Taking Tech-Support Problems Online

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Executives from satellite broadband provider WildBlue Communications said when customers are afflicted by computer glitches outside their control — such as when Microsoft sent an update that caused a firewall program to stop running, or when a router manufacturer distributed a problematic firmware update — they were glad they had an online help option for their flummoxed subscribers.

“Customers are typically affected by issues beyond our service, and they're in rural areas,” said Anoosh Shahidi, vice president of business operations for the Liberty Media unit, based near Denver. “We can't really tell them to go to Circuit City.”

For the first six months of this year, WildBlue had been involved in a trial using a software support portal provided by Peak8 Solutions. That vendor's “supportal” diagnoses computer and network problems remotely, offering remedies consumers can handle themselves or suggesting a call to technical support.

When consumer equipment problems occurred that were beyond WildBlue's scope — but subscribers expected it to help with — the Peak8 product helped end users resolve their local connectivity issues.

Peak8 focuses on creating a centralized knowledge base designed to recognize and resolve problems as they occur. For instance, earlier this year, Peak8 CEO Ron Renjilian said Microsoft released a software patch that had the unintended consequence of disabling the ZoneAlarm on some systems. Peak8's portal saw a five-fold leap in traffic to its Web site that day, he said.

Within 24 hours, the support vendor had disseminated information describing the problem and its remedy, Renjilian said.

Shahidi said WildBlue can refer its customers to Peak8's portal for problems with spyware, viruses or even router problems. The latter equipment generates the most out-of-scope trouble calls, he said.

Out-of-scope equipment problems represent 20% to 40% of calls to the WildBlue help centers each month, he said.

During the broadband company's “rather extensive” trial of the Peak8 software, more than 80% of customers who took advantage of that self-help option reported they were highly satisfied with the help, Shahidi said.

The vendor even modified its processes to deal with the information delay inherent in satellite-delivered data services, so the help process would not time-out the machines it was designed to help, Shahidi said.

The trial performance led WildBlue to decide to affiliate with Peak8 and will offer the service option to customers beginning Sept. 1, Shahidi said. The company has yet to decide how it will price and package the computer support.

Midsized operator US Cable has also “committed to moving forward” with a Peak8 software trial, said its director of operations, Chris Zeth.

In the past, so-called out-of-scope calls to the operators' help desk were in the range of 25%-35% of all traffic; now, computer help calls have risen to 55%-65% of call center traffic, he said.

After improvements to US Cable's network, Internet delivery service actually is more reliable than ever, but consumers don't want to hear the answer that a problem is on the subscriber's end, Zeth said.

“We want to hold customers tight and close and control their experience as much as possible,” he said, adding that US Cable intends to implement Peak8 help across the MSO's footprint. Pricing (on an as needed basis, subscription or a value-added to best customers) is yet to be determined, he said.

Kurt Sherf, vice president and principle analyst for Parks Associates, a Dallas-based market research firm following the digital products market, recently opined that the remote support market is showing significant if “under the radar” activity. In support of his argument, he noted purchases by Cisco Systems, which bought a home networking and software tools creator Pure Networks in July; and Microsoft's acquisition of Gteko, a support automation software solution.

In an interview, Sherf said he's noticed that cable broadband-service providers are expanding their view of customer-service options. It's “not because they want to, but that they have to,” he said, noting that telcos, which are creating or building their delivery systems now, can leverage their “greenfield” status by building remote network management into their networks and set-top boxes.

Video providers of all stripes also recognize that customer satisfaction will be critical to their long-term success, Sherf said.

Companies such as Verizon Communications, Embarq and Qwest Communications International have already recognized the value of remote broadband support and offer subscription- and per-instance priced options for such services.

Rejilian said he doesn't believe cost pressures from higher fuel prices and other operating costs are pushing operators to look harder at self-help service options. It's more likely a desire to provide support for a variety of products they sell or plan to offer, from phone safety to home security, he said.

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