- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Dell computer and a wireless headset and phone are the few tools sitting on Omar Karim’s desk at George Washington University’s Ashburn, Va., call center.

The headset is for taking calls from computer and Internet users, mainly GWU students and staff, who need outside help fixing a glitch or navigating their computer hardware or software. The computer is for drafting tickets for those calls and accessing an intra-office Web site that has answers to the callers’ most frequently asked questions.

“You step-by-step try to determine what the problem may be and the fix for it,” says Mr. Karim, 26, senior help-desk analyst. “You have to have pretty good analytical skills.”

Mr. Karim and other technicians for colleges, computer and software manufacturers, computer stores, and technical support companies provide technical support, a service that has been available since computers went mainstream in the 1990s. However, what happens at the other end of the phone line involves more than diagnosing or troubleshooting a problem.

“It all depends on the information the person calling provides us,” says Charles Spann, director of information technology services at GWU. “Some people are very specific about the problem they’re calling about. … [For] the person who says, ‘My computer is broken,’ we would ask more basic questions.”

Tech support is a blanket term that includes the entire call or in-person visit and can involve answering questions, providing on-the-spot training and educating callers. Troubleshooting is a more specific term, referring to identifying the problem callers are experiencing with their information systems and coming up with a solution.

“If you sit down at your computer, turn it on and can’t do your job in a normal fashion, that’s a tech-support issue,” says Russell Miller, telework and technology director at George Mason University. “Troubleshooting is actually taking action.”

Jim Kahler of Hewlett Packard Co. compares troubleshooting to visiting a doctor. Call-center agents, HP’s term for technicians, start off calls at any of HP’s tech centers worldwide by logging in information about the callers and their products. The information the agents gather is kept in a database, just as patient information is kept at a doctor’s office.

When a call comes in, the agent conducts an initial evaluation, asking about the symptoms of the problem and trying to identify a cause based on those symptoms, as would a doctor with a patient.

“You keep drilling down a little deeper until you isolate the problem,” says Mr. Kahler, manager of consumer PC support at HP’s San Diego corporate office.

Once the problem is identified, the agent helps the caller set up equipment, address software or hardware issues and connect various computer components. The average length of a call is 20 minutes.

IBM handles all of its calls about laptop and desktop computers at the IBM SmartCenter, a tech-support center in Atlanta that, with a strategic partner in the same city, has 600 technicians on staff.

“Tech support is the ability to take a customer who is already inconvenienced to the highest level of satisfaction by the time we are finished with the call,” says Roy Ovesen, support executive for the IBM SmartCenter.

The technical support representatives, IBM’s term for technicians, introduce themselves to the customers and ask for the model and serial number of their products. Again, the TSRs ask for symptoms to determine the problem.

“Once we diagnose something, the ultimate response would be to take the customer through a series of steps to solve it over the phone,” Mr. Ovesen says.

The TSRs wear wireless headsets and for tougher problems can walk over to a lab with examples of the different models of computers IBM supports. The TSRs can see and touch what the customer is experiencing. If the TSRs cannot solve the problem, the customer might be asked to send in the product, or a technician may be sent to the computer’s location.

IBM avoids outsourcing its calls to provide several levels of technical support and avoid any language barriers that could occur between the customer and the technician handling the call, Mr. Ovesen says.

“Outsourcing is certainly a major trend that is going on with many of the companies in order to lower costs. However, that’s not appropriate for us,” he says.

GWU’s help-desk analysts, located on campus, can handle tough tech support calls by experiencing what callers experience through a desktop streaming software program. An analyst can remotely access a caller’s computer through the Internet so the caller can demonstrate the problem or error.

“It helps us see what the end user is doing by doing the same thing,” Mr. Spann says. “We can see their error firsthand on the screen.”

Geeks on Call in Norfolk and Best Buy’s Geek Squad provide in-person tech support for both tough and easy problems.

“A lot of problems are too complicated to do over the phone,” says Matt Nelson, public relations manager for Geeks on Call, which has 175 franchises nationwide. “It’s hard to explain a problem to someone who doesn’t know computer language.”

The Geeks typically handle repairing, replacing and upgrading hardware; removing viruses, worms and spyware from computers; and addressing software conflicts with a computer’s operating system.

The Geeks on Call technicians arrive at the customer’s location in a Geek Cruiser, a mobile office with equipment, including extra hardware, cables and wiring.

Technicians for the Geek Squad use Geekmobiles to make their tech-support calls, helping customers who purchased their computers at Best Buy and elsewhere. The Geek Squad agents take a standard tool kit, copies of operating systems and a limited supply of computer parts in Volkswagen Beetles painted black and white like police cars.

“We’re trying to have a little bit of fun with our job and what we do, sort of the law enforcement of keeping computers in line,” says Nick McKinney, a “double agent” based in Germantown. His title refers to handling tech-support issues both in person and at fix-it centers, called technology precincts, in some Best Buy stores.

The technology precincts feature four to six workstations where customers can hook up the central processing units of their computers for testing and diagnosis.

“If we’re not out and about fixing computers, we will be at the center helping people,” Mr. McKinney says.

Mr. McKinney and the other Geek Squad agents provide tech support in several steps. After conducting a diagnosis, they clean out the computer, removing old files and Web pages that can accumulate in the system and slow it down. The next step, however, depends on the problem. The agents, for example, may make sure existing files are installed and properly updated, hardware is functioning properly and the devices are communicating with one another.

“Our only concern is making sure whatever your problem is, it gets solved,” Mr. McKinney says.

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