AI, automation, and the dwindling help desk role of human workers

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This feature first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Are machines ready (or almost ready) to take over the help desk from humans?It’s funny how things are always changing. As soon as someone figures out a way to accomplish something, someone else immediately starts trying to make that process better, faster, or less expensive. Humans inexplicably love to tinker. You can’t attribute this inclination for innovation to laziness. Maybe boredom, or possibly just a desire to see how far we can push the envelope.

Whatever the reason for our desire to improve an invention, some aspect of our world inevitably becomes better and more convenient. The automobile, for example, enabled us to travel much faster and farther than with a horse and, far less expensively, too.

Our tendency to want to make everything better for everyone, everywhere, of course, generally has a downside for somebody, somewhere. We stopped needing horses to do things like haul heavy loads and transport people from place to place — tasks that were quickly taken over by automobiles.

While some saw the advent of autos as effectively eliminating the horse industry, others said, “Surely this will lead to finding new uses for horses.” The latter were completely wrong. The number of domesticated equines in the United States peaked in 1915 and has steadily declined ever since. We no longer breed and train horses for routine labor. The demand for tires quickly surpassed horseshoes.

Throughout history, the world has experienced a steady parade of innovations that either caused existing industries to lose jobs, or pushed them to the margins altogether. Every technological advance ends up eliminating trade and tradespeople.

Refrigerators eliminated the need to cut, transport, and store ice. Automated exchanges in telephones made switchboard operators a quaint relic of the past. Kerosene lamps broke the back of the candle industry, only to in turn be pushed aside by the gas light, which was soon rendered obsolete by the electric lightbulb.

Along comes the help desk

If anything, this process of “creative destruction” has accelerated with the advent of information technology (IT). Immediately after giant computers started spreading, we began making them faster, smaller, and incredibly more powerful.

Once that was achieved, computers moved into our homes and onto every employee’s desk. To help users solve operating issues and glitches, software and hardware companies began offering confused users technical assistance via a convenient phone call to the “help desk.”

Once we grew accustomed to calling the help desk with our computer issues, companies moved their operations overseas where costs were much lower. This presented new problems including language barriers, time changes, and skill levels. A doubtless impressive number of users have since banged their heads in frustration at being unable to explain a computer glitch to a foreign-based help desk worker.

In fairness to help desk associates, most of whom are pleasant and capable, callers are often on edge and irate at the shenanigans of their machines. Service management companies have continuously worked to improve the user experience by increased training of help desk workers and even added online chats to speed up the process.

Companies that made the help desk process smoother and quicker have grown. Those who failed to adapt have gone out of business — costing workers their jobs.

And away goes the help desk?

Are machines ready (or almost ready) to take over the help desk from humans?Now there is a new threat to that cheery and faceless voice on the other end of a phone connection: the multiheaded monster of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI). No one knows for sure how these advances will impact help desks and those who man them.

Some predict that it will render help desks as we know them obsolete, as AI improves the speed, simplicity, and thoroughness of the user experience. Others warn that human help desk workers are able to empathize much better than a bot, and will remain an essential and comfortable aspect of doing business with a company.

Those predicting the end of manned help desks are quick to point out the advances and capabilities of IT service management (ITSM) bots. Today’s bots easily outperform humans in certain aspects of operations.

Bots, for example, have an impressive capacity to inexpensively and rapidly gather and analyze massive amounts of information, compiling it into comprehensive up-to-date databases of computer and software issues. They are able to draw on such databases to better interact with users, providing help that is faster and more accurate than a human might do.

Bots are also better able to meet the growing trend of mobile users who are tied to their devices and often never fully leave work. No need to have an expensive human sitting in an office 24/7 — bots are always available and never sleepy or in a foul mood.

ITSM typically has four tiers of support ranked 0 to 3 in terms of complexity and depth of assistance needed. Most help desk requests fall into tiers 0 and 1, and utilize set scripts to enable customer self-help, the retrieval of basic information, user forums, resetting passwords, and solving basic issues. All fairly mundane tasks that AI already handles with ease.

