Up a Functional Support Organization
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This document gives the reader some ideas about how to create a support
organization when minimal resources are available and there are many clients.
The model used will be for an ISP with a small staff that must give technical
support to clients who wish to "connect to the Internet" and to clients
who are having problems once they are able to connect to the Internet.
There are some underlying assumptions in this outline. Some of
For your local situation please apply the ideas and suggestions presented
as appropriate. If you are the only resource around for technology, then
you may have to be more self-reliant.
Western/U.S. philosophies of service and attitudes towards customers.
Local technology infrastructure or group of people who might be available
Client access to technology, phones, your office, etc.
Let's begin by outlining some steps that have been useful when setting
up a workable help desk:
At this point you may have a functioning Help Desk in place. Now that you are
in a position to help your clients, get them connected, etc. you will encounter
a number of support situations that require some planning on your part. Here are
some issues you are likely to encounter and some methods for dealing with them.
- Define you support goals [Back
- What is it that you want to do? Getting people on-line, teaching people
how to use their computers, fixing software configurations, fixing hardware,
doing custom installs, etc.
- How much support can you give? Will you setup each and every person's
machine to dial in to your ISP and connect to the Internet? Will you configure
their software for them? In some cases this might work, in others no. Will
you give your clients the tools they need to get connected? This includes
software and documentation - including troubleshooting steps if things go
- Set your client's expectations [Back
- If you are open and honest about what support you can give to your clients,
then their expectations will be reasonable.
- Present your level of support in a positive manner. I.E., don't say,
"We can't come to your house personally and setup your connection," but
rather try, "We can give, or loan, you a CD-ROM with an installer on it
and all the documentation that you'll need to connect from home."
- If there are areas of support that could become an issue spell out what
you will do explicitly. Put this in writing. That helps whoever must communicate
with the clients if they can refer to a written document or Web pages.
- Remove Roadbocks [Back
- This point is critical. Look at what you require of your clients to get
up and running. Find points where people spend the most time and then remove
these roadblocks as much as possible. Even it means that you must spend
hours, maybe even days, working on a solution, it's worth it. Imagine 1,000
clients who all get stuck at the same point in a process asking you and
your staff for help. If you remove this sticking point you may have saved
months of people hours in effort.
- Removing a roadblock may involve interpersonal conflicts or political
issues (office politics, local government, etc.). Plan your attack and think
about who you are talking to when you try to resolve the situation.
- If your roadblock is difficult or large enough you may lose clients (if
you are in this as a business this becomes critical), or have clients who
do not realize the full potential of what you are offering them.
- If you simply cannot remove the roadblock, then let your clients know
up-front what they need to do to get around this.
- Example Roadblock 1: You have a separate dialin password from
your client's email/shell access password. While this may make perfect sense
to you, it will be completely confusing to all but a few of your clients.
If possible, create a single account with a single good, secure password
that is generated once and is used for both email and dialin access. When
a user changes their password try to make this change passwords for both
dialin and mail/shell access.
- Example Roadblock 2: You don't use PAP for dialin authentication,
thus the user must enter in script information for some dialin clients and/or
they must use the Windows 95 "terminal session" screen for Built-In Dialup
Networking. The added complexity will confuse all but the most determined
- Example Roadblock 3: You give your users decent instructions on
how to connect their home computers up to the Internet via your modem pool,
but you don't give them any customized network software to use once they
are connected. These users will come back to you, almost each and every
one, asking "I'm connected, now what do I do?" Try to answer this question
before you receive it.
- There are certainly many more examples, these are just a few to give
you a feel for what customer support roadblocks can look like.
- Enable Your Users [Back
- When pushed many users will take the time to read documentation, try
some troubleshooting steps, look at helpful Web pages (if they can get to
them), or, at least, send email with a problem description. If you can offload
as much of the troubleshooting process of solving a problem on your user
base as possible, then you can potentially increase your efficiency as a
staff, create more competent and (hopefully) happy users, and reduce your
workload. There are many ways to do this. Some of these include:
- Put your documentation online. This means create Web pages with documentation
that you have created for connecting, setting up clients, about your site
and services, policies, etc. Even if the client can't get to the Web their
friend or neighbor might be able to.
- Create as much detailed documentation as possible. It is so
much easier to give someone a handout that you know works, than to try
and explain the same set of instructions over and over again.
