How It Works

By Wylie Wong  |  Posted 2008-11-26

Desperate calls flood into Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s technical support center every day. Sometimes, the calls are from bewildered teachers or non-technical school staffers; other times, they’re from parents and students trying to get educational software to run properly on their computers.

The calls can also be from frustrated IT administrators struggling to install school software on their servers. And, occasionally, there’s an emergency call from an instructor with a classroom full of impatient children and software that’s not cooperating.

Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company is the world’s largest publisher of educational materials for pre-K to 12 schools. Its products include textbooks and testing materials, as well as educational software that ranges from math and reading software for elementary school students to server software that allows school districts to build portal sites.

Overall, the publisher’s tech-support staff receives 100,000 calls a year on these more than 1,000 educational products. The calls are as varied as they are frequent, but they all have one thing in common: The caller needs a problem solved fast.

To speed the troubleshooting process, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt purchased 12 licenses for B200 Bomgar Box appliance-based remote-access software, which allows the tech-support team to take control of customers’ computers so technicians can diagnose and fix the problems.

“A lot of our customers may not have the technical expertise to answer some of our questions, so it’s important to have a tool [that gives us access to] people’s machines so we can answer our own questions as the customer watches,” says Robert Baird, manager of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s technical support center in Fort Worth, Texas.

Installation was fast and easy, he reports. The IT department’s shared services network team in Orlando, Fla., configured and connected the remote-support tool on the network behind the company’s firewall.

Traditionally, remote-administration tools require client-side software to be installed on each computer, but the tool Houghton Mifflin Harcourt standardized on doesn’t require this software. Instead, help desk support staffers connect to users through a Web site.

The client and “clientless” remote-support tools serve different markets, according to Matt Healey, an analyst at IDC, a research firm in Framingham, Mass. The traditional client tools are good for controlled enterprise environments, where computer users are behind the firewall, he explains.

In contrast, the clientless support tools are good for three main applications: decentralized environments, where corporate IT help desks have to support their remote employees; corporate call centers that have to assist their customers around the globe; and third-party service providers—such as Best Buy’s Geek Squad or Circuit City’s Firedog—that must provide tech-support services for their customers.

Most clientless remote-support tools are offered as Web-hosted solutions. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, however, standardized on Bomgar, a server appliance that’s installed internally on the corporate network. This hardware device has remote-support software built in.

The technology allows the publisher’s tech-support employees to resolve calls faster, which improves customer service, increases staff productivity and cuts costs. Since technicians can handle more calls throughout the day, there’s less need for the company to increase tech staff, Baird says.

IDC’s Healey says these tools also resolve a major problem some call centers face: the language barrier. If users can’t understand a technician’s accent, the technician can simply set up a remote-support session and quickly diagnose and repair the problem.

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.”

Measuring ROI

When the tech-support center implemented the Bomgar remote-support tool nearly two years ago, the publisher saw an immediate return on investment, ranging from faster call resolution to cost savings, Baird reports.

After the first year, average call times fell from 12 minutes to 10 minutes, and that dropped to about nine minutes at the end of this summer. The faster resolution rate improves customer service because it allows staffers to take more calls.

That, in turn, saves the company from having to hire more tech-support employees. Every 1.5 minutes that’s shaved from the average call saves the publisher one full-time employee, Baird says. So a reduction from 12 minutes to nine minutes a call obviates the need for two additional full-time employees a year.

Switching from the old vendor to the new one also saves $12,000 a year in software licenses.

Overall, Bomgar’s remote-administration tool has made the job faster and easier for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s tech-support team. “Since we installed this product, there has not been one single minute of downtime, no connectivity problems and no security breaches,” Baird says. “We couldn’t live without it.”

Hosted or In-House Solutions?

Clientless remote-support tools are available as either a Web-hosted solution or as software and server appliances that are installed on an enterprise’s in-house network. The type an organization chooses depends on its corporate policies, says IDC analyst Matt Healey.

For example, if security is a concern, a business may choose to install the technology in-house because all the data is housed internally, he says. However, he adds that with hosted solutions, companies can increase the number of software licenses almost immediately, while an on-premise product requires IT staffers to handle the installation.

The market for clientless remote-support tools is still emerging. Sales of these tools are expected to more than double in the next four years, from an estimated $156.4 million in 2008 to $335.7 million in 2012, according to IDC.