Report to an ISP

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Hervey Allen, from the University of Oregon Computing Center, visited an ISP Internet Service Provider) for 10 days in order to observe client service functions in action. His goal was to see the Help Desk functioning live, interview each person in charge of each group, and after, give some suggestions about the client service operations at the ISP.

We do not name the ISP or use actual person's names in this report as the situations observed could take place just about anywhere and in no way reflect on any particular group.

Hervey, also, came with hardware and software asked for by the ISP, and he came to facilitate communication between the ISP staff and other persons who can give ideas, resources and answer to questions that the ISP may have.

Finally, the idea behind Hervey's visit is not to say how things don't work, but to give another point of view and to offer up his experience to the the ISP staff. There is not a correct way to do client service. There are only various ways to do this and the ISP can decide and choose on the things that works in their work environment.


I spent a few days seeing how the the ISP staff works and talking with people in the office in order to understand the daily operation of the business. After a few days of observation, I noticed six areas where the ISP might be able to make some changes to increase their user services efficiency. These are:

  1. Change the office traffic flow specifically for the Help Desk.
  2. Create some Help Desk Web pages on the the ISP Web site.
  3. Create an installation kit that the the ISP technicians can use when they go to the client location.
  4. Create/improve current documentation for clients.
  5. Start an internal training program.
  6. Identify the person(s) who can facilitate these suggestions between everyone.

On top of this I will include in this report discussions of some technical issues such as how to configure News, specific ideas for the Help Desk database, tips for the use and repair of modems, useful Web addresses, and more.

The level of current client service is excellent! I believe that it is important to say this so that everyone understands that I don't believe there are serious problems with how the ISP provides customer service. I believe that the suggestions I present can help to give service more efficiently. This will be in important in the future as the the ISP customer base grows. Some things that I noted about the current customer service and how it works include:

  • Each client receives 4 hours of training.
  • The Help Desk database.
  • The database of new clients.
  • The fact that employees share data at the end of the day about what problems were resolved and what problems are outstanding.
  • The ICQ messaging system at the Help Desk.
  • The ISP had an email help address.
  • The fact that the ISP configures and installs software for each client at their house or their work place.
  • The current software install kit that the technicians take off site.

These areas indicate that the ISP already provides an excellent level of service

Here I present some idea that I have about client service and the Help Desk. I present each one separately.

1.) Change the flow of traffic in the main office, specifically as it relates to the Help Desk

I noticed that how some employees works on the Help Desk could be optimized so that they could support more clients with less effort. Everyone works excellently, but the flow of clients and the location of their computer and telephone, I believe, could be improved. Below I present an example of workflow during the day. This example was the result of observing the Help Desk for a few hours during the morning on a Monday (9AM to 1 PM).

Help Desk Work Flow

Step and Action 1. Telephone rings 2. Password problem
3. Client arrives and waits for employee. 4. Client is right on employee's shoulder as he repairs their machine. 5. Employee has to help another client that has arrived.
6. Yet another client arrives with their machine. 7. Employee repairs the first machine. 8. A fourth machine arrives for employee to repair.
9. The phone rings. employee goes to answer the phone and leaves the machine that is awaiting repair. The client is waiting. 10. A different person is using the Help Desk machine while employee answers the call. 11. Employee uses the Help Desk machine to enter information about the call in the Help Desk DB.
12. Another call. The client is still waiting. 13. Yet another call. The client begins to look at his watch. 14. Employee takes the second client's machine while checking carefully what needs to be done.
15. Another call while employee is checking in the second client's machine. 16. The first client is still waiting for his machine to be repaired. 17. Employee repairs the machine. Re-installation of the modem connection.
18. Another call 19. Another call. 20. Employee starts to work on the second client's machine. The second client has already left.
21. Another phone call. employee leaves the machine in repair to cross the room and answer the phone. 22. Returns to work on the machine. 23. Another call.
24. Works on the machine 25. Another call. 26. Employee called on the radio.
27. Another call (in English) 28. Works on the machine. 29. Another call.
30. Works on the machine. 30. Another call. 31. Works on the machine.
31. Another call. 32. Works on the machine. 33. . Another call.

At the end of this the employee went to lunch. Each time that he started to work on a client's machine and each time the phone rang he had to stop, cross the room, answer the phone, and then return to the machine. Also, in his physical location (where the Help Desk resides) the employee is visible to clients that enter the main the ISP office. Thus, they immediately know that he is in and they go directly to his desk. On one hand this is great client service since they can go directly to the person who knows the most. But, on the other hand, it's not very efficient. At this time a single employee can just service the level of demand that exists. With a few more clients this model will not function well.

