Dell unveils help-desk outsourcing program

Austin, Texas - Dell Computer Corp. last week announced a new initiative that takes advantage of the Internet to resolve its customers' technical problems more quickly.

OpenManage Resolution Assistant, the centerpiece of a program called E-support, speeds up support services by enabling customers to reach technical support with the touch of a button.

Resolution Assistant software on the customers' platforms automatically will provide support personnel with configuration and other necessary technical information about the systems and provide the support staff with electronic access to the systems, if possible, so that they can diagnose and fix problems remotely.

All transactions are encrypted and carried out in a secure environment.

Dell officials said Resolution Assistant, available at no charge, will eliminate the need for many of the time-consuming support calls customers make, enabling those customers to get their systems back up and running in a much shorter time.

"We expect to see 50 percent of our customers using some form of online customer support by the end of next year," said Ro Parra, senior vice president for Dell Public Americas International Group.

Many PC vendors have been looking to automated customer support for some time because of the costs of handling technical support over the phone, analysts said.

"One of the strategies from Dell and the other PC companies is to try to alleviate the phone call volume they get by using automated online support, and this is one of the most visible examples," said Doug Chandler, senior analyst at International Data Corp.'s Services Research Group.

In addition, this online support is a way for vendors such as Dell to offer new services to customers that are choosing between similar hardware offerings.

"As products become less and less differentiated, [vendors] need to find new ways to attract customers and keep them," Chandler said.

Dell is shipping Resolution Assistant client software with its PowerEdge servers and plans to bundle the technology with all its platforms by the end of 2000.

While the software is designed to hook up customers to Dell's technical support staff, it also can direct users to an internal help desk, which may be the preference of large customers in the private and public sectors that have the technical resources in-house.

Dell's E-support program also encompasses several existing online support programs. For example, using Dell's Premier Pages, customers can access pricing information, a paperless purchase order system, help-desk support and other features through a private intranet.

Dell also enables customers to track order status and shipping details on its World Wide Web site.

Agencies will have questions about security and other issues involved with Resolution Assistant, said Tom Buchsbaum, vice president and general manager of Dell Federal Systems. But federal chief information officers, like their commercial counterparts, "are very interested in how intranets and extranets can be used to make their users more productive," Buchsbaum said.

Security has long been a concern for the vendors who offer the technology behind Resolution Assistant, especially when dealing with government customers, Chandler said.

"There are always percentages of customers that cannot take advantage of remote diagnostics because of the whole issue of letting a vendor remotely take control of a system," he said. "The issue continues as you move into the Internet and the whole problem of security on the Internet."

But companies are well aware that this is one of the issues that could significantly slow the growth of this technology and are working on this challenge, Buchsbaum said.

For example, Dell's Premier Pages program includes about 170 federal customers, he said, and the number of customers accessing these sites has increased by 60 percent from last year.

While some agencies will prefer to set up Resolution Assistant with their own help desk, the company expects others will use the program to outsource their technical support to Dell, Buchsbaum said.

Some technical problems cannot be solved over the Internet, requiring Dell either to ship parts out or to send technical support. But a large percentage of the support calls Dell receives are software-related and can be handled remotely. Additionally, Dell customers have access to an online "knowledge base," where they may be able to find problems on their own.

Eventually, Dell plans to use Resolution Assistant software not only to link users with technical support but to detect, diagnose and even fix some problems automatically, Parra said.

"Our philosophy long term is to offer our customers all the tools our own [technical staff members] have," he said.


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