The (better) future of tech support

7 emerging 'hero' technologies should make it easier and less frustrating for tech support pros and users alike

Right now, getting help when something unusual goes wrong is a frustrating experience for customers. They've come to stereotype the experience as waiting endlessly on hold, deciphering strangely cheerful foreign accents, humoring technicians who are incapable of understanding -- let alone answering -- their questions, and taking time off to wait for a tech who doesn't show.

Tech support pros are just as frustrated, experiencing the same issues from their vendors' tech support and dealing with users who start the interaction expecting nothing, despite their own cluelessness. But even with these drags on their morale, many sally forward and poke around cryptic forums, hunting for answers among the rants to find an answer for their frustrated users and reaching out to fellow support pros through social networks and the like.

[ Frustrated with poor vendor customer support? InfoWorld's Gripe Line blogger Christina Tynan-Wood can help. | Have a funny story to share (anonymously, of course) about the crazy life of tech support? Submit it to InfoWorld's Off the Record blog. ]

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Will it always be like this? Can it get any worse? Or are there technologies in the works that can make the customer experience much better for both tech support staff and the users? Fortunately, the answer appears to be "yes." Here are the technology heroes coming to help.

Tech support hero #1: Augmented reality
You park your electric hover-car in the garage, head down to the office, and pop open a server that needs a memory upgrade. The mass of miniature guts staring back at you gives you a bit of vertigo -- just where is that memory hiding? But instead of heading online to hunt up a schematic for this particular machine, you instead grab your smartphone. You launch an augmented reality app on your smartphone, scan the bar codes on both the computer and the new part, and point the camera at the slithery mess in front of you. Gazing at it all through your smartphone brings everything into focus. Each tiny chip and connector is now labeled -- and a big arrow points to the old part you are replacing. You click a link to launch a video that demonstrates exactly what to do next. Voilà! You've installed the upgrade in a few minutes rather than a few hours.

"People originally thought augmented reality would involve a head's-up display," says Horst Haussecker, director of interactions and experiences technology at Intel Labs. A head's-up type of application requires a lot of technology -- more than most people would be willing to have on hand -- so Haussecker doesn't see it as all that viable.

But when Internet and GPS became commonly integrated in smartphones, it opened up a new world for augmented reality. "If you align a smartphone screen with what you are seeing," says Haussecker, "it gives you a peephole version of augmented reality." (You can try this right now if you have an Android smartphone running Version 1.6 or later of the OS. Search for Google Goggles in the Android Market.) It turns out, he says, "that people find the feeling of immersion pretty good."

Add bar-code scanning to the augmented reality display -- making it quick and easy to locate the object you want to work with -- and this concept could become a viable method of delivering targeted information in an easy-to-digest format. Making technical specs on a large number of machines a scan or two away is perfect for technical support. This is still in the idea stage, though, so it is a few years away. But a geek can hope.

Tech support hero #2: Support systems that know you
You are a smart geek. So before you ever find yourself tossing paper clips in the wastebasket while on hold with a vendor, you have already attempted peer-to-peer support, checked the forums and knowledge base, and tried a few fixes. But when you pick up the phone with the vendor, you usually have to start at the beginning with its technician -- just like every noob out there. In fact, you might have to go through this routine several times on your way to Tier 3 support.

Wouldn't it be great if you were greeted instead with "Hello, Mr. IT Pro. I see you have already accessed our online diagnostics. It looks like that system needs a new hard drive. Let's confirm your mailing address and get that part to you as soon as possible."

It turns out that the technology to do this exists today and is available in product form. "Let's say I typically do a lot of self-help support on the systems I support. But today I went to the company's site several times and eventually picked up the phone. By the time I've identified myself to the automated voice system, it should know where I've been on the Web site. It should also know that I am technical enough to self-serve most of the time. So it should automatically assume that if I called at all, I need to go directly to Tier 3 support," says Anna Convery, the chief marketer at ClickFox, a company that builds tools to help companies understand their customers.

So why aren't you experiencing it? Because of slow adoption, Convery says. Large hardware manufacturers already have enormous phone and support tracking systems in place. Replacing them with something smart enough to know what you've done online and who you are -- or integrating them with that information -- is an enormous, slow task. But there's a good chance they are on it, so being able to take advantage of this fix is just a matter of time. And so is the ability for your company to implement something similar for your own users.

Tech support hero #3: Self-healing and self-aware machines
As machines become increasingly connected to the Internet, they can take on the task of solving their own problems -- or alerting their owners that they have a problem. Today, antivirus software is already doing that. But printers, networks, the fridge, and desktop computers? Not so much. Most hardware still depends on a person noticing a problem and finding a fix.

But that is likely to change. According to Brent Potts, vice president of Hewlett-Packard's Web support operation, a printer that can do a little self-care is not far away -- now that Internet-connected printers are common: "A printer could easily look for updates and BIOS drivers on its own, asking only permission to install them." PCs and many applications already can do this. "And long before something goes wrong with the hardware, a conversation could be going on between the device and a service center," Potts adds.

