Since joining Software Artistry in 1991, Scott Webber has seen the company's revenues grow 5,600 per cent to $US25.6 million. IDG's Solomon Emanuel met Webber, who is president and CEO of the help desk software manufacturerIDG: Most help desk software, including Software Artistry's, is built on the client/ server model. Why is this so?
WEBBER: I think there are a number of reasons. One, it's the model that organisations are moving to.
Two, I think the key issue is the user-friendliness of it. If we look at the whole concept of a support centre, it's relating to a move away from the technicians sitting there answering the phone, responding to issues which they are clearly comfortable with, to a move allowing user-friendly support personnel who need not necessarily be technicians to provide that support. Client/server is an ideal model for that.
And then also if you look at it clearly, the distributed nature of support lends itself well to the client/server model.
IDG: What about providing smaller help-desk packages rather than complex ones which need systems integrators to set up?
WEBBER: You're sensing that the market, today, primarily has systems that require more implementation effort rather than simplistic systems.
A basic simple call and tracking system, log and forward type of system doesn't necessarily require huge volumes of implementation. But it also doesn't provide significant return on investment.
With Software Artistry, what we sell is, out of the box, the most feature-rich, function-rich application you can get. But nonetheless, we still look at it and say most of our customers have some desire to differentiate the product and have it perform in a manner that better complements the way they do business.
IDG: And this differentiation, would they be able to do it in-house?
WEBBER: Yes, with our product, some of our customers do it themselves in-house. Some of them acquire our professional services to do that. And also, we have a number of what we call certified system providers - who are systems integrators that have passed the muster, if you will, of understanding our technology - who are also available to provide those services.
And, in fact, one of the key drivers of the customisation is the fact that client/server is such a dynamic changing environment, and so what we have seen is that many times we'll do something that's a one-off initial customisation for a customer. And then what we see is that it's really just a trend that ultimately we end up packaging as a product.
IDG: Is your product also designed for the 20-, 30-man LAN establishment? Is it cost-effective for such an organisation to use it?
WEBBER: Absolutely. Typically, our product pays back. In fact, our average installation . . . and we sell the larger ones, is still probably 30 to 50 people, and we have many with 10 people or less.
And the issue of the cost of return is huge. Seventy-seven per cent of the cost of distributed technology is in support. So big a number.
One of the things is the cost of the "Hey Joe" network. And that's an invisible cost. And yet that's huge - having executives helping executives solve problems instead of someone in the support centre. I mean there's a significant implementation there in terms of just their relative cost, not to mention the opportunity cost.
IDG: Should a help desk product tell you how to rectify a problem after it is evident, or should it let you know of an impending problem?
WEBBER: I think, clearly, the whole concept of becoming pro-active, which is what we are talking about with our enterprise support management [tools], says the objective is to reduce the number of calls that come in to the support centre.
So clearly there is a need for both. How can it do both? There are a number of ways.
Clearly, resolving the problem is something we do very well with our diagnostic technologies, but being able to avoid problems . . . if you've got a system that effectively gathers the right information, the management reporting can help you in that sense because we can learn and say, "We have very little problems with [one brand of] printers and we have a lot of problems with [another brand of] printers; well let's just change our mix, so we can buy the appropriate things."
If we learn that perhaps we seem to have problems in certain areas that some training will address, let's do that.
If we also see that by having connectivity to network management systems, we can alert people that it's a network problem rather than having 30 analysts research the problem - that's pro-active.
By putting in a change management system - that's not just a tracking system, but truly a management system - it allows us to manage through problem avoidance.
Once again that's very pro-active.
So, I clearly think that's what we need to do. If we don't get pro-active about reducing the number of problems, eventually there are not enough resources that we can throw into that room with the analyst to handle the calls effectively. The only way that we can prevent the spiral, given the exponential role of technology, from getting out of control is by, in fact, being pro-active and allowing ourselves to reduce the problems.
IDG: What is the reason for the growth of help desk product availability?
WEBBER: This is more of a factor in Asia. In the US the number of offerings has dwindled. Two, three years ago, there was an explosion in terms of the number of offerings, and what's happened is now it's dwindled down to a smaller number of players.
But why there are so many players that have gotten in to the markets is because if you are a simple call, log and forward system, it's a very simplistic database application that anyone can write.
And so, it's easy to enter into the tactical level of the marketplace.
It's very difficult to enter at the level that we play in because the range of knowledge in terms of being able to now integrate with mainframe applications, network management systems, asset change, the diagnostic knowledge base systems - that's very, very difficult.
But at the simple level of call, log in and forward, it's trivial.
IDG: Does this influx of help desk tools also correlate with the complexity of client/ server?
WEBBER: Oh sure, it's the whole distributed model that's caused the explosion in technology that's created the support nightmare, the support dilemma. Absolutely.
And what's also happening because of client/server is two, three, four years ago, we thought that as we were selling to our customers we needed to hold their hands more at that point than they would need in the future, because they didn't yet have the client/server expertise. We assumed that there would be less of a need for our assistance in the future as they gained that expertise.
Well, we were right and we were wrong.
They gained more expertise, but the rate of change in client/server technology increased faster than they gained the expertise. And so the actual gap has increased, and the need for assistance is very great.
IDG: You provide a help desk offering that leverages on the Internet. Do you think it's fair to say that some users would still prefer to use the telephone to get help?
WEBBER: I think, in the short term, people will always fall back on what they've known. In the long term, there's no question that they will go to the new technology.
Examples are bank teller machines. Initially, when they first came out, we still walked into the lobby of the bank; now we all go and put our cards in those machines to get money.
Another example is voice mail, and answering machines. Remember the first time someone you knew had an answering machine?
You heard it and you wouldn't even leave a message. Today, I get equally frustrated, I think we all get equally frustrated, if someone doesn't have voice mail.
So, yes, initially there's reticence. There's always resistance, but ultimately there's no question that the evolution has to occur.
IDG: Help desk vendors - Software Artistry included - say that help desk software is not meant to replace MIS, but is intended to give the IS staff more time to work on more complex matters. Are you able to substantiate that this is actually happening?
WEBBER: Clearly, if you look at our first-call resolution rates, there's an exact correlation with that, because if the call isn't resolved on the first call, where does it go? It goes to level two which is technical resources.
So, clearly, as we are able to increase first- call resolution rates by 50, 100, 200 per cent, all of that time is now freed up on the part of the technicians.
The second issue: what we've also seen is that our product has allowed companies to hire less technically proficient people and put them to work in the support centre in a matter of weeks rather than months.
Previously, they either had to put them through a six-month training program to be able to deal with anything, or they had to hire the technicians right into the support centre, whereas today, they can now hire phone-friendly people and still actually end up with better first-call resolution rates.
IDG: Does help desk software make IS people redundant?
WEBBER: Not at all. It puts them into the mode they need to be in.