- Create installers. A great product for doing this on the PC is WISE
InstallerMaker from Greater Lakes Business Solutions (http://www.glbs.com).
If you can give your clients a disk (probably CD-ROM, but possibly floppy)
and some documentation about what they need to do, then you will be able
to support a signifcantly larger base of clients with a smaller support
- Provide for email support that you can answer in a timely fashion (1
to 2 days?).
- Offer training to your users if possible.
- Design Your Traffic flow
- As you setup your Help Desk think about where questions will be coming
from. Will most people be calling? Coming in person? Sending email? Or,
what is the mix of these requests? Also, who is answering these questions?
If it is a small staff be sure that traffic flows in such a way that this
person can do their job. Here are some examples:
- If you have someone who answers the phone and helps customers who come
in person, then how do you deal with the phone when a customer is present?
You may want to assign someone to backup the phone at these times.
- If people are likely to bring you hardware, then they will probably
want it fixed on the spot. Consider creating a method for having people
dropoff their equipment.
- If the phone is busy try to keep the person who answers the phone separated
from other distractions. For instance, if you have a reception that can
check-in machines that is better then having a client talk directly with
the person on phone support.
- Do you want customers to be able to walk, see, or talk directly with
front-line support staff? In some cases you will and in others you may
- Do you need machines available to show customers how to use software?
If so, try to setup a machine (or more) for this, or designate a machine
where this can be done.
- If you are a larger organization you may want to have two levels of
support staff - those that deal directly with customers who come in person
and those who are answering the phone, fixing machines, answering email,
- Make Use of Available Tools [Back
- There are quite a few tools available that can make setting all of this
up much easier. Larger organizations will often use professional Help Desk
tools that may cost thousands of dollars. These tools are usually designed
for groups with multiple phone lines, large staffs, and a phone call queue.
Instead, here are a few tools that you may find invaluable, or at least
useful, when setting up your support infrastructure. Some of these are free
and others are commercial products that you may find useful. I split these
up by category and list the operating system under which they run as well:
- Dreamweaver: For Web page creation.
Others like FrontPage, but I don't. The code FrontPage and MS Word generate
is amost unusable if you must edit by hand.
4-6: For Web page creation and general image manipulation.
- ULead Web Plugin: Helps you to save
your images using less space (in Photoshop), create dropshadows and buttons.
You can do all of this in Photoshop, and other products, without such
a product, but this can save you hours of time.
Can create very complicated and clear documentation. Microsoft Word, Adobe
PageMaker and other products are sufficient as well.
- BBEdit: One of the best text
editors around. Only available on the Mac.
- WISE Installer Makers:
If you want to automate software configuration and installation for your
clients this is software is inexpensive, but powerful.
- InstallShield: Perhaps the
most powerful installation tool available for Windows. Harder to learn
than WISE, but more extendable.
InstallerMaker: Lets you create installers for your Macintosh clients.
About the only game in town unless you want to write code to use Apple's
- Microsoft Access or Claris
FileMaker Pro: These are both excellent database products that you
can use to create internal databases to track customer phone calls, problem
resolution, types of problems, etc. FileMaker runs on the Mac, Windows
95/NT and can print to the Web quite easily.
- Microsoft Excel: A great product
for keeping track of what you have, your clients, your expenses, etc.
Here are some available tools that replicate most of the functionality
of the commercial tools mentioned above. Some of the tools listed below
are invaluable and just as useful, if not more so, than their commercial
counterparts. In some cases, however, you may want to consider a commercial
product if the cost to get a free product up and running is large enough.
The same can be true of commercial products. It's important that you use
the tool that works best for what you are trying to do!
- FreeBSD - An industrial strength UNIX that runs on Intel x86 architecture.
This is a preferred OS on which to run large scale (and smaller scale)
ISP's. Learn all about FreeBSD at http://www.freebsd.org.
- Linux - Many ISP's and some companies use this free version of UNIX.
There are many distributions. Take a look at http://www.linux.org
to get started.
- Apache Web Server - Apache accounts for the largest percent of Web
servers on the Internet today. Versions are available for most flavors
of UNIX. Start at http://www.apache.org
for more information.
- Linux and FreeBSD based Web Request Tracking systems are available from
many groups. One of the better ones is called Request Tracker and you
can find this at http://www.fsck.com/projects/rt/.
