The Surprising Reality of Support Automation

By Liz Roop

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If you’re thinking about using tangible cost-savings or reduced demand on the help desk as justification for investing in support automation, you may want to re-think your strategy to focus instead on cost avoidance.

As it turns out, demands on the help desk have not declined in correlation to the growing use of automation tools, nor has the number of users each agent can support increased. What support automation has done, however, is allow the same number of agents to keep up with increased demand and do so on the same, and sometimes smaller, budget.

“Has it made a major impact on the support requirements of an organization? I don’t think so,” said Forrester Research Vice President Chip Gliedman. “We seem to be hovering at one to one-and-a-half incidents per person per month (and) one help desk person being able to support about 150 business users. We’re at an equilibrium point."

According to the 2006 Service and Support Metrics Survey, SupportIndustry.com’s annual report on key trends in service and support, 77% of respondents reported that need for their services increased significantly in 2005. The survey also found, in spite of the increased demand, 32% of respondents said their support operations budgets remained the same, while 10% had their budgets cuts.

Increased efficiencies drove 33% of respondents to implement e-support and self-service technology, while 17% did so to reduce the number of support requests. Customer satisfaction was the key driver for 15% of respondents, while customer demand accounted for 8%.

Very few indicated cost reduction as the primary driver for implementing automation support. And that is a good thing because in the long run, the primary benefits a company will realize from support automation are increased efficiencies and increased productivity for both end users and agents—not direct costs savings.

But efficiency and productivity do impact the bottom line, which is why self-help tools for end users is such a popular automation strategy.

“Self-service, which many customers demand and take advantage of when available, is changing the way companies do business, particularly in the financial services, telecommunications and high-tech sectors,” according to the SupportIndustry.com report.

And while it’s true that self-service carries a lower median cost per incident than phone or email support ($5 as compared to $20 and $16 respectively) that doesn’t automatically translate into direct cost savings for the help desk.

Case-in-point: Automated password resets.

“It won’t save a lot of money because password resets take only about a minute. You’d have to save 75,000 password resets to reduce one person from the help desk. But it’s a piece of the automation puzzle,” said Forrester’s Gliedman. “A lot of times, it’s just for user satisfaction … If I can easily reset it, I’m less likely to write my password down and stick it to the bottom of my drawer.”

What it does do is give end users the ability to resolve issues on their own and typically far more quickly than is possible when the help desk must be called in. Plus, self-help tools don’t have to be high-end technological wonders to make an impact.

Other Tools

Offering end users access to such online tools as knowledge bases, webinars and other training and help resources can go a long way toward reducing demand on the help desk and shortening downtime.

"There’s no reason why you should have multiple people calling for the same information when you can put it in one place and point everyone to it … .They are saving time and money, but they’re saving it through the elimination of redundancy," said Gliedman.

Along with self-help tools, automating services such as inventory asset management and incident reporting also translate into increased efficiencies by providing support agents with the information they need to more effectively diagnose and repair the problem at hand.

This is not to say that automated support results only in soft cost savings. Remote monitoring, remote access and self-healing all have the potential to result in tangible savings by resolving support issues without the need for costly onsite visits.

In particular, with SupportIndustry.com’s survey finding that more than half of the respondents were handling more than 60% of their support volume via phone, automated support tools that resolve issues before they escalate to the more costly desk-side support are particularly beneficial.

Siemens and CA

For example, when Siemens Business Services first implemented CA SupportBridge Live Automation, they realized an increase in first-call resolutions by 15%. However, because the Level 1 support agents were enabled with tools to resolve the issue on first contact, they found they were spending more time with the customer to resolve the issue, which initially increased handling times.

“Looking back, there was a learning curve the agents had to get over to learn how to efficiently and effectively use the product,” said Jeff Roche, director, global service desk, Siemens Business Services. “Since we got over that curve, we’ve been able to reduce the handle time on those calls."

Since then, increased handling-time is offset by the time savings generated via the automation capabilities in CA SupportBridge. Plus, over time, the Level 1 agents have become more versed in using the diagnostic and repair capabilities within the solution.

The end result for Siemens has been a 15% reduction in the number of onsite dispatches; a higher rate of first call resolutions; improved efficiencies in service support delivery; and increased end user satisfaction.

Roche said maximizing the savings from support automation requires careful analysis of where the problems are as well as end user interactions so the tasks you automate will encourage agents and end users to fully embrace the technology.

“That’s really where you start to get end users and the agents really excited about the product because it’s making their jobs easier and more straightforward,” he said.

In fact, the end user perspective is something that is creeping into discussions about support automation, particularly self-support, said Anna Sz. Orban, support automation business technologist with CA.

“Ultimately it’s about end user up-time and productivity: ‘I can lose a lot of money and time if an end user is not able to work on their computer’,” she said.