In short, here are a few suggestions that I have:

  1. Change the location of the phone and Help Desk machine to the other side of the main the ISP office.
  2. Place the phone and Help Desk machine next to the machine repair area.
  3. Use a wireless headset or a headset with enough cable so that the employee can move freely between the Help Desk machine and machines in repair.
  4. Start a "Machine Check-In" service that includes the following:
  • The receptionist receives the client machines.
  • Clients fill out a form that explains what is wrong with their machine.
  • The form explains what the ISP can do, how much time it will take, etc.
  • The Help Desk employee, or one of the technicians, talks with the client when necessary in order to understand better what is wrong with the machine. When they talk with the client the employeeor the technician goes to the reception desk. The expectation is that the client does not go into the "technical area" of the office at that moment. Something like a small, swinging door next to the reception area could help to facilitate this.

2.) If it's possible make the Help Desk machine be only for use by the person on Help Desk duty.

One problem that results if the Help Desk machine is moved to the side of the room next to the machine repair area is that the Webmaster will be exchanging his position for one that more open to the public. The Webmaster expressed that it is critical that he be able to concentrate while he works. If he is visible to the public, then clients will, also, go to him. Because of this, it might be useful to create some more private space in the office.

I suggest these changes for two reasons.

  1. The the ISP Help Desk is the face of the business. After clients are connected the majority of their contact with the ISP is going to be through the Help Desk.
  2. If clients know that to expect from the service, then they will usually be pleased, or at least placated.

We have found (at the University of Oregon) that if we explain the things that we can do and how, the majority of clients greatly appreciate this. If a client comes expecting that someone is going to repair their machine right way and he or she has to wait a half-hour, then they get frustrated. There will always be clients that want immediate service, or that don't appreciate how things work. There are two tactics you can use for them:

  1. Realize that it is not possible to satisfy all your clients all the time, and
  2. One can always make an exception for a client. This service is exceptional service and the majority of clients will appreciate this.

Now we'll look at the second component of the Help Desk.

2.) Create a site on the the ISP Web pages for the Help Desk.

Looking at the excellent the ISP Web page I noticed that Help Desk pages are coming soon. Talking with the Help Desk employee about them I see the following:

  • The current Help Desk employee is the person that can understand best what information is necessary, and perhaps, the structure.
  • I can work with him to start on a structure for the pages.
  • After we have made the structure one of the the ISP Webmasters can create the actual pages to be used.
  • If the employee has access to these pages to make important changes or rapid changes when necessary, then this would be more efficient.
  • I suggest that there be a link directly to the Help Desk on the ISP home page.
  • The communication between the employee(or whoever works on the Help Desk in the future) and the Webmasters is key to the success of this project. This is probably the single most important aspect to have working.

3.) Make an installation kit that the technicians can use when they go to a client's location.

Because the ISP does not require that clients install Internet software by themselves the creation of this installation kit is not as important as I had thought. But, in spite of this, if a kit is created that contains the most commonly installed software by the the ISP technicians this could make their house/business visits go much faster, and then they could be more efficient.

During the week several employees and I started using the WISE InstallerMaker software to create such a kit.

The installer that is already created is called the ISPPack and the script for this is in c:\programas\wise on the Help Desk machine. At this time the installer does the following:

  • Permits the user to choose between ICQ98a, Eudora 3.05 and/or Netscape 3.02.
  • Copies the ICQ98a, Eudora 3.05, and Netscape 3.02 installers.
  • Executes each installer in order.
  • Erases the installer files from the client's hard drive.

The installer requires 7 diskettes. One of the technicians said that it would be better if it were to fit on 6 diskettes. The the ISPPack script still needs someone to clean this up. Someone needs to write the installer dialogues in the local language and clean the installer up a bit.

There are two ways to make an installer. These are:

  1. Make it like the the ISPPack installer is currently done. That is, the installer allows you to choose installers, copies them, executes them, and then removes them from the client's hard disk.
  2. Or, copy each file that belongs to a program to the client's hard. This can include program configuration files setup to work in the the ISP environment. For example, if you want to install Eudora (email) for your clients, then you can install the program to the directory of your choice and you can include the file "EUDORA.INI" that can contain SMTP, POP, etc. settings for the ISP. To do this one must carefully replicate each step of the Eudora installer. In the c:\programas\wise directory I have included several examples from the University of Oregon that include all the steps and code necessary to do this. This includes things like what DLL files are necessary for each program, how to check for pre-existing files, and how to install software for both Windows 95/98 and Windows NT.

Using the second method it is possible to create an installer that permits the installation and configuration of a client's machine very quickly. But, the cost of such an installer is the time to create it. For a customized installer for the ISP that installs 3 programs it would probably take someone 3 to 5 days of effort to create the installer. the ISP must decide if it's worth it to spend this amount of time on such an installer. I believe it is, but this varies from situation to situation.

