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Home Grown Web Help Desk Software

by Fredrick Miller

In the fall of 1996, Illinois Wesleyan University's office of Information Technology developed a simple intranet web application for tracking user support calls. This presentation looks at how the use of this application evolved and how it helps improve customer service at this liberal arts university. Lessons learned from this project can help improve services at other institutions with limited information technology resources.

Background

Located in the heart of central Illinois, Illinois Wesleyan University has more than 1900 undergraduates, 500 faculty and staff, and more than 900 institutional computers. The university has a campus network linking classrooms, the library, offices and dormitories with the Internet.

In the Fall of 1996, our newly formed Office of Information Technology (IT) had a staff of nine. Assisted by a few student workers, these IT professionals provided support for the campus network, academic & administrative computing, telecommunications, and the campus cable TV network. There was no physical information technology help desk, and offices were spread over multiple locations on campus. At this time, the single loudest complaint about information technology was "Who do I call?".

Our Solution Evolves

Our first attempt at answering this complaint was to create a single telephone number for faculty, staff and students to call for any technology problem or request. We soon noticed that many of the calls to this new support number were follow ups to determine the status of an earlier call. To help track calls, and cut down on repeat calls, we created a call tracking database.

IT took several attempts to get the tracking database to the point where it was a useful tool. Our first strategy was to use our main administrative server (an IBM AS/400) with a traditional terminal-based approach for information technology staffers only. We quickly found that only a few of our staff were comfortable using a terminal application. We had just begun experimenting with Web access to our administrative data, so we decided to build a simple Web interface to the call-tracking database. Our information technology staff members considered this step a big improvement, but we found our AS/400 to be a slow Web server. We decided to keep the Web interface idea and moved the database to a Macintosh computer.

With the Web-based tracking system on the Macintosh we found the right combination of interface and performance. Assembling the initial system took less than a day. We used Everyware's Tango software as a front-end to a Filemaker database. All of our IT staff began using the tracking system consistently, and in January 1997 we opened the database to our campus users.

The Web-based Solution

Our Web-based call tracking system has a few key features. Users can enter calls into the database using a Web server that is only accessible from within the campus firewall (our intranet). Users can look up their calls, including the status of calls by searching on a name. Information technology personnel can enter and update calls, as well as lookup calls by a number of criteria including staff member assigned, caller name, and department. We can provide additional management reports using the database's native report capabilities.

We've tried to keep our Web-based call tracking system fast and easy to use. Our early efforts showed that these were the two most important concerns for our information technology staff and our users. To keep our system simple and response time fast, we've deliberately kept security barriers to a minimum. We only allow access to the Web server from computers behind our firewall. Information technology staff members gain access to update calls using a single ID and password. Any member of the campus community can look-up any open or closed call by entering a caller's name. Our campus community finds this level of openness acceptable.

With nearly two years of using the Web-based tracking system we've logged over 7000 calls. We've documented how calls to Information Technology fluctuate with the academic year. Although we routinely get fifteen to twenty calls per day, we've been able to identify peak activity periods. For example, during the second week of Fall classes in 1997 we logged 219 calls. During the same week in the Fall 1998 semester we logged 221 calls. For the first year of using the system we closed about 50% of calls in less than a day, and about 20% of calls are of a project nature that require more than a week to close. We are seeing these statistics improve. For the first nine months of 1998, we closed 66% of calls in less than a day, and another 20% in 5 or less days. We look to continue to improve these customer service measurements.

Graph from Illinois Wesleyan's intranet web site tracking technology support calls

 

Continuing Improvements

We continue to update the system as we think of improvements. Most of our improvements have come from suggestions from IT staffers. We have standardized our department naming for better call analysis. Our IT staff now have a choice of formats for viewing calls. We encourage detailed problem descriptions and documentation of how we resolve problems. This documentation has proven especially helpful when we dealing with repeat problems, and when we've had staffing changes within IT.

One of our earliest improvements was the "emergency call" designation. Shortly after we made the Web-based tracking system available to users we started to get requests for an emergency code in the database. Users wanted assurance that if they had an emergency, IT would respond as quickly as possible. Infomation technology staffers feared that if users could designate a call as an emergency, the majority of calls would be tagged as emergencies. We satisfied both our staff and our users by adding an emergency code to the database, but only allowing Information Technology staff members to designate a call as an emergency. Emergency calls now appear on IT call tracking web pages in red. When an IT staffer see an emergency call, we respond as quickly as possible. Emergencies now account for fewer than 3 percent of all calls.

After the first semester of having the Web-based tracking system available to users, we heard some complaints from the IT staff. These complaints included a perception that because we had staff specialists, calls were not evenly assigned. Some staff also complained about a lack of cooperation in resolving calls. We decided to take steps to eliminate the prevailing attitude that "If the call's not assigned to me, it's somebody else's problem."

For the Fall of 1997 we used our call tracking database as a foundation for providing a different approach to customer service. We assigned each IT staff member "department liaison" responsibilities. As a department liaison, an Information Technology staff member is responsible for watching the service calls from their assigned departments. While various information technology specialists may be assigned individual calls from a department, the IT liaison watches for call trends and helps provide solutions for the department's technology problems. We use the liaison program to help build teamwork within our organization and to emphasize that all service calls to IT are "our calls". Everyone in the organization now regularly accesses the call tracking database and monitors questions and responses.

Lessons Learned

Having used our web call tracking system for almost two years, we've learned a number of lessons about our campus community and information technology.

We've learned that our users like the web-based system. They like being able to see not only the status of outstanding requests, but also the history of their calls. Putting a graph of our call statistics on our intranet web site also gives our users an idea of IT's workload.

We've learned that the Web-based system helps our IT staff work better together. With a relatively small professional staff, all of our IT staff members have specialties, but everyone also respond to user calls. With our web-based system, our tech's can easily refer calls to a specialist with detailed history. Our techs can look up how similar problems were solved in the past. If one staff member is out, another can easily do a web search to cover that person's outstanding calls. The web tracking system also helps IT staff respond to phone inquiries about previous calls.

The call tracking system has helped our campus administration better understand the work of information technology staff members. We have used statistics from the call database to justify additional positions. Since we began using our web-based call tracking system, we've used it to help justify three additional professional positions for the department: a Webmaster/System Administrator, a technology training coordinator and a database administrator. Call tracking data was not the sole justification, but the system helped provide statistics showing how these positions would help our campus community. The call tracking system has also helped explain when we should use outsourced repair technicians to meet demand during peak periods.

Statistics from the call tracking system help us think about how we use our IT staff. After the Fall 1997 semester, we noticed that half the 3900 calls have come from academic departments. We since adjusted an IT staff position to provide more direct support to faculty. In addition, this past Summer we relocated the majority of IT offices to a new location where we've opened a physical help desk. We've trained student help desk workers to enter calls into our web help desk system. Since we opened the help desk, we've seen an increase in student use of the help desk system. We expect to continue to refine our use of IT personnel to meet the changing IT needs of the university.

Graphs showing who places support calls and how those calls have changed in a year

 

We've learned that by using a simple, internally developed system, we can tinker with our web interface and database so it better meet our needs. Future improvements include identifying long term projects more clearly, and eventually tying into a Web-based computer inventory. We also intend to investigate producing regular reports to support our IT liaison program.

Conclusion

A Web-based front-end to a trouble ticket system improves communications and improves information technology services at Illinois Wesleyan University. Our intranet system has benefits for our users, our Information Technology staffers, and our campus administration. It is a useful tool for resolving technology support problems, and it provides important information for assessing IT performance. For a small investment in time we developed an important management and customer service tool.

 

Screen Shots