This is an excellent tool for tracking customer help requests through
- CGI's/PERL Scripts for UNIX - There are hundreds, if not thousands,
of existing scripts written in PERL available on the Web. A great place
to start is Matt's Script Archive at http://www.msa.com
- Emacs under UNIX for HTML Editing available at the GNU project at http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/
and as an X Windows version at http://www.xemacs.org.
These are two very distinct flavors of emacs. You can see the xemacs group
take on this division at http://www.xemacs.org/About/XEmacsVsGNUemacs.html
- BBEdit Lite (http://web.barebones.com/free/free.html).
- Star Offiice. An Office productivity suite of software that includes
a Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Presentation Creator, and Database. Sun
Microsystems distributes this software for free and you can get started
downloading it at http://www.sun.com/software/star/staroffice/5.2/get.html
- Linux and FreeBSD present you with some excellent free databases, including
MySQL (http://www.mysql.com) and PostgreSQL
- And, don't forget to look for many more free or inexpensvie products
at sites like Tucows, Shareware.com,
CNET Linux Center, Freeware.com,
- The Web: The best tool available for doing your
job as a support professional is the Web, and it's free. The amount of information
and resources available to you online are simply stunning. Almost every
question you will be asked has been answered somewhere on the Web. Of course,
there are always exceptions, but here are a few places to look when the
anser is not obvious:
A few more areas of thought are presented below. These may not affectly
direct what has been previously presented, but in some cases may change
how you view the information presented here.
What to do About Issues You Can't Resolve [Back
What about those clients who can't resolve their problem, or who will require
excessive amounts of your staff time to resolve over the phone? Here are
a few ways to deal with these cases:
Be sure that you have identified someone who can give a definitive "yes"
or "no" for exceptional requests. This is likely to be the manager of your
group. Allow your front-line staff to refer difficult or problem cases
to someone else.
If you have written or verbal policies about how you deal with exceptional
cases this can make life much easier on yourself and your staff when they
Once you take on an exceptional case be sure that someone is responsible
for the case until it is resolved. If no one is handed the responsibility
of resolving the problem, then it may get dropped or go unnoticed. This
can result in a very upset customer. Be sure you give the responsibility
for such cases to someone who can actually deal with them. I.E., don't
give a really difficult hardware/software troubleshooting issue to a new
hire who is a student and only around part of the time, unless you feel
comfortable with their level of responsibility.
Don't be afraid to let someone know that they have exceeded your support
capabilities. If you are giving "free" support, or basic setup support
that comes with establishing an account you can explain to a client that
you simply don't have the resources to resolve their problem, but present
this with positive options.
Identify local businesses that can help with problems your customers may
encounter. If you find a common problem you might even want to consider
discussing this type of problem with a local company or group, explain
how it can be resolved and let them know that if they are willing to help
your clients in these situations that you may refer people to them.
If there are consultants who will make house calls for a fee you can present
this as an option. You can even let the customer know how to find these
Sometimes customers will offer to pay you, or your staff to come and help
them. What you do in this situation is your own decision. Very few jobs
are as quick and easy as the client, or you may think. Once a customer
has paid you they may feel that they can contact you repeatedly for special
help without further payment - this becomes an unclear area of support.
Once you help someone with one problem they may think that all future problems
are related to what you did - this can be good and bad. If you need the
money, feel like helping, and it is not a conflict of interest, then paid
for outside jobs can work well, but understanding these potential conflict
possible outcomes is useful.
What about a machine check-in service at your company. Can the customer
bring their machine to you? If it's a software problem you can probably
fix it with minimal investment in hardware to solve such problems. You
can do this as a low-level service. This gives your staff an out for issues
that are not easily resolved. Note, if you charge for such service, then
client expectations are likely to change considerably.
Support Philosophies - What is Your Organization
About [Back to Top]
A key point for any organization that gives support is to take a look at
how they "feel" about supporting their customers. This is one of those
intangible items that is difficult to express as a set of rules, but here
are a few guidelines:
Do you want to, or should you give support? Does it make sense for your
organization to offer support to its customers? Be sure to identify what
it is that you do and whether you can help your clients if they contact
you. This may seem more than obvious, but some groups miss this step. For
instance, if your group does programming, or sets up a Web site while another
group is in charge of your network infrastructure. Who needs to respond
to customer requests for help may not be so obvious at this point. You
may need to sit down with everyone involved and make decisions about who
Do you like to give support? If you are the one setting up the support
structure for your group, but you don't like doing user support you may
want to see if someone else is interested and/or available for the job.
