Remote Tech Support: The Power Behind the Scenes

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted July 12, 2007

If you’re a small business looking for computer technical support, your first thought is probably to find a company that offers on-site service. Think twice, though. If a technician has to come out, it means you’ll wait. And you’ll also pay for travel time. Remote support from a service provider – a good one – may be a better bet. Faster service, better technicians, lower fees. And most IT problems don’t require an on-site visit.

When vetting remote service providers, ask what kind of tools they use to manage their agents and the interaction between you and the agent. If the company uses market-leading GoToAssist from Citrix Corp., a hosted service that lets agents log on to your system remotely to trouble shoot, you’re probably on to a good thing. And if you’re a slightly bigger small business setting up its own internal remote help desk, GoToAssist should definitely be on your list of tools to consider using.

The fact that PlumChoice Online PC Services has used GoToAssist since launching five years ago is a good indicator of the product’s strength. PlumChoice is one of the premiere providers of remote technical support to consumers, home office users and small businesses. “The Citrix tool has been a cornerstone of our business,” said Ted Werth, the company's founder and CEO.

Silent Collaboration
The latest version of GoToAssist, 8.0, which PlumChoice began using in January as a beta tester (it was launched in April), adds crucial new functionality, including a silent collaboration feature. It allows an agent to call a more knowledgeable technician into a support session to help solve a problem. The two agents converse using instant messaging-style chat. The customer is unaware of this side conversation.

PlumChoice web site
PlumChoice, a leading provider of remote technical support, relies on GoToAssist 8.0 to get the job done.
(Click for larger image)
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It reduces the need to escalate calls, which is time consuming and irritates customers, and increases the first-time fix rate – the percentage of first calls to a contact center that result in complete resolution of a customer’s problem. This is a key metric for technical support services and help desks because solving problems on the first call drives up customer satisfaction and reduces costly call-backs. The new GoToAssist contributed to PlumChoice increasing its first-time fix rate to 94 percent this year, up from 80 percent last year.

There is no question about PlumChoice’s success and its stature in the industry. It has 100,000 customers, served by a staff of 200 agents. Some of those customers come to PlumChoice on their own. The company’s Web site offers “retail” remote support products, such as monthly PC support, PC Tuneup, PC Optimization and Spyware and Virus Removal, as well as help setting up consumer technology products such as MP3 players and digital cameras.

Many of PlumChoice’s customers are customers of big software, Internet service and retail partners that co-market its services. Partners include CA (Computer Associates), a major software and IT services company, retailer Circuit City and ISPs Earthlink and Comcast.

SMB Support Services
PlumChoice also offers small business technical support – subscription remote support services, a security package, online backup – as well as remote training, including instruction on using new features and functions in Windows Vista and Microsoft Office. “The use of Citrix has been critical for us in building solutions for small businesses,” Werth says. Having an agent/trainer logged in to the customer’s system makes training, in particular, much more effective, said Rich Surace, PlumChoice vice president of operations.

GoToAssist, a software as a service (SaaS) offering, provides all the back-end functionality for managing technicians online, including adding new agents when call traffic dictates, monitoring activity levels, listening to agents’ sessions, capturing performance metrics and even correlating customer satisfaction survey results to individual agents and types of calls. GoToAssist initiates random customer survey sessions immediately after calls, with Citrix collating and reporting the results.

The product functions in many ways like a call center automatic call distributor (ACD), but offers some sophisticated routing and work scheduling options that no ACD can provide. Small business customers especially frequently ask PlumChoice to respond to a number of issues or to perform a number of services on one call. GoToAssist allows the company to split the work among multiple agents. The first agent might respond to a technical problem, while PlumChoice re-routes another task – running a virus scan on the customer’s system, for example – to a different agent to be worked on concurrently.

The customer isn’t aware of this task sharing. It just means the work gets done faster. The second (or third) task could even be routed to an agent outside the country. While some PlumChoice employees work in a central facility, many are virtual agents, working from home. GoToAssist makes it easy to manage this kind of work flow, Surace said.

Another key differentiator is that the Citrix product records every customer support session, both the audio portion and the “video” – the screens the agent and customer went through together. “That’s crucial,” said Surace. “We need to be able to go back and see what was done on each session.”

Remote but Secure
The product also lets agents log on to a customer’s computer remotely over the Internet to trouble shot and make changes. Remote connectivity is available with other products and services, including Windows operating systems, but GoToAssist makes it seamless and transparent – and more palatable – to customers, Werth said. For one thing, they don’t have to download and install software on their system as some other remote connectivity products require.

“One of the main concerns customers have before they let somebody log on to their system is obviously security,” Werth said. “The strong encryption that GoToAssist uses gives our customers peace of mind that nobody [on the Internet] can [intercept and] eavesdrop on their session. The customer also has the ability to boot our agent off the system at any time. That gives them additional peace of mind because they know they’re in control.”

The new silent collaboration feature in GoToAssist 8.0 is a huge benefit to a tech support operation as customer satisfaction-centered as his, Werth said. PlumChoice agents can call for assistance if they run into problems they can’t solve – if they encounter an unfamiliar virus or trojan on a customer’s system while helping them with a simple task such as setting up a new MP3 player, for example. But the company also uses the feature proactively. If a session goes beyond a certain time threshold, a possible indication the agent is having problems, a supervisor will come on the call – unknown to the customer – and provide mentoring.

“GoToAssist has really helped us both grow our business and manage the quality of the service we provide,” Werth said.

Best in Class
When PlumChoice went looking for a tool to build its business around five years ago, there weren’t many options available. There were products such as pcAnywhere, still available from Symantec, that allow a technician to log on to a customer’s system remotely, but they were all single-point-to-single-point solutions and provided only the remote connectivity. GoToAssist manages many simultaneous remote sessions for subscribers like PlumChoice and does it seamlessly, Surace said. Plus it provides all the back-end contact center management functions.

The fact that GoToAssist is a hosted service, that PlumChoice doesn’t have to manage software or install servers was another major plus. The company first implemented the solution when it was owned and marketed by Expertcity Inc., which Citrix acquired in 2003. Since then, PlumChoice and the Citrix product have evolved together. “They have always taken our feedback and often acted on it,” Surace said. “Version 8.0 is pretty much a [collaborative] effort [between PlumChoice and Citrix].”

The icing on the cake? The GoToAssist service is ultra-reliable – rock solid, in fact, Surace said. “I think it’s been down once in the four or five years we’ve been using it. And that was for ten minutes. When you can rely on a product 24 by seven, that’s huge.”


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