Self-Serve IT

Client service drives client satisfaction in every industry, not only Information Technology (IT). Technology evolves rapidly, and so must client service models. This article is the result of my own thinking and what I have observed throughout my career, both as a technological service provider and a consumer receiving those same services.

Let us begin with a bit of history. Computers are but a very recent blip in the history of mankind. If we look at our history over thousands of years, the first computers appeared after the Second World War, i.e., only a little over 50 years ago. If we compare the capacity of those first computers with what today's can do, they are like apples and oranges. Computer power has grown exponentially in that half-century. The discovery of transistors, semi-conductors, and integrated circuits are the main reasons for that, because they led to the miniaturisation of devices, economies of scale in manufacturing, and an incredibly meteoric rise in speed compared to the first vacuum-tube computers. That resulted in the first personal computers (Macintosh, IBM PC, Commodore, etc.) about thirty years back. Since then, clunky and relatively slow desktop computers with monochrome screens have been improved and replaced with laptops, smartphones, and tablets – ever smaller, ever faster!

Computing has also been democratised, and humans have rapidly adapted to all these new products. We are even hungry for more, because there is no limit to what we can imagine when it comes to technology – so much so that, today, a basic smartphone can perform countless tasks that had to be done by hand before or required another type of technology. A smartphone is not just a phone – we can also it use for the Internet, our email, global positioning (GPS), voicemail, corporate applications, contact lists, radio and TV programming, our favourite music, shopping online, games… and I could go on here! So much power, and to think a computer that once took up space equivalent to the size of a small apartment can now fit in our back pocket and run for an entire day between battery charges. We have come a long way since the rotary-dial phone that was in fashion for decades, or for that matter, the first cellular phones that took up half the trunk of your car and required its alternator to work! Also long gone are the telephone book, department store paper catalogues, typewriters, road maps, day planners, etc. Nowadays, a single little device keeps us connected to the world 24 hours a day.

Figure 1 – The Future?
© Google Glass Ted Eytan | Flikr
© iWatch Federico Ciccarese/Ciccarese Design

No one can predict the future. Even so, it is more than reasonable to assume that human ingenuity will continue to innovate and users will have to keep adapting. Will the next dominant force in technology be the Apple iWatch, Google Glass, the driverless car, or something else entirely? I will not even hazard a guess, except to say technological innovation is a sure thing, and the pace will only get faster.

Before we complete this history of technology, we must not overlook innovation in telecommunications. Why is everyone talking about the Cloud[1] these days? Technology certainly allows us to build fast, effective, super-capacity data centre spaces, but how are we to access all that power? We do it via wired and cellular networks at breakneck speeds. Barely 30 years ago, we measured transmission speeds in bauds, otherwise known as bits per second or bps. Here again, things moved very quickly – my first modem in the early 1980s was a 300 baud (30 characters per second); next thing we knew, we could get 1,200 bps, 2,400 bps, 4,800 bps, 9,600 bps, 14.4 Kbps, 28.8 Kbps, and 33.6 Kbps – it was up to 56 Kbps by the end of the nineties. Next came what we called high-speed connections from 1 Mbps (1,000,000 bit/s, or about 100,000 characters per second) to over 100 Mbps (and higher still in the corporate world). Everything is now at your fingertips, whether you are at home, on your smartphone, or in the office! Who would have thought when the Web was being democratised that we would be able to watch our favourite TV shows on our telephone?! Cloud computing is now possible thanks to telecom innovation, as much for speed, like we saw above, as service availability (virtually anywhere) and reliability. Finally, the cost became affordable, and the majority of Canadian families now have access to a computer and the Internet.

Customer Service

If we look back at customer service in relation to technology, it too has evolved. Take banking, for instance: for decades, the only way to make a banking transaction was to go to the bank in person. Since then, within only about 30 years, we have witnessed the advent of ATMs, drive-through banking machines, online transactions, as well as telephone and smartphone transactions, and we are hearing more and more these days about digital wallets and payment via smartphone. Lately, certain banks have begun letting you deposit a cheque by taking a photo of it with your smartphone. There is no stopping progress.

