Technology

Tech Support for the Home Office


More workers are being cut loose from the corporate support system when they work from home. Support.com has help

Ah, the dignity of working from home. You pick your own brand of coffee, you set the rules on what constitutes appropriate workplace attire, you can play the background music you like, and best of all, there's no commute.

But what happens when the PC acts up, crashes, gets infected with a virus, or experiences some other productivity-sapping trouble? Worse, what happens if the PC acts up and it belongs to you and not the company you work for?

Your Computer, Your Problem

Chances are increasing that in the above scenario, you'll be on your own. A recent report by market researcher Gartner (IT) suggests that by next year, 20% of large companies will require those employees who work from home to buy their own notebook computer. And the more senior your position, the higher the chances—as high as 50% if you're in the C-suite—that you'll be doing as much as 80% of your work on a PC you bought yourself.

And more often than not, what the company doesn't buy and set up, the company doesn't support. That will leave more employees stuck finding their own help when computer trouble strikes. Rather than sending corporate tech staff to an employee's home—a costly proposition—chances are, companies will instead give remote workers an allowance and ask them to seek out their own computer help, Gartner says.

Anthony Rodio would like to be the guy they call. He's a senior vice-president at support.com, a division of SupportSoft (SPRT), a Redwood City (Calif.) concern that for 10 years has helped large companies automate their PC support functions. When the PC acts up, support.com uses the Internet to conduct an automated scan to detect, diagnose, and correct any problems. Support.com recently the new service at the DEMO 2007 conference.

Remote Diagnostics

Aimed primarily at frustrated consumers, support.com is catching the eye of home workers, road warriors, and the like, who might otherwise turn to calling Best Buy's (BBY) Geek Squad or go the ever-frustrating route of calling their PC or software vendor for help. The trouble is, most people don't have a clue whether the difficulty they're having is a software or hardware problem. "We've found that on average consumers will spend as much as 12 hours a month struggling to get their computers to work the way they want," Rodio says. "That's like losing half your weekend."

Support.com's approach to the dreaded PC support call is simple: When the PC acts up, you call support.com, where a technician based in Syracuse, N.Y.—not India—answers your call and asks a few questions. From there, they ask you to go to a Web address that enables support.com to remotely connect to your PC. With your permission, they take control of your PC long enough to perform a software scan that checks the usual places where problems typically crop up.

The scan is modeled on the same remote diagnostic and repair tools that SupportSoft's corporate customers use, and they're not exactly small potatoes. Before it sold its PC units to Lenovo, IBM (IBM) deployed SupportSoft tools on its ThinkPad line of notebook PCs sold to corporate customers. Time Warner Cable (TWX) uses SupportSoft tools to help customers of its RoadRunner cable modem service. Other customers include Procter & Gamble (PG), 3M (MMM), Sony (SNE), and Bank of America (BAC).

Not the Geek Squad

But business from corporate customers seems to be slowing. The company reported that it finished its fiscal year 2006 with $45 million in revenue, down from $62 million. Reaching out to consumers could get sales growing again. The growth in demand for third-party computer support among consumers has meant good things for Best Buy. Piper Jaffray (PJC) analyst Mitchell Kaiser estimates the Geek Squad's contribution to Best Buy's fiscal year 2007 revenue at somewhere between $1.1 billion and $1.7 billion, which would amount to about 3% of sales given Best Buy's consensus revenue estimate of $35.6 billion.

Fees for the support.com service range from $29 to $99 per call, depending on the type of computer you have, the nature of the problem, and whether support.com can fix it, Rodio says. "If we can't fix it we try to give you guidance on how to go about getting it fixed," he says. Those prices are comparable to those charged by Geek Squad, which also offers remote support, diagnosis, and home repairs, whose in-person visits can cost as much as $349 each.

Support.com is the antigeek squad. Rodio says his company's research shows that consumers tend to be turned off by the word "geek" and feel like it portrays a person who's going to talk down to them. "They don't want someone to condescend to them, but someone who's going to be empathetic, and who makes them feel like they're not dumb because they couldn't make their computer work."

Targeting Consumers

Going directly after consumers is a departure for SupportSoft in another way, and it's using some unusual marketing to reach out to them. The company recently posted a short ad on YouTube (GOOG) depicting a couple struggling with a problem that looks suspiciously like, well, let's just call it marital trouble, but is really just a PC that refuses to cooperate. The timing is certainly right. Microsoft (MSFT) just released the latest version of Windows—which is likely to launch a whole new round of questions and frustrations from confused customers who don't always know who to call to solve a particular problem in the first place.

"We're going after the people who don't want to be experts in technology," Rodio says. "Sure, some people consider themselves experts and want to fix it themselves, but usually what people do is find a friend or family member they know who is an expert. And a lot of those people are getting tired of all the calls."


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