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OK Google, Let's Fix the Help Desk

Alexa, Cortana and other virtual assistants are standing by to help MSPs help customers. Don't let fear of automation hold you back.

You know the drill with PC and mobile-device problems: The end user can't perform a task or is dead in the water, so she calls for help, only to find overworked front-line help-desk folks are unavailable. So she files a ticket, which goes into an overcrowded queue. Once IT gets to it, the admin finds that the user didn't fully understand the issue or missed relevant details. Investigation begins. IT calls the user, who might struggle to explain the problem. After all, it was hours or even days ago. There must be a better way, right? Well, there is. Meet your newest employee: an intelligent assistant who never gets sick or asks for a raise.

In response to your first thought, no, I don’t see IT pros going the way of auto workers because of automation, AI or voice assistants. I do expect voice assistants to start focusing on lower-level, more common inquiries. This will free up humans to focus on providing higher-level services. Machine learning is not a "set it and forget it" process. As technology continues to advance, IT will play a vital role in improving learning systems. Over the long term I expect voice assistants and machine learning to create jobs, not eliminate them.

Google Assistant made a big splash recently with a rather stunning demo, scheduling an appointment like a real human. This is all well and good, but what about meatier work, like solving end-user device problems? While that is not Google’s initial thrust, voice-driven intelligent assistants will ultimately have that capability. As these concepts are applied to IT systems management over the next several years, AI will fundamentally change how that work is done. There is a huge convenience factor here for MSPs, of course, but well-designed intelligent assistant systems can also improve the accuracy of the information being passed back and forth. There should be no human error and far less miscommunication.

In addition, many tasks that are put off because they are time-consuming will be processed automatically by the intelligent assistant. For example, instead of manually prepping and running a monthly report for each customer, one could simply ask Google Assistant or Alexa for Business to do it for you. On the customer-facing side, end users are clearly frustrated by the current help-desk model. It is not a natural way to communicate. Rather than filing a ticket with limited options, the user could describe the problem to the intelligent assistant in natural language and in many cases get an immediate response — and perhaps equally immediate remediation. If the solution is simple enough, the user could be walked through a couple of basic steps and be back up to speed — before the human IT help-desk pro got back from the coffee machine.

Where are we now? The logistics-automation space is in the vanguard in harnessing intelligent assistance. Logistics managers and operators have to control the intricate and precise movement of goods and supplies. Many devices, such as sensors that track inventory and GPS systems that monitor the movement of supplies, must communicate with one another. With intelligent assistants, logistics managers can more easily direct the system and find the exact status of supplies. More impressively, intelligent assistance systems allow disparate devices to communicate not just by passing data but also by asking questions and responding to queries.

Besides Google Assistant, Microsoft Has Cortana, Apple has Siri and perhaps most impressively Amazon has Alexa — and for our purposes, Alexa for Business, which already is being applied to certain IT tasks. One third-party logistics vendor has Alexa-enabled its tool: Acumatica Cloud ERP uses voice to allow warehouse staff to check and replenish inventory. Workers can say “Alexa, ask Acumatica how many laptops we have in stock.” 

Here is how Amazon describes the potential of Alexa for business: “Alexa helps your workplace run more efficiently. By building your own custom Alexa skills, you can easily voice-enable your workplace, and let Alexa help with common, everyday tasks. Using your custom Alexa skills, Alexa can provide directions, find an open meeting room, order new supplies, report building problems, or notify IT of an equipment issue.”

Some organizations, such as office space and co-working company WeWork, are already making the move. 

"Alexa for Business is helping us move towards our greater vision of a smart, connected space that responds to your needs,” said Dave Fano, chief growth officer for WeWork. "With the private skills that we’ve built, Alexa can reserve conference rooms, file help tickets for our community management team, and provide important information on the status of our meeting rooms."

Capital One also is using Alexa for IT work — specifically cloud monitoring.

“Our technology leaders expect always-on visibility into AWS infrastructure performance across our lines of business," said Surya Avirneni, master software engineer, Capital One. "We built an [Alexa] skill that allows our teams to check the status on our systems quickly, or to request specific updates on high-severity events.”

Internal IT shops and MSPs can Alexa-enable their applications by building Alexa skills, but third parties are starting to offer to do that work for them.

Splunk designs tools to analyze the big data created by IT infrastructure, security systems, applications and IoT devices. Splunk now has “Ask Splunk,” which lets users do queries and analysis through voice. They don’t have to learn syntax or understand the structure of the data they are analyzing, meaning its easy to enable sales, service and marketing departments with little to no formal training.

Yes, we are in the early days of exploring how voice-enabled assistants will impact help desks and IT systems management, but as these examples show, this is not bleeding-edge stuff, and MSPs are more and more resource constrained. If your firm hasn’t started to look into AI as an option, you might already be behind your competition.

Marius Mihalec is CEO and founder of Pulseway, a provider of remote monitoring and management software. Before joining Pulseway, he was a technical architect at Irish Medical Systems (IMS MAXIMS) for 10 years. Mihalec holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

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