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You did what? The trials of supporting remote users

It's a dirty job, but...

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Reg Reader Workshop IT support, as we know, is that job function in the technical ecosystem that takes the flack for any problem affecting a user. These can range from the straightforward if annoying forgotten password requests and slightly cryptic ‘my-laptop-isn't-working-anymore’ complaints, through to the more serious ‘accidentally deleted’ mission-critical spreadsheet containing the lottery syndicate's surefire numbers for the week's rollover jackpot.

Often in parallel, the help desk also has to field the endless calls arising from slightly more perturbing problems such as the 'service interruption' following an issue deeper in the IT infrastructure. And in most cases, an end user's admission that the problem stems from some action they have taken is about as rare as the thanks given to IT support staff.

Of course, back in the day at least the help desk would be situated in the same building, or the same campus as the user with the problem. With mobile technologies enabling the continued increase in remote working however, the help desk increasingly needs to investigate problems with users who probably will not be in an office. In some situations it may be days before a laptop can be dropped in for a physical look, if indeed this can happen at all. Given the nature of many support calls, those trying to support remote workers can find things challenging, particularly if they do not have remote control or management tools to hand.

The consequences, naturally, can be the cause of some amusement. At one point in time I was an IT manager, and during the course of a typically long day I was with a member of my team when he took a call from a manager working at a remote site: in effect he could not connect to any of the business systems he needed. My team member worked through a near-perfect call resolution process to diagnose, and indeed try to fix the problem the user was experiencing. After resetting various passwords, checking permissions on authentication systems and back end applications, looking at the network kit to see if anything was out of place and even asking the “customer” to inspect a few items on the laptop being used, normal service had still to be resumed.

What could be wrong? We were mildly concerned. After another ten minutes of fruitless efforts on our side and that of the user we were flummoxed. At this stage we were about to initiate a physical recall and replacement of the manager’s laptop. But when we asked him to take a few notes of addresses, courier schedules and such, we discovered the user had left his glasses at home and could not, in fact, see anything he was typing onto the keyboard. Problem identified and solved. Frustration immediately replaced on our side by huge guffaws, and I had a story I have been telling ever since.

Can you beat this? I hereby challenge readers to nominate their funniest mobile user support experience; if the powers that be at Vulture Central like your anecdotes, preferably factual, they might even turn it into a little competition with a giveaway.

But this does raise a serious matter when it comes to supporting remote machines and their sometimes ham-fisted users. If the above call had been handled poorly there is no question but the reputation of the IT department would have suffered. Catalysed by remote users, the traditional role of the IT support desk – to act as the primary contact point both when things go wrong with users’ systems and for new service requests – has evolved into being the interface, and indeed the public face of the IT organization as a whole.

As a result, the responsiveness of what we call ‘IT Support’ is now so intertwined in the mind of remote users that it has become the measurement by which IT service quality is measured, at least subconsciously. The question is, should it be?

Does the help desk really want to become a combination of the public face, the communication channel, the marketing machine and the very service delivery of business services. In the case of mobile workers who may have limited daily contact and exposure to the organisation itself, there may be little choice: wanted or not, it is compelling to consider that IT Support must cease to be the reporting point for problems and advice and become the very conduit of business service, even for the communication of the overall culture of the whole organisation.

Done well, IT support can begin to demonstrate the value IT delivers to the business, and can position itself as a very visible means for the business to better exploit IT.

Or is this a step too far for hard-pressed support staff? What do you think?

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