The WISE program has a method by which you can capture all the steps that a third-party installer executes during installation (like the Eudora installer). To use this feature go to the View menu in WISE InstallerMaker, choose Installation Expert and choose Watch. While a third-pary installer is running WISE will capture all the steps that the installer takes in the form of a pre-generated WISE installation script. The script shows each installed file, changes made to the REGISTRY, and any other changes that are made, like edits to AUTOEXEC.BAT, CONFIG.SYS, WIN.INI, PROGRAM.INI, PROTOCOL.INI, etc.

Finally, we have found that the installers for Netscape (version 3 and above) and Internet Explorer (all versions) are too complicated to safely replicate. For these products we only execute the installers for each program.

4.) Create More Client Documentation

Why create more documentation? There are many reasons, including:

  • If it's documented this implies that the organization has thought about what's in the document.
  • A document can clearly give, and in the same manner each time, information to your clients. For example, if the ISP decides to start a machine check-in service it will be important to document how this service works so that clients receive the same service each time they come.
  • Short documents can help the technical staff quite a bit. They can give as many documents as needed to each client. These documents could explain what was installed on their machines, what type of service(s) they can expect from the ISP, where they can get help, etc. I suggest that the documents be as short as possible since most clients are unlikely to read longer files.
  • The the ISP installation kit can include the longer documents such as Internet Navigation, Use of ICQ, and how to use each product installed by the technician. The University of Oregon Installation Kit includes "ReadME First" documentation for each piece of software installed. These documents explain how to start and use programs such as Eudora in the University network environment.
  • The the ISP trainers can refer to these documents to reinforce information that they present to the clients. Also, clients that forget something, but that know that the information is available via documentation, have more resources to resolve their own problems.
  • If the ISP notices that the same questions are being answered over and over again each day, then documents discussing these areas can help tremendously. The technicians can give clients these documents to help speed up their job.
  • Whenever it is possible the documents should also exist on the Web. If the ISP can start to train its clients to use the the ISP Website for information this can reduce the number of calls to the Help Desk.

A few documents that I recommend that the ISP create Web versions of include:

  • How to Connect to the Internet (the ISP) with Windows 95/98
  • How to Connect to the Internet (the ISP) with Windows NT
  • How to Connect to the Internet (the ISP) with Windows 3.1 (Note: Users should leave this platform as quickly as possible)
  • How to Install a Modem in Windows 95
  • How to Install a Modem in Windows NT

The Modem Installation document is not a discussion of "how to install an internal modem card," but rather how to use the Modem Control Panel to install new modem software.

  • What to do if there are Problems with Your Internet Connection
  • How to Use Eudora/Outlook Express (these already exist)
  • How to Use Netscape Communicator and/or Internet Explorer

The last two do not need to be very long. They just need to be a start with information about necessary configuration information for use with the the ISP network. One thing that I have found is that it is better to avoid mention of specific software versions whenever possible in documents. Thus, if all versions of Netscape Communicator 4 look the same, then the document about Netscape Communicator can be, "How to Use Netscape Communicator 4," and not "How to Use Netscape Communicator 4.06."

5.) Start with an Internal Training Program for the ISP.

During work hours it can be difficult to give good training to employees. It can also be difficult to train oneself if one does not have a specific time set aside to read, experiment, and learn new things. the ISP has an excellent resource in the people who work for the company. I suggest that the ISP initiate one or two hours per week for training on topics that the ISP employees already know. That is, if you have an expert in-house, then take advantage of their knowledge. This person can lead discussions, present the information and give examples to the rest of the staff. On top of this if there is, also, an hour (or more) each week when employees are supposed to investigate new areas in their field of work this can help to improve the overall level of expertise in the company. Some areas that might prove to be interesting include:

These are only examples. There are obviously many more areas that could be interesting.

6.) Identify who can facilitate these Ideas/Suggestions

What I mean to say is that having obvious and open lines of communication is important. There should, also, be someone in charge of each group that is to implement any of the ideas or suggestions presented in this document. If this document is given to each person in the ISP with the hope that some of my suggestions take place, then not much is likely to happen. Generally speaking a supervisor needs to speak with each person involved in a project and discuss each step of the project and what they want to have happen. On top of this, the supervisor needs to keep track of the project, gives ideas and direction, and the occasional push to make sure that things get implemented.

It is hard to implement changes in a group that is busy. Some of these ideas may take considerable time from the same people who are trying to support the ISP clients. Because of this I suggest that someone identify a person to implement a suggestion, and then give that person the necessary time to complete his or her project. For example, if the idea were that the Help Desk employee write some Web documents, it would be more efficient if he has an hour or two each day when he is supposed to be working on the documents. In addition, someone else should be answering the phone during this time and his supervisor should let it be known that the Help Desk employee is occupied. This is just an example, but it's typical of what one has to do in order to effect change inside an organization.