Giving good support often requires enthusiasm and a lot of patience. Here's
a tip: if/when a client calls and blames all their problems on you don't
take it personally. Learn how to sympathize with the client and then
help them to solve their problem.
Do people pay for support? Sometimes pay? Does your organization require
payment if someone contacts you with a question? If so, your customers
will almost always expect that their problem be solved - no matter what.
After the problem is solved customers who pay will often feel that future
problems should be solved as well since they may see them as all one problem.
The "techy" vs. "touchy, feely" side of things. Who do you hire to give
support? sometimes you may not have a choice in this matter, but when you
do here are a few things to keep in mind.
Someone with excellent technical skills but poor personal skills may not
work well as a consultant. You may find that this person's technical skills
could be used behind the scenes more efficiently. This might include working
on machine repair, Web pages, possibly email responses (if they can interact
well enough), etec.
Someone with almost no technical skills, but awesome personal skills might
be worth the time and effort to train. The big unknown is whether this
person will be able to learn enough, or understand enough to become useful
to your group.
There is no substitute for experience. Many people assume that supporting
things like modem dialin, Windows, etc. is not all that hard. While this
is true for many questions that may be asked, there are still so many variables
in these, and other areas that a person with lots of experience will often
be able to answer questions that someone new may not.
Understanding the customer's viewpoint. Does anyone in your group have
the perspective of the customer? Putting yourself in the customers shoes
can often help to explain why they act they way they do. What may seem
reasonable or obvious to you is still surprising and new to them.
Some Assorted Hints and Tips [Back
Think about what you recommend to people. If you tell someone that they
can't go wrong buying brand 'x' and then their equipment fails they will
probably blame you. A good tactic is to give the client a few choice, or
tell them what has worked well for you.
If you have the money pay for good hardware. The PC industry has so many
options, varying degrees of standard adherence, and some truly bad hardware.
If you spend five hours trying to get the cheap sound card you bought to
work when the SoundBlaster 'x' card would have cost $10.00 more, then you
have easily wasted your time and money.
Think twice before telling a client that something is a really bad piece
of hardware. Find out what they have first. If you tell them that Packard-Bell
computers are just awful (they are), and that is what they have purchased,
then you have probably created an adverserial situation without realizing
Feel free to publish what brands of hardware do and don't work in your
environment. This is a service to your users. Let them know that Zoom modems
may be cheap, but they are slow, and that for a few dollars more
they could get something that works well and reliably, like a 3COM Sportster
Look to the future when you setup your infrastructure. Will that network
server you are about to install because it does database updates so well
make any sense in the context of the rest of your group? Or, should you
bite the bullet and make the database work with your present product? There
are tradeoffs both ways.
Back to Top
Some Hardware and Software "Gotcha's" [Back
- What's a "Gotch'a?" It's anything unexpected that fails to work like
you thought it would. Below is a list of some of the things that I have
encountered over the years.
Modems: this an area with many ways to get stuck with something
that doesn't work, or doesn't work well. What we currently recommend is
that, whenever possible, a user gets an external modem. Brands
and models that we know work well include the external 3Com/USR Sportster
33.6 and 56K models as well as the 3Com/USR Courier 56K. At this point
in time the 3Com/USR Sportster is the overwhelming choice when it comes
to modems. Another decent modem has been the Diamond Multimedia SupraFAXModem
33.6 and 56K models. Please note that these are the external models. We
have not had good luck using the 3Com WinModem or the internal version
of the 3Com Sportster.
Modems and Modem Situations to Avoid [Back
- 3Com/USR Sportster 33.6/56K Voice model. This model is all black.
If you can get it to work it is fast. This modem is so difficult to configure
in many cases that beginning to intermediate users may not get it to work
- One of the most vexing issues are WinModems. These are cpu-based modem
chips or cards and they ship with almost all new computers. Generally
Windows handles these modems fine if the appropriate software is installed.
The problem is that Windows will, over time, corrupt the modem driver
and cause it to fail. Troubleshooting this can be very painful. Note that
they modems do not work well under Linux, FreeBSD, or UNIX at this time.
- Any 28.8 or above modem with any machine that is a 486 25SX model, or
below. There are exceptions to this case, but here are the issues.
