Computer maker Gateway Inc. has announced a new electronic support service for its education, business, and government users.

Called eSupport, the new service and web site are intended to make diagnosis and correction of problems as fluid as possible by automating the process via the internet. The eSupport site includes self-healing tools, interactive web-based support from live technicians, and an intuitive interface for getting technical assistance, training, and customer service information online.

With its remote diagnostic tools, Gateway joins other computer manufacturers—most notably Compaq and Dell—in building automated support systems to streamline problem resolution.

Why the proliferation of these online self-healing support systems? According to Tony Adams, senior analyst in product support and services for the market research firm Gartner Group, computer makers have a self-interest in providing such tools for their users.

“Consumers are used to buying a toaster and having all the parts of it covered by one warranty. They expect that. The very best companies treat hardware and software as one unit, with everything covered under one warranty,” Adams said.

But the cost of servicing someone else’s operating system or software has meant increased expenses for computer manufacturers. “Vendors want to keep prices competitive, contain expenses, and provide high-quality services, which is why so many are going to automated support,” said Adams.

For schools with limited funds to spend on technical support staffs, the trend may be a welcome one.

Electronic self-help “is a great thing. This is a great way for schools to rule out basic problems by tapping into a knowledge base,” said Rick Bauer, chief information officer of Pennsylvania’s The Hill School.

Bauer has used Dell’s self-healing support system and has been pleased with the results. “Right now, companies are scrambling to find ways to maintain customer loyalty,” he said. “These value-adds are a way for them to support and enlarge their customer base.”

From the Gateway Assisted Service section of the eSupport home page, Gateway users can click on the make and model of the computer in question to view documents that are applicable to that system. Users can then browse manuals, technical documents, and frequently asked questions, or they can try automatic downloads that might solve simple problems.

To run the automated self-service system and perform diagnostic tests, users can choose “System Information and Diagnostics” from the web site menu.

“Once a diagnostic is run, information is harvested out of bios on the PC. We don’t harvest information on anything but Gateway [systems]. There is an agreement that must be clicked through. We can only get in as far as we need to get in to provide support,” said Mark Notarainni, senior manager with services development at Gateway.

Users can then select from the solutions and answers most relevant to their situation, hopefully solving the problem without ever picking up the telephone.

If the automated trouble-shooting process doesn’t identify a solution, the client’s information will be sent to a technician who can assist over the telephone or via an online chat session. The Gateway support representative scans the PC remotely for problems in the selected problem area, and information is sent to Gateway to help solve the problem.

Dan Ludwig, director of services and development marketing, said the assisted service works by examining a host of “maps” that are automated and get users where they want to go by solving known problems.

“The map appears on the technician’s screen, and if there is a problem, it shows up as a red flag,” Notarainni said.

Company officials say this method expedites technical support resolution by eliminating the need for customers to provide serial numbers, system configurations, and answer basic questions about their system, since the information is captured automatically through the Gateway Assisted Service module.

Because the Assisted Service and other Gateway eSupport features are fully web-based, customers can take advantage of these features free of charge, 24 hours a day.

“This tool is great for education. With so little money, most schools can’t afford on-site help desks. And even with a help desk, content-specific resolutions for Gateway might not be available,” said Ludwig.

“The real benefit of the new technology is the fact that we’ll help K-12 customers be empowered to do whatever they want in their own terms. They can help themselves. It’s about reliability and consistency,” said Nemo Azamian, vice president of client care services for Gateway’s business unit.

Dell’s Solution Center

“Doing technical and customer support on the internet is nothing new for Dell. Support.Dell.com [Dell’s online self-help site] has 400,000 unique users per week,” said Lynn Neille, senior manager of communications for Dell Services.

The Dell Solution Center is a one-stop, internet-based application that incorporates support components, services, and education into one location. All Dell Dimension desktops and Inspiron notebooks now come standard with the Dell Solution Center application.

