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How It Works

By Wylie Wong  |  Posted 2008-11-26 Print this article Print

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s tech support call center, which receives 100,000 calls a year on more than 1,000 educational products, resolves customers’ computer problems by taking over their desktops using Web-based remote software, also know as a clientless remote-support tool.

How It Works

Forty percent of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s 100,000 annual tech-support calls come at the start of the school year—from mid-August to mid-October—a period when many educators are trying to install educational software for the first time. Eighteen full-time help desk representatives staff the company’s tech support center 15 hours a day. During peak periods, they are helped by 16 temporary staffers. While the regular help desk staff is well-versed in the publisher’s products, the temporary staff is less experienced, so they rely more heavily on the remote-support tool to troubleshoot their callers’ problems, Baird says.

Overall, the staff uses the tool daily on about 20 percent of their calls—25 percent during peak season. Most times, help desk staff ask users a series of questions to diagnose the problems, and then they coach the caller through the troubleshooting steps. But if the support staff is having trouble diagnosing the problems, or users aren’t tech-savvy enough to follow directions, then it’s easier for the help desk to do it by taking over the user’s computer.

In some cases, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt customers mistakenly provide the wrong information, such as the computer’s operating system, and that could lead the help desk representative down the wrong troubleshooting path. Taking control of customers’ computers takes care of those problems.

The publisher’s help desk employees connect to customers’ computers by giving them a Web URL. Once a customer types in the Web address, a page pops up asking if the user will allow the technician to connect to the computer. When the user clicks “Yes,” the technician immediately sees the user’s monitor and has control of the keyboard and mouse.

More Features, Lower Cost

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt initially used another vendor’s Web-hosted solution, but, in early 2007, it switched to Bomgar because it offered more features and was less expensive, Baird says. For example, the previous product supported only PCs, and that was a problem because 20 percent of the publisher’s calls come from Mac users.

“Our internal staff complained about the need to connect to Mac clients,” Baird recalls. “Not being able to do so was frustrating for them.” That frustration went away with the new system because it supports both PCs and Macs.

Another benefit is that the publisher’s employees can exchange instant messages with customers. That is important because teachers generally don’t have phones in their classrooms or computer labs. Rather than having a teacher walk back and forth from a phone to the computer, the technician and the teacher can IM each other, Baird says.

Other features include a user interface that shows which of the 12 software licenses, or remote sessions, are in use and which ones are available. With the previous product, technicians couldn’t tell which remote sessions were in use, so they had to constantly IM each other. And if one technician accidentally logged into a session that was in use, it would disconnect the session in progress, forcing the disconnected technician to reconnect to the customer.

In addition to showing which sessions are available, the new system allows two technicians to log into the same session. Baird says that’s helpful if one support representative needs a colleague to help resolve a call. And it’s useful for tech-support trainees to log into a session and watch experienced staffers troubleshoot.

The new system also allows the tech staff to reboot a user’s computer and automatically reconnect to it. The previous system forced the technician to walk the user through the reconnection process. “The first time our internal staff used Bomgar and learned that they didn’t have to walk through the reattachment on reboot, they were doing handsprings and saying it was fantastic,” Baird says.

The tool also records online sessions, which comes in handy when calls cannot be resolved and must be escalated to the next step in the support process. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s tech-support team resolves 90 percent of the calls, because most issues are computer configuration problems that are easily resolved, but sometimes there are bugs in the educational software. In those cases, the company’s engineers can review the online session and develop a fix.

“Logging of information is important,” Baird says. “If we have to escalate a call to development, we can give them the full transcript and the system information—the operating system and DLLs—and they can re-create the issue.”

Wylie Wong is a freelance writer for Baseline magazine.
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