- Most older 486 computers have serial ports that use the 8250 UART
chip. This chip only support transfer rates up to 9600 bps. A 14.4 or
above modem will/can swamp the port and cause the machine to freeze.
- Even if the model 486 has a higher-speed serial port using a 16550
UART Chip it may not be able to keep up with the data transfers for
graphics intensive Web pages. In this case the CPU of the machine may
not keep up with the incoming data. This causes CRC overruns that can
eventually cause the machine to freeze. There is no hard and fast rule
in this case. Some older 386 machines can actually keep up with the
data transfers of a 16550 UART chip (notably most IBM PS/2 models due
to their superior bus design at the time), while other cannot. Note,
you can get around the serial port issue by using an internal modem,
but you may still have the data overrun issue due to processor and bus
speed. If the user is just getting their email you can usually make
this type of situation work.
- Almost all Global Village modems. These modems are mainly used on the
Macintosh line of computers. Global Village modems are traditionally very
high cost, but not very good performers. Even worse, some Global Village
models do not support hardware flow control - even though the modem may
be a 33.6Kbps model. This means that the modem is essentially broken
out of the box. Global Village uses a software trick to emulate hardware
flow control. Some products, like MacPPP, don't like this and will often
report that the connection is unreliable.
- All modems that get their power from an ADB bus. The ADB bus is the
keyboard port on most Macintosh computers. These modems are generally
unreliable, slower, and can actually damage the motherboard on portable
machines. Two such models are the Global Village PowerPort and the SupraExpress
- Inexpensive PCMCIA card modems. Many of these cards do not even have
drivers specific to the card, but rather bundle a version of the CardWorks
software for Windows to get them to work. This software is very
difficult for the average user to make work. Even worse, these modems
may be another modem in disguise, but you cannot use that modems drivers
or flashers since the manufacture may have made small changes to the hardware.
Other Problematic Hardware: Before beginning
with this section it should be noted that almost all this hardware can
be used, and in some cases, may work right out of the box. What we deal
with is percentages, industry standard stuff, and whether "getting it to
work" for a professional might be easy, but for a novice it may be next
to impossible. With this in mind, here's our list from the last few years.
Packard-Bell Computers: these have been a support person's worst nightmare.
Most models use non-standard hardware that includes all sorts of extras,
like telephony, that easily breaks. Some Packard-Bell machines have even
shipped with every single IRQ in use out of the box, and this does not
include a network card.
Most AST Computers: While AST has some good performers they have traditionally
created some non-standard configurations that are very difficult to make
work if you need to change anything. Case in point, the early AST Pentiums
came with Ethernet built-in on the motherboard. If you ever wanted your
own card, or a faster one, the AST card could not be disabled - you simply
had to run with both in use.
The Macintosh Performa 6400 series. These machines were preconfigured in
such a manner that it was almost impossible to make them work unless you
wanted to dial into one of the pre-chosen ISP services that Apple had already
chosen for you. If you want the whole story see our Web pages at http://micro.uoregon.edu/macintosh/performa.html.
These pages were reviewed by an Apple VP and verified to be correct.
Watch out for the specialized home PC's with tons of gadgetery. This stuff
is pretty cool and usually works out of the box, but if anything breaks
most users will not be able to resolve the problem. Even worse, most of
these machines do not come with a standard Windows 95/98 CD-ROM, but rather
a "restore CD-ROM" that will set the machine back to it's original state,
even removing references to software installed after the inital OS installation.
Note that these do not include portable models from these companies, just
desktop models. Offenders of this practice include"
The iMac: it's a pretty neat machine,
but because of this it pushes the edge of current technology a bit. If
you already own a Mac and need to transfer data using a floppy, or, perhaps,
you are a student who has written a paper, the iMac does not come with
a floppy drive. You can buy one from iMation for about $150.00, but this
drive was made for a PC originally. the drive has a manual eject button.
This causes all multi-disk Mac installations to fail and crash if they
are run from disk. Also note that the iMac does not have a SCSI or standard
ADB port. This means that any serial or SCSI device you have had will need
some sort of adapter to be usable with the iMacs USB ports. If this is
your first computer, then the iMac may be a better choice.
If you have a machine built for you be sure that there is somone available
to support you if there are problems.
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Network Startup Resource Center
June 26, 2001
Created by Hervey Allen