Anything you can do …

The traditional ITSM model has been based on reaction — a user calls in; a worker asks about their problem and tries to help resolve it. The process can be time-consuming, and may not even address your computer issue. It can also be inefficient, following the set steps of gathering info, categorizing it, and routing you to the proper level of assistance.

Bots rerouting users to correct solutions can result in large cost savings. A multinational company or educational institution with thousands of users will generate an enormous amount of low-level help-desk queries like password changes. Bots can handle such queries at any hour of the day or night.

With machine learning, bots can gather data about past demand and predict high-usage times like the start of a semester, or employees returning from a national holiday. Because bots can readily gather, analyze and categorize existing and new threats, they can also easily warn users to watch out for those threats.

As bots handle simple user issues, human employees are free to deal with the higher-level user problems that arise. Even that, however, isn’t a guarantee of job-security. Companies are using AI and automation to teach bots to handle more complex help desk issues. With a minimum of data, bots can redirect users to appropriate solutions.

Automation and AI are already impacting help desks positively, and will do so in even more impressive ways in the future. While workers shouldn’t view these innovations as being “bad,” they are inevitable. IT support professionals should take steps to utilize the new tools and tech in a way that makes them more valuable employees.

Fortunately, most help desk workers are embracing the coming wave of nonhuman tech. Recent studies show that almost 90 percent of help desk employees believe that AI will change their jobs and are taking steps to prepare.

If you’re a help desk worker, here are three ways to embrace the change and become indispensable to your organization:

Know your industry and tech

IT is a fast-moving industry. What worked yesterday will soon be supplanted by new and improved technologies. Constant learning is the key. Read trade journals and websites, take courses, and join discussion boards to learn about advances being used by other organizations to meet user needs.

You can’t be reactive sitting around and waiting. Instead, be proactive and study the sorts of issues that your users most often encounter. Knowing the different kinds of problems (and the fixes they require) will make your job easier, and also help you work faster and be more productive.

Most importantly, you need to stay up-to-speed on the new tech and hardware. Knowing how to work with new tech and new hardware will enable you to help identify and prevent issues in your organization before they arise.

Collaborate

Let AI take over the mundane tasks of your job while you work on bigger things like collaboration between humans. Develop your ability to work with non-technical individuals and teams in your organization.

Since it’s typically easier to serve those you understand and appreciate, take the time to study the problems faced by non-tech users and learn about their needs by mixing among them. Visit the marketing or sales departments, understand the roles they play in the organization and know what they need to accomplish their jobs.

In short, learn their concerns and feel their pain when things get glitched. When a problem arises, show your understanding and value by diving in and solving the issue with a minimum of downtime.

Another great trait of collaboration is sharing your knowledge. Don’t hoard what you know in an attempt to make yourself look important. If you know of a simple fix or preventive tactic for a user issue, share it with the users. They will appreciate being able to do their own fixes as the need arises, saving them and you time.

Build up your soft skills

Are machines ready (or almost ready) to take over the help desk from humans?It’s easy for a non-technical user to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable when talking to a help desk jockey. We often ask ourselves, “Is it my fault?”, “Can it be fixed quickly?”, or as I’ve said myself a time or two, “What did he mean I have an I-D-one-oh-tee (ID10T) problem?”

Think of how an experienced police officer acts when they show up at the scene of an accident. They address the participants in a calm and disarming manner. They are in control. This helps them diffuse a tense environment and gather the facts they need to resolve the situation.

You can do the same by practicing soft skills when contacted by a user. Smile when you answer the call. They may not see you, but they’ll feel your helpfulness and desire to help. It can help them feel at ease during your interaction.

Talk in a way that shows your appreciation for them and builds their confidence in your ability to help. A comfortable user is more likely to give you the correct data you need to solve their problem quickly, and with a minimum of fuss.

Embrace change

Automation and AI are making impressive inroads into all industries helping them to operate more efficiently and smoothly for customers. Bots aren’t perfect, yet. But they don’t need to be. They just need to be better than humans, which in many instances they are.

Don’t fear the inevitable spread of automation and AI. Embrace them — because while no one is entirely sure of their impact, it’s certain that the help desk of the future will be much different than the one we know today.

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Calvin Harper

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Calvin Harper is a former associate editor of Certification Magazine and a veteran of the publishing industry.

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