Of course, with these new technologies come new forms of fraud and criminal activity, and they require novel approaches to security, but that has been the case throughout the history of the human race. Security is no stranger to innovation, and protection by encryption is improving, as are biometric identification techniques. We have therefore witnessed a sea change in the way we use banking services. Did any of these changes enjoy a 100% adoption rate when they first appeared? No, of course not. There are always some early adopters of emerging technologies, and others who resist (generally until the old way is no longer possible). Even today, after over 30 years, there are still people who will not use the ATM, and others who refuse to do their banking online. That said, however, the new generation now entering the job market was born with computers and the Internet. Those who belong to this new generation are well placed to adapt to change. The older set will follow the example of others reaping the benefits of new technologies and remain nostalgic about the good old days.

IT Management

What does all that mean for an organisation when it comes to managing IT and IT services?

My first observation is that, now more than ever, users are becoming better and better versed in technology, because it is more accessible and plays a key role in our daily lives. Plus, users are more and more demanding because they know what can be done, and in the workplace they do not want obsolete services and technologies that are way behind what they have at home for a reasonable price.

Secondly, IT teams have a much bigger workload, because the rapid acceleration of emerging technologies has made for more complex IT infrastructures with more devices, numerous versions and many technologies, including obsolete ones that weigh down processes and make services less reliable in general. Consequently, it is time that we ask some real questions about the direct and indirect costs of supporting out-dated technologies, and that brings us to self-service.


Over the decades, user support has been mainly built on the traditional customer service model, with call centre agents trying to help over the phone (and the potential to control the workstation remotely), and finally an expert visiting on-site as needed. Labour costs, geographic disparity, budget pressures, and the complexity of supporting numerous technologies are all forcing us to look at other options. These include the self-serve option, which is rife with possibilities and in line with the expectations of users who are better versed on the subject and more inclined to a DIY approach when it comes to their technology. There are also other options: chatting, which could be combined with self-service; inventory management to see all of the user's hardware and software; workstation monitoring to be preventive rather than reactive; and integration with telephone service to speed up access to user case files before they even pick up the phone.

We must not forget, however, that self-service does not solve every issue and is not for everyone, at first anyway (much like the bank machine in 1980). There will always be a support team for complex cases and users unable to self-serve.

Benefits of Self-service

The main advantage of self-service is that it delivers a one-stop solution for users, making it easier to find a service and get a clear idea of associated costs, where applicable, along with expected availability and/or the wait time based on level of service. This will build a feeling of self-sufficiency, especially among the younger generation and advanced users. Service will be available 24/7 at no additional cost. Service rollout will be a good time to simplify procedures, automate authorisations, and eliminate paper, internal mail, faxes, etc. Service will include the possibility for users to check the status of their online requests without contacting the call centre (pending approval, pending delivery, pending technician availability, anticipated date of installation, etc.). We could also add a status page for the main services provided – this would keep the user from reporting an existing issue to the service centre. Finally, we could post relevant information online about a range of topics, as well as knowledge bases, FAQs, instruction manuals and/or procedures, policies and directives; this will satisfy the most DIY users who do not wish to wait their turn. Together, these benefits will help IT teams improve overall user satisfaction.

What winning conditions are necessary to make self-service a success? First, it has to be easy to access for users, and the solution is to have a single self-service portal for the entire organisation. All IT services could be covered in the portal, regardless of what group provides the service. Everything must be transparent to the user, who receives end-to-end service in only a few clicks. As for IT groups, they must collaborate as well as invest time and money into harmonising tools and procedures. They must also manage user expectations and also communicate well with them. Like with any project, sound change management is a must if you are looking to succeed. Finally, agility is also a key factor. You have to move gradually and adapt along the way based on user impressions and service usage statistics. You need to hit the ground running with a few services, because users are ready to go – the question is, are we the IT managers all set?

I would like to close by sharing a famous Darwin quote with you: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”


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