Outside Help, Inside Connections

As companies grow, problems never disappear but they do change. Very small companies need help in many areas during a time they can least afford regular onsite help. Larger companies have onsite help, but also have users in multiple locations, adding a new class of problems. PlumChoice wants to help the first group, and WorldExtend wants to help the second group.

PlumChoice offers several new twists on traditional online support help. First, all the 400 or so support technicians are based in the U.S., have various technical certifications, and are trained for three weeks. Training goes beyond the technical and into the human areas, so techs learn how to speak "non-geek" and avoid acronyms while helping customers.

Even better for consumers and small businesses, PlumChoice offers support on just about anything you can hook to your computer or network. Need help with digital cameras, smartphone synchronization, MP3 players, wireless network setup, or even training on Microsoft Office 2007? PlumChoice says they can help.

"There's been a disconnect in support," says PlumChoice founder and CEO Ted Werth. "People have been forced to become system integrators to figure out which parts of their systems are bad. We actually take a look at all the technology in the office, including PCs, routers, USB devices, Wi-Fi, and peripherals. The goal of our service is to keep everything working."

Technically, PlumChoice uses Citrix's GoToAssist program to control remote PCs during remote support sessions. The small (100k) client software download starts only when the customer initiates it, and will be deleted at the end of the session. PlumChoice techs always ask for permission to access computers and files so there are no privacy issues later, like have been reported with some onsite technical support companies. Remote control sessions are recorded and kept to answer any questions that may arise later.

Customers can pay per support session, buy blocks of support time in advance, or sign up systems on a monthly subscription basis ($24.95 per PC desktop per month). The monthly service also includes online backup and security software.

When PlumChoice techs realize a physical presence is needed (some computers really need to be kicked, at least metaphorically) they work with national service provider groups. To save time, PlumChoice sends the responding tech full customer and incident details, saving the customer time and aggravation by explaining everything again.

You may have already used PlumChoice but not known it. They do the remote support for Circuit City's FireDog service, as well as some other national retailers and service providers.

I talked about WorldExtend a couple of years ago, but now they're under new management, have refocused their product, and updated their software. To get the word from the field, I talked to one of their new resellers.

Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies, describes his company as the "IT department for small businesses" in the Washington, D.C. area. "We're the one contact for our customers." Evolve Technologies has 16 employees and about 50 customers on regular monthly service contracts.

Sobel is working out the details to private label the WorldExtend service with the Evolve Technologies name before he rolls it out to customers. But he has clear ideas on which customers need the kind of help WorldExtend provides.

"The problem of remote user and work from home access is tough for small businesses. Deploying Microsoft Terminal Services or Citrix is tough and too expensive for smaller customers, especially when talking about five or six users," says Sobel.

WorldExtend's newly revamped IronDoor product provides a secure link for remote computer control and application virtualization. Need to take over a remote computer for support or training? Can do. Need to share applications like ACT! to remote and mobile users? Can do that, too. When Sobel's team needs to reach across the Internet and into a customer's network and open a command line administration session on a router, WorldExtend makes that possible.

Sobel appreciates that WorldExtend doesn't open ports in his customer's firewalls that could lead to a bit of network insecurity. Only one computer in the customer's network needs load the IronDoor Agent, so there's no reason to load down every computer with a license (and no reason to pay for licenses you may not use).

"We've been trying all sorts of kludgy things for remote application access," says Sobel. "Virtual XP boxes and trying to use Remote Desktop, but those don't scale well and certainly aren't elegant. And WorldExtend's hosted service model makes it easy to support customers with multiple locations."

There, now you have a nice balanced approach for support. Small companies that need outside support have a new service to consider. Larger companies with internal IT techs have a new option to extend the reach of those techs and handle some heretofore complicated and expensive application access issues. A little something for bigger companies and those that will be bigger one day.

This story, "Outside Help, Inside Connections" was originally published by Network World.

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