Illustration of a support agent wearing a headset and sitting at a computer. Abstract shapes swirl around his head to depict the use of an AI-powered helpdesk.

History of Helpdesks

At some point, you’ve probably utilized a customer service call center or helpdesk to resolve an issue. Even if you prefer to avoid phone calls, you’ve perhaps jumped on a chat program with a customer service representative. While helpdesks and customer support centers are now common, they represent a big leap forward for support teams.

Once upon a time, getting help often meant going to the brick and mortar store you bought your product from and talking with the owner or a representative. In the workplace, you’d have to take a trip down to the IT department to find someone who could help you. These days, much of the trouble-shooting and requests can be handled over the phone or through another form of electronic communication.

Helpdesks and call centers have come a long way. Let’s take a look at some of the major milestones.

Call centers, humble beginnings.

Evolution of helpdesks from call centers to chatbots and self-service
  • While the telephone was invented in 1876, the first call centers didn’t emerge until the 1960s.
  • In 1967, 1-800 numbers were offered, allowing customers to call companies for free.
  • In the 1970s, Interactive Voice Responsive (IVR) software was invented. When customers or employees called in, IVR software could be used to automatically direct them to the most appropriate agent.
  • By the late 1980s, some companies had begun to outsource call centers, cutting down on costs while still providing effective service. However, many call centers remained in the US, Europe, and other advanced markets.

From call center to helpdesk.

As customer service technology evolved, more companies started to leverage it to handle questions and concerns from customers. And, as technology advanced overall, companies realized they could use call centers and customer service tools to not only resolve FAQs, but teach customers and employees in the process.

This gave rise to helpdesks in the 1990s. As companies adopted more software, they recognized the potential of helpdesks to answer questions from their own employees.

Every business now relies on a suite of software, hardware, and other technologies to execute their day-to-day processes. Even the savviest and hardest working employees can find themselves overwhelmed by the tech meant to make their jobs easier. Thus, companies set up helpdesks, which functioned like call centers but tended to focus more on IT-related questions and problems. Whether geared toward employees or customers, helpdesks made it easier and cheaper to address tech-related issues.

As the 20th century drew to a close, many companies offered email support, and cutting-edge organizations started offering instant messaging platforms. The more Internet speeds increased, the more companies adopted Voice-over-IP (VoIP) to handle phone calls. This made it easier to manage incoming calls.

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By 2008, social media platforms were gaining in popularity. Sites like Facebook gave customers the power to message a company or brand directly. As a result, many organizations began offering customer service via social media, enabling them to build stronger relationships with their audience.

The emerging self-service model.

As customer service centers and helpdesks evolved, and the technology that supported them improved, businesses realized that they could make their systems more efficient by encouraging self-service. By empowering customers to help themselves, companies could cut support costs or free up their own staff to work on more value-added issues.

And, as it turns out, customers and end-users actually prefer self-service. In fact, 67 percent of customers prefer using a self-service option rather than talking with a company representative. For end-users, self-service enables them to address their problems quickly, side-stepping the wait for a representative and the attendant elevator music.

To further the self-service model, many companies adopted chatbots to assist customers. Most chatbots answer simple questions related to hours of operation and product policies, and fall back to a live representative whenever they fail. In this regard, less advanced chatbots are similar to Interactive Voice Response software, funneling customers to the right representatives. A handful of state-of-the-art chatbots, on the other hand, can actually facilitate in-depth conversations, negating the need for any live assistance.

Additionally, companies also began to build out large, comprehensive knowledge bases, which function like dynamic user manuals. By answering questions and offering solutions to common problems through a knowledge base, companies make it easier for customers to get the help they need, on their own terms.

In the past, setting up a knowledge base required a lot of effort on the company’s end. However, out-of-the-box solutions now make it easier for companies to quickly set up a knowledge base. With the right knowledge base solution, you can start helping your customers and employees faster than ever.

Evolution of service desks and helpdesk careers.

Nearly three million people are currently employed as call center representatives, according to the Department of Labor. Median earnings come in at just under $34,000 per year. Over 850,000 people are employed separately as computer support specialists, with median earnings weighing in at around $54,000 people year.

While total employment for customer service representatives is expected to decline by roughly two percent from 2018 to 2028, employment for computer support specialists is expected to increase by 10 percent during the same time frame.

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