to as the face of IT, is staffed by real people trying to help resolve problems that their users are experiencing.
  • The experience may encourage increased engagement between IT and users. That has value in developing the relationships that IT will need with various stakeholders in a company to remain relevant and involved as the consumerization, mobile, and BYOD trends accelerate over the coming months and years.

Video isn't a perfect solution for every problem and it may take support staff some time to get used to random employees virtually stepping into their cubicles, but it has a lot of great pay offs for companies. In considering how best to implement video into the support process, many IT organizations will also likely find related areas where help desk and other support channels can be improved to deliver a better user experience. That user experience is more important than ever as employees become tech-savvy enough to bypass IT if official processes become to onerous.

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