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PC Fixer Lassos Customers the Old Fashioned Way: Free Services

By Jack M. Germain TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
Oct 22, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Getting reliable and reasonably priced tech support for an ailing computer is time-consuming and frustrating. PC users at home, school and work face malfunctions caused by human error, software failure and hardware configuration glitches.

PC Fixer Lassos Customers the Old Fashioned Way: Free Services

On top of these problems are the increasing daily threats posed by malware and virus infections. The typical home or office user has no IT support to rescue them.

A recent report from research firm IDC concludes that although technology is now deeply entwined in consumers' lives, consumer support options have not kept pace with needs and are often unsatisfying. Meanwhile, PC support has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. As a sign of this growth, look no further than AT&T's recent launch of its PC support service ConnecTech.

The Internet is now a fertile field for finding PC support. More options are available besides wading through volumes of user forums for repair solutions. In fact, consumers can now find online support centers with a variety of services and per fix-it costs.

However, can you trust a pay-up-front repair service? How about a free online remote service? Digital Support Technology is a recent startup seeking to improve PC tech support with its flagship offering. It's called "PC Fixer," a free online technical support service that repairs a broad range of common computer problems. These include performance tuning issues, software glitches, problems with Microsoft Windows or Office, and security and maintenance difficulties.

The company provides multiple levels of tech support service, some of which are free. Digital Support also offers a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee or a full refund to those who opt for the pay services.

Selling for Free

Haiying Wang, founder and CEO of Digital Support, hopes his 15-plus years working in IT for major corporations such as Time Warner and VMWare will give him an edge as he brings his PC support business to the market. He is leveraging the automatic PC support platform he designed with a highly scalable functionality against the alternatives for PC support available to consumers and SMBs alike without IT help.

Offering remote repair service under a pay-if-you-want-to business model distinguishes his company from the crowd. But will offering a free service get potential customers to regard him as a serious player in the PC repair market?

"The money will come to you after the customer base is there," Wang told TechNewsWorld. "We are still working on how to charge for our service."

Creating that base was what presented Wang with his initial problem once he developed his product. After initially charging a fee and finding that only 30 percent of the would-be customers were actually willing to pay, Wang dropped the charge and settled for the additional traffic of free customers that came to his Web site.

The initial goal was to build a database of symptoms as the basis for a diagnosis and repair platform. Wang found it very difficult to reproduce a problem to test a reliable solution. That combination was needed to make the automated fix-it system a reality.

"I almost gave up right there. People kept telling me what I was trying to do was impossible, Wang said.

The first solution fell into place as he gradually learned to use the Internet as a resource. He and his technicians searched online and got the concept started from help offers from the community. But it was not easy to produce the knowledge index that drives PC Fixer.

More Hurdles

The second hurdle Wang faced was how to quickly identify a problem and fix it. One of his partners has a search engine background, which came to the rescue.

So the partner got the development team thinking along the lines of using reverse search. The process asks the typical search question in reverse: Here is what we have, so what do we need?

The third problem was figuring out how to get users. Wang relied on keyword searches from Google. He struggled with this approach for a while but eventually got the solutions in place.

Making It Work

The key to PC Fixer was the development of the knowledge capture system. Company technicians created a list of expected issues and matched each one to a solution.

"It is a knowledge portal for finding the causes," Wang explained.

Wang set up a lab with a bank of VMWare virtual machines. With this equipment a team of 10 could compare and track results.

The labor-intensive process led them to create each repair scenario and test out the solutions. Then they could recreate the task to confirm it was reliable.

The Clients

Computer users, according to Wang, fall into two categories when it comes to repair behavior: One type is happy to fix the problem themselves once they know what to do; the other category wants somebody else to do it for them.

"The common ground for both types is to capture the problem. That's what we do with PC Fixer," he explained.

He noticed a gap between the two types of users, though. He needed to avoid the pitfalls of other online PC fix models which case them to fail. To do that, he needed to establish users' trust first. The free service does this, he said.

The Product

Digital Support's repair solution is based on a remote process that's designed to simulate having a technician sitting next to you. Wang sees a steady stream of customers moving to the remote option -- but he also sometimes sees that people don't know what to do with it.

Digital Support offers three levels of remote repair help. One is the PC Checkup with PC Fixer. These tools identify the cause of a given problem and apply a preselected automated solution.

A 1 MB agent downloads to the customer's computer. The program puts the ailing computer through what is essentially a doctor's exam with a checkup database that lists issues. Each issue comes with an explanation and of problems. The customer clicks the Fix button.

More Help

The second level is Assisted Help. This provides a live remote assistant who can diagnose and repair the problem through remote commands. The live help support costs $19.99 per session.

The third level is Check Performance. This relies on history lists. It shows what has already been done, and what can be undone.

Digital Support does not perform virus removal, solve printer problems or fix digital devices or server issues, though Wang said the company will add more services gradually.

"Our first step is to just handle Windows issues. We'll add other platforms later. That presents no tech barrier to overcome. Windows has so many more problems. We wanted to solve that part first. We can use the same technology on other platforms. That is much easier to do," said Wang.

Nice Niche

Digital Support has targeted a ripe area of the market, but making it all work may present a struggle.

"The market has been underserved for a long time," Matt Healey, research manager for IDC, told TechNewsWorld. "The cost for service was more than the consumers wanted to pay. It has been spotty at best. Some services do well; some not so well. But this landscape is changing."

IDC sees an approaching storm, he said. More companies are going for assisted repair, and many people don't care to get involved with learning what's wrong -- they just want it fixed, he said.

"Digital Support has an appealing niche. But it still needs to exercise caution. We don't know what support model is going to take off," Healey said.

If the market breaks in Digital Support's direction, the company will be sitting pretty, but there are a lot of different models vying to get their share. All have significant hurdles, Healey concluded.

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