The sudden, high-volume shift to virtual work has accelerated what businesses had been dealing with prior to COVID-19: increasingly distributed workforces that need seamless integration of technology. Now that many employees have transitioned to all-virtual, all the time, the toolset critical for keeping businesses running has also expanded. Along with internet, communication and collaboration tools, it is equally important to have technology that functions as an internal help desk – extending the reach of individual departments like IT and HR through a sophisticated, high-visibility ticketing system. Providing the right information to the right person ensures all foundational components work together.
Greylock general partner Jerry Chen, who works with entrepreneurs building companies in cloud infrastructure, data products and enterprise SaaS, caught up with askSpoke CEO and co-founder Jay Srinivasan, whose company makes modern workplace service desk software designed for usability, speed and visibility, to discuss the new requirements to keep a business thriving.
Q1: Even before the current crisis, businesses have increasingly been employing distributed workers and adopting more sophisticated technology. How has this changed the ways internal teams are able to support one another?
Jerry Chen: Think of it like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where certain, foundational things have to be in place in order to move up to the next level. For remote work, internet connectivity is your baseline, security is next, above that is communication and collaboration, and then you need a tool that enables all of that to work together. Employees can’t be productive without the tools and information that reside within a company’s central HR and IT knowledge base, and that is never more evident than when people are working remotely. Now, remote work is no longer considered a temporary substitution for the real thing. It is the real thing, and companies are discovering there are more tools that are must-haves versus nice-to-haves.
Jay Srinivasan: Five years ago you could go to one place and get everything you need. But now, all of a company’s internal knowledge is in some sort of shared or fragmented format. In addition to employees being more distributed than ever, they are also a mix of full-time or contract employees, all of whom have different benefits packages and technology needs. Each onboarding process is different, the technology that facilitates remote work has expanded and is in higher use. That means not only are HR and IT departments getting a ton more questions, they themselves may also have questions about tools that are new to them.
Now more than ever, the action for asking and getting a response can no longer be tied to when the right person has time. It has to be now, it has to be fast, and it needs to be done by a system where user-context is embedded in the answer. Companies that have previously gotten by with a ticketing system designed around ticket forms and not employee needs are finding that they now need to take on tools that allow them to distribute that hierarchy of needs across the whole company.
Q2: What are the shortcomings of existing, traditional IT systems? Why aren’t they built to provide better internal support?
JC: The power of central IT systems has been reduced over time as more people have turned to shadow, work-around solutions that don’t even interact with IT. This adds unnecessary complexity and is part of the reason companies get slower as they get bigger. I think many parts of that trend will be reversed as companies have to fundamentally retool the way they operate. Older school companies will have to move away from monolith IT systems because they just don’t work with everything. No one product will be optimized for everything, so you actually need tools that integrate and allow you to stitch together a point solution of best of breed technologies.
JS: Traditional ticketing systems are not designed for how we work today, and they’re not designed to be used by every employee. They’re typically repurposed external support tools or IT project management tools. They don’t integrate well with chat tools. They don’t help with repetitive tasks and questions. In contrast, work-from-home tools need to be intuitive. This is particularly true with the abrupt shift due to COVID-19, when you don’t have the luxury of getting everyone acquainted with how to use your tools.
Q3: How has COVID-19 affected the volume and type of tickets your customers are seeing?
JS: Things started to get real in the second week of March – right when there were all those major news events like the NBA season being canceled, Tom Hanks announcing he had the virus, and the travel ban. There was a big spike in tickets for IT related to working from home – Slack support, getting Zoom to work, security questions. For HR, there were initially a lot more questions about payroll and benefits, and we also started seeing a lot of requests between departments related to virtual onboarding. It’s tough out there, but there are some companies that are still hiring. Unfortunately, there are less positive use cases when you need to do layoffs, but that still needs to be done virtually. Tools that allow HR to function remotely are becoming much more important.
Q4: Given the increased virtual demands on HR and IT, how can companies manage the volume of requests without it slowing down work?
JS: Obviously, dropping by a help desk is now a thing of the past, so you need a modernized, virtual version that can accommodate this new reality. That’s why we built askSpoke to work with Slack and Microsoft Teams in the first place — chat has been the new way of working for awhile, and now that’s true to an even higher degree. If a company uses both Slack and askSpoke, 70% of their ticket volume moves to Slack. What’s critical in these moments is to allow companies to continue running their businesses without things like repetitive tickets consuming the entire day.
Q5: How does the integrated chat function differ from talking to an actual human?
JS: Designed well, integrated chat with your service desk can be as effective as talking to an actual human. The crux of is to actually enable fast and synchronous syncing between your chat tool and your service desk. So you’re maintaining the speed and comfort of a human conversation with the accountability and visibility of a service desk. What you don’t want to do is simply replace a ticket form with a chat conversation tree which is like calling a phone number and punching in 7 numbers to finally get to an agent.
JC: We already see how painful that is dealing with the many industries that rely heavily on call centers and human conversation. There are a lot of sectors such as government, education and healthcare that have a massive human knowledge base and require a lot of language processing. Call centers are always in high demand, especially now, and I don’t think people are going to be able to go back to them as we know it. They also have very high churn rates. People get really burnt out and only stay for 6 to 9 months, and there is heavy onboarding and a lot of support needed. How do we address that in the remote world? Imagine having all of the ticketing and answering capabilities linked with Slack and connecting you to the right people right away.
Q6: Given that we are facing a recessionary period, companies need to have strong proof of ROI before they can even think about taking on new technology now. How do you measure the impact of using a system like askSpoke?
JS: Internal requests are incredibly repetitive, and with the right tool, it’s a ripe area for efficiency. We typically see that 30% of internal requests can be auto-resolved, and another 40-50% are repetitive service workflows. Using machine learning to give time back for higher impact work is a direct ROI that we demonstrate that askSpoke provides.
We also provide accountability. A ticket is a contract – I have an ask from one person to another, and if it’s tracked in a system like askSpoke that integrates with everything else, it shows whether issues are resolved while also providing continuity of knowledge. If someone gets sick and can’t work for a few days, or if they are laid off, all of that information is still there and available.
JC: That continuity of the knowledge base also greatly expands the type of issues you are able to resolve. Think of tickets as being short-lived or long-lived. A long-lived ticket is important enough that eventually someone will build an app or program around. A short-lived question is something that is ephemeral and not worth spending much time, money or labor on to fixing it for once and for all. It’s usually the type of problem you would address by defaulting to an in-person interaction. But the askSpoke knowledge base has made it cheap to store an answer to a question with any life cycle.
Q7: Beyond worldwide remote working, how does this program live on in the future?
JC: We need to stop thinking this is so temporary. I don’t think things are really going to go back to normal ever. There is a big shift to working from home. Even after this is going down, a lot of companies are going to make it optional going forward. I think there is going to be a permanent shift to make sure remote by default is the start, and the exception is coming to the office. I don’t think that is a 2020 thing, but a 2020s thing. Just like we saw gig workers, and contractors, and remote workers more common, you are going to see remote work become one of our defaults. COVID just accelerated it.