In August 1999 Dell introduced its Resolution Assistant service as a component of the Solution Center. Resolution Assistant, like Gateway’s Assisted Service, is a service that helps computer users solve technical issues easily and quickly at the click of a mouse.

According to the company, this OpenManage remote resolution tool links customers with Dell support technicians through the internet to provide interactive software and hardware diagnostics and Dell’s knowledge base of technical support data. With customers’ approval, Dell technicians can view system information and can diagnose and fix problems through the internet.

Customized to the user’s skill level, Resolution Assistant detects system problems digitally and allows customers to choose the degree of Dell’s technical support involvement they desire, keeping it to the level of security required. They can also choose not to activate the software. OpenManage Resolution Assistant can be downloaded from Dell’s web site at no charge.

“It is a chat-like, internet-based tech support option. We’ve even included it as a button on the chassis of some newer machines, or as a separate icon on the screen,” explained Neille. “Every incident on your computer gets logged, and when you provide us with your user ID, it brings up the complete record of that particular system.”

If users prefer a more self-guided support method, the Dell Solution Center offers Support.Dell.com, the company’s online self-help site. Among other features, the site includes Dell Talk, an interactive discussion forum in which customers can discuss their Dell systems and gain feedback from shared personal experiences, and Ask Dudley, a natural-language search engine that helps users find answers to technical questions about their systems.

According to company figures, 50 percent of Dell customers use some type of web-enabled customer support, and by the end of 2001, Dell’s goal is that 80 percent of its customers needing technical help will use online support.

Compaq’s Knowledge Center

Compaq offers a similar service to its own customers. According to David Weeks, integration manager for North American eServices delivery at Compaq, “What we use—and what our competitors may also use—is a tool called Motive. Typically, companies buy the tool and re-brand it.”

Weeks said Compaq’s version of this offering is called the Compaq Knowledge Center, and self-healing is one of its capabilities.

“Basically, Motive provides a content repository and internet ‘pipes’ that allow users to search their system parameters for problems. What we provide is an active content,” he said. “The Knowledge Center searches the user’s system for bugs and … allows the user to perform self-help steps, and if that doesn’t help, [users] have an easy way to escalate the problem to the support center.”

That next level of support is what Compaq calls its eSupport Forum. “It’s a community-based chat room, moderated by Compaq. People post inquiries and answers to various questions, and we have a team from Compaq that moderates postings,” Weeks said.

Compaq also provides a feature called Ask Compaq, similar to Dell’s Ask Dudley.

“It might be a good service for educators, because it guides you to a place on the Compaq site that answers your question,” said Weeks. “That’s really good for those educators [who] aren’t technically-grounded. They can just ask a simple question, and Ask Compaq finds the place on the site that answers their question.”

The future of automated support

According to Adams, in terms of what users want and need for support, the telephone is still the medium of choice. “But vendors are playing the customer service game. They are trying to lure consumers to use the web, because the web is less expensive,” he said.

Do remote diagnostics and self-help tools really work? Yes, Adams said, at least after the program has become established.

“Basically, a log file is submitted for comparison to some kind of known pattern. The key is to develop a database of known problems. I call this ‘priming the pump,’ and it takes at least a month or two to gather all that information and become really accurate,” he said. “Before that, the program has nothing to compare the problem to. But after the database is in place, it will be extremely efficient. The accuracy rate is very, very good with automated systems.”

Computer makers “have added layers of variables [to their systems],” he added, “so that now there is a tremendous amount of expertise needed to wade through the chaff to get to the real problem. But we have programs now that can look at 10,000 different variables. No person can do that.”

Gateway eSupport

http://www.gatewayatwork.com/support

Dell’s OpenManage Resolution Assistant

http://www.dell.com/openmanage/resassistant.htm

Compaq Knowledge Center

http://www3.compaq.com/support/files/knowledge_center.asp

Gartner Group

http://www.thegartnergroup.com