Such a conversation would also go on between you and your device. Maybe your printer could alert you that it needs supplies, so users don't ever trek down the hall to their local printer and find their print job is in queue awaiting a toner replacement. "Your printer could text you an alert that it is running low on toner," says Potts. That way you can pick it up while you are out instead of returning to your office to find you can't print.

Mac OS X offers such a supply-status-notification facility, although the message is displayed only on the Mac, not emailed or texted to you. And network printers such as those from Brother International for some time have had the ability to send email alerts of status reports or unusual network activity indicating a hacker probe. So the concept is in use, just not broadly.

Tech support hero #4: An easier way to replace parts
When problems are caused by faulty hardware, no amount of connecting to the Internet will fix it. A part replacement -- today or tomorrow -- is still a part replacement. Right now, high tech is made up of components. And when something breaks, it often requires a technician -- or a user with above-average technical skills -- to replace components. And that leads to an expensive, annoying process that demands a technician be dispatched to fix the problem.

"In the future, machines will be made up of four -- or five or six -- modules. So if something breaks, you will get a CRU [customer-replaceable unit] sent to you," predicts Brendan Keegan, president of Worldwide TechServices, a provider of outsourced service technicians to major high-tech companies. Replacing a CRU will be about as hard as playing with Legos, he says: "If your RAM goes bad, the company might send you Module No. 6 to replace the RAM and a couple of other things. You pop the old one out and pop the new one in. And you are done." Keegan predicts a greater push to a world of CRUs in the immediate future, but he says any change of this magnitude will take years -- perhaps a decade -- to become commonplace.

Tech support hero #5: Robots that do the hands-on support
Sometimes technical problems -- especially if you are dealing with persnickety medical machinery or large network installations -- require that an expert see the equipment in use in order to diagnose a problem or teach users how to use it. He or she might need to watch how hospital staff members use the equipment or coach an IT manager through a setup. To do this the expert needs to be in the room, silently following the techs around, offering instruction, and pointing out mistakes.

One day soon that expert might arrive via FedEx. And the expert might be able to be at more than one site at a time, courtesy of robot surrogates. At AnyBots, robots are helping people communicate remotely by providing videoconferencing that can walk around an installation site.  These movements of these bots are controlled by the expert wherever he is or she is, while at the same time providing the expert eyes and a voice right on the working floor. "I think the possibility for technical support is one of the coolest applications we are working on," says Trevor Blackwell, the founder of Anybots. "We are looking at supporting medical equipment where technicians have to go to it and look at how it is being used and see that the patient is being loaded in it correctly."

These robots, which start shipping in the fall, will cost about $15,000. That's a lot of money. "But not compared to medical equipment or a large server installation," Blackwell argues. And folding one up and shipping it to a site -- while the live technician stays home, tending several of these bots -- will be easy: They each weigh only about 35 pounds.

Tech support hero #6: Smarter peer-to-peer support
Sometimes the best answer to your specific problem comes not from the manufacturer, but from someone who works in your industry and has a similar technical setup. Peer-to-peer support is not for every problem; it's not for account issues or issues that require part replacement, for example. But sometimes it is the best possible -- and the fastest -- support available. The problem today is that it can be difficult to locate the right answer.

But more and more companies are recognizing that peer-to-peer support is not only essential but also saves money, engages customers in the company's community, and delivers better support than any trained tech ever could. So, in the near term, companies will embrace peer-to-peer support -- and not just by watching Twitter or setting up a Facebook page. "Companies have to host their own peer-to-peer 'party' and attend other people's parties," says David Vap, chief solutions officer at RightNow, a developer of customer experience products. And that's what they are hard at work doing. Tools that help companies harness peer-to-peer support and put it to work serving customers are available now.

And as companies adopt them, the Tier 1 support technician will increasingly be less about being in the front line of phone support and more about policing social networks to make sure the right information is easy to find and that evidence of technical problems make it to the right internal departments. "Technical support people need tools to curate and promote information into peer-to-peer content," says Vap.

This won't happen at the expense of phone support, though. The phone is just one line of communication -- although an important one. And each has to know about the other. "You can't have these support parties going on in a siloed environment. When a customer calls, the phone support people need to know if they have also been on Twitter or in the forums."

Tech support hero #7: Virtual worlds with avatar support
As Internet connections get faster and the Web gets more visual, you might find yourself wandering around in something like the next iteration of Second Life to check in with your social networks. Imagine two guys are kvetching about their network hassles over a virtual beer in a virtual pub. A fellow patron joins the conversation, offering to buy both of them a virtual pint. He asks a few pertinent questions and solves the issue they were complaining about. It turns out that the guy is a lackey for the company the two were dissing. His job is to respond to alerts, seek out upset customers, and set things right before they bad-mouth the company too badly.

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