General Observations

Now I will talk about several themes that I saw during my ten-day stay at the ISP. I give some tips and techniques about what I discuss, some Web page references that might be useful, and more.

I spoke with several people during my stay at the ISP. We spoke about what they do and how things work in their part of the business. These people included:

  • Names deleted

I noted that the way things are working at the ISP shows that there is already a service plan that has been implemented and that works well and is well thought out. Some ideas I had after my conversations include:

  • There are, perhaps, some additional documents that the ISP trainer could leave with clients after his training that would be useful.
  • The Help Desk employee and I spoke about the Help Desk database. Some ideas we came up with include the following:
    • Instead of having a record of each call that the Help Desk receives there could be a record of each client. The client record could have information about each call they have made to the Help Desk and any previous computer problems they may have had.
    • Include a field that has the "problem type" that can be quickly chosen. This could help to create problem reports and to see frequencies of problem types.
    • Include a field that has room for comments about what the technician did to resolve a problem.
    • Perhaps it would be necessary to order client records by their email address (this could be the "key field"). This allows for faster record lookup in case clients have similar names.
    • Create reports in list form to see information more quickly.
    • Currently there is a field that has the values "Resolved," and "Not resolved." Perhaps, there should be an additional value such as "Awaiting Conclusion," or something similar, but that signifies that the problem is not critical. In the future, if the problem is solved, then the client could receive a call.
    • The database could have a statistics module. This module could generate reports about the number of calls, the hours of most calls and how many there were, most and least frequent problem types, etc.

The Help Desk and the Phone System

Currently in the ISP's country most people do not have touch-tone phone. Thus, a voicemail system that includes numerous options would not function for the Help Desk. Still, however, an answering machine, or the use of a telephone modem, could give a more professional face to the Help Desk when the ISP is not open. Depending on the number of calls, the ISP may want to consider if they should let people leave messages who need help. This would imply that someone is going to call them back. At the very least, the answering machine could have a message that includes the ISP's Help Desk hours and how they can get help in the meantime.

An answering machine on the Help Desk line has the other advantage that if someone stays late in the office, perhaps, they won't feel obligated to answer the phone if they are doing other work.

Seminars given During the Week by Hervey Allen

During the week I gave two seminars to the the ISP technical group. The first seminar was about Help Desk traffic flow. In the second seminar I spoke to the group about how they can train themselves, what hardware and software to use for their work, some useful Web page, and for a large part of the seminar, we spoke about modem repair problems. Some of the things I mentioned included:

  • Use the Web reflexively. Instead of trying to make hardware work with the software on hand one should always check the Web to be sure that they have the most up-to-date drivers available. Many times problems are resolved by simply installing newer drivers.
  • Use Web search engines to find answers to problems. This includes technical knowledge bases available at several sites. Some sites for this include:
  • It appears that the tools that the the ISP technical team has are sufficient to do their job. The one thing mentioned by me was the purchase of an external hard drive, or something like a Jazz drive, s that they would have some way to backup client data when they have to format a client's disk, or if they need room to recover a client's data.

Finally, we spoke about modem. I presented some more ideas, including the following:

  • Looks in the hidden Windows 95 directory named "Inf" and remove or rename the "Inf" files that reference failing hardware.
  • Plug and Play (PNP) can work just fine, but when they fail they are very difficult to repair. Many times one has to remove all references to the modem, and the modem itself from the machine to make it work again even if the problem is just software-related.
  • Moving the modem to a different slot can force the machine to notice the hardware again.
  • Some machines have BIOS's that don't support assigning resources to each PCI slot on the motherboard, or that cause problems when resources are shared between PCI cards depending on the order in which cards are installed.
  • Internal modems, many times, are inferior to the same model external modem. Internal modems that do not disconnect well may require the client to restart their machine just to hang up the modem.
  • From experience, we know that the following modem models work well - US Robotics Sportster (not the "Voice" modem), Courier, SupraFAXModem y Hayes Acura (all external).
  • I have found that Zoom and Cardinal modems are much slower than a similar modem made by 3Com/USR, Hayes, or Supra. This was a question asked of me.

We spoke about considerably more areas, but these were the keys that we discussed.

Document Flow

This document has several suggestions for new documents that the ISP could create for its clients. It is necessary to mention that document creation, also, has its own process in order to do it well. Some things to consider before and during document creation include:

  • Who makes changes to documents?
  • After someone writes a document, who is going to give final approval?
  • Is there anyone available who can check documents for grammar, spelling, style, etc.
  • Who decides what documents are necessary.

Basically it is necessary that someone be in charge of the document creation flow for the ISP.


I was impressed by the excellent service that everyone at the ISP gave and I hope that some of my suggestions and observations can help to continue this excellent level of service.