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Adams and Reese used to run a home-grown Filemaker Pro-based system to track computer-service requests that came into our centralized help desk, but we realized it was time for a change. The makeshift system performed basic tracking functions, but lacked important features, such as the ability to provide a tracking number via e-mail for each request, a Web interface for self-service status checking and the opportunity for online, do-it-yourself problem resolution. Our system also was just too slow for users in our six remote offices. We’re a growing firm — ranked No. 156 on The National Law Journal’s most recent “NLJ 250″ and sixth among its “Top 10 Growth Leaders” — and our 270 lawyers and 323 support staff were frustrated. Our wide area network connects seven offices in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Washington, D.C. But the system’s failure to perform well over the WAN link forced staff outside our main data center in New Orleans to call upon local help desk technicians for assistance, rather than entering their requests into the firmwide database. Not only was this annoying to our staff, it created serious gaps in our computer service records, and that hampered our ability to identify IT areas needing improvement. PICKING HELP-DESK PACKAGES About two years ago, we decided it was time to search for a commercial help-desk package that would provide the functions and multi-office reach we need, as well as help us better use our Crystal Reporting system for in-depth analysis. We needed a package that supported Microsoft Corp.’s SQL because we were already using SQL with Crystal Reports, from Business Objects SA. We also wanted SQL because we knew from experience that Microsoft Access would have performance problems with the volume of data involved. Our infrastructure includes Dell Inc. desktop systems, Polycom Inc. videoconferencing equipment, Good Technology Inc.’s GoodLink PDAs, Microsoft Corp.’s Office Suite, Thomson Elite’s accounting system, Interface Software Inc.’s InterAction relationship intelligence system, Interwoven Inc.’s iManage document management system and various litigation support systems and extranets. Our evaluation included high-end systems such as Remedy (BMC Software Inc.) and Heat (FrontRange Solutions Inc.), a few low-end products including Track-it (Inuit Inc.), and middle-of-the-road packages such as Peregrine Systems Inc.’s Consolidated Asset & Service Management as well as HelpStar (Help Desk Technology Corp.), which I had used successfully in a previous job. We quickly narrowed the list to HelpStar and Peregrine, based primarily on features and price. We ultimately selected HelpStar because it offered the functions we considered critical at a relatively low cost, plus ease of use, an SQL option and the ability to go live quickly without customization. We did not even have to customize fields because the attributes we wanted — practice group, team and geography — could be handled with the program’s default categories: department and location. COSTS We spent less than $12,000 for our first five support representatives and an unlimited number of users. That included the Web interface (an add-on cost with most other products) and an annual maintenance contract entitling us to software upgrades and technical support. Other packages cost more than $20,000 for the comparable license and required expensive customization. We have since brought our entire 17-member help desk on board, for a total capital expenditure of $26,000, including a license for 19 people, plus one year of technical support and free upgrades. We installed HelpStar on an HP/Compaq DL320 server equipped with Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 2000 and SQL 2000 that we were already using for a recruiting database and other small SQL applications. Installation took about four hours, primarily to populate the database with information about our 600 users. We used Help-Star’s import utility to import user names, e-mail addresses, telephone and fax numbers, departments and staff ID numbers from our Active Directory files. This was a critical step to ensure smooth interaction with HelpStar, which supplies users with reference numbers via e-mail as soon as they submit a service request. It was also necessary to enable integration with both our Crystal Decisions reporting package and our human resources database. THE LAUNCH Next, our 17 help desk technicians received training, and we installed the 32-bit client version of the HelpStar software on all technical workstations.(The rest of the staff use a Web-based client.) We piloted the program with our intellectual property group, 16 people who regularly serve as testing agents for new applications. We had a few problems assigning passwords, primarily because the HelpStar version we were using was not integrated with Active Directory, and we had to maintain a separate security database. HelpStar now offers built-in Active Directory integration for its Microsoft Data Engine and Microsoft SQL editions. The installation of HelpStar started in our New Orleans office in March 2002, with a rollout to the remaining offices the following month. We timed the rollout to coincide with the launch of a corporate Intranet that includes a “Need Help?” icon on the home page. This is how users access the help desk software. Via the icon, users can reach an online “knowledge base” to try do-it-yourself fixes. Alternatively, they can submit service requests electronically, either by filling out an online form or by sending an e-mail that is automatically converted to a trouble ticket. They can check the status of a request online, or call the help desk directly. In addition to using HelpStar to help resolve problems with our computer systems, we also use it to manage new user setup. RESULTS At the most basic level, the switch to HelpStar significantly reduced staff resistance to entering service requests electronically. About 86 percent of requests now come through HelpStar, compared to 23 percent with our previous system. HelpStar has processed more than 17,000 requests for service in a two-year period. Other benefits include faster service, namely same-day turnaround completed in 59 percent of cases and 48-hour call resolution in 72 percent of cases, each up more than seven points from 2002. There’s been a reduction in the number of help desk calls — from 9,100 in 2002 to 8,770 in 2003 — despite the fact that we added 100 users and also made major equipment and software changes during that period. We credit these gains to the software’s automation, self-service and reporting features. With HelpStar’s Web interface, for example, technicians no longer need to spend time writing trouble tickets or checking job status, because users can do both themselves. With the information base, users can solve basic problems. IMPROVING OPERATIONS HelpStar’s reporting system offers tools that help us improve IT operations. Technicians have a searchable list of historical service records to expedite troubleshooting, and we can pinpoint systemic trouble spots that need attention. In one case, our reports identified problems caused by the fact that Workshare Technology’s DeltaView document-comparison software program automatically converts Corel Corp.’s Word-Perfect files into Microsoft’s Word. Once we instructed users to discontinue using DeltaView to compare complex Word Perfect documents, the calls virtually vanished. FINE TUNING As is the case with any installation, we’ve had a few minor glitches. The first installation of HelpStar was not entirely compatible with our version of Crystal Reports. That was resolved as soon as we upgraded to HelpStar 7.1. More important, we made one mistake in configuring the system that affected our ability to measure our performance accurately. We failed to give users or technicians the ability to distinguish between a problem, such as a computer that won’t boot up, and a project, such as setting up a new user, when submitting a service request. As a result, our reports show that only 43 percent of the jobs we handled in 2003 were resolved by help desk representatives without technician intervention. That number is artificially low because it includes many longer-term projects that cannot be resolved with a single phone call under any circumstances. We now plan to solve the problem by configuring the software to categorize service requests by type. CULTURE CHANGE Overall, the project went smoothly, in part because we spent considerable time getting managers, lawyers and support staff to buy into the benefits of participating. We were particularly careful to avoid asking for major behavioral change. For people who were used to e-mailing their problems directly to technicians, for example, we simply asked them to add the help desk to their distribution list, knowing that the software would automatically convert those e-mails to service requests. People are quickly learning that the fastest way to receive service is to use the help desk software. Sure, it’s not as easy as yelling over the cubicle wall. But it makes all the difference in our ability to resolve computer problems in a timely manner as well as gather the data required to diagnose systemic problems in need of a fix. Our goal is maximizing uptime for our end users, and automating the help desk is helping us do the job. David Erwin is chief information officer at Adams and Reese, based in New Orleans.

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