By Michael H. Pryor, co-founder Fog Creek Software

Caller: “Hello, is this Tech Support?”
Tech: “Yes, it is. How may I help you?”
Caller: “The cup holder on my PC is broken and I am within my warranty period. How do I go about getting that fixed?”
Tech: “I’m sorry, but did you say a cup holder?”
Caller: “Yes, it’s attached to the front of my computer.”
Tech: “Please excuse me if I seem a bit stumped, It’s because I am. Did you receive this as part of a promotional, at a trade show? How did you get this cup holder? Does it have any trademark on it?”
Caller: “It came with my computer, I don’t know anything about a promotional. It just has ‘4X’ on it.”

Tech support is a tough gig. Most microISV”s would love to spend all of their free time trying to add new features and pushing their software forward, but inevitably they will spend most of that free time helping out customers who cannot distinguish their CDROM drive from a cup holder. Frustrating as it might be, I”ve discovered a solution that eliminates the problem”and it”s not hanging up the phone.
I fix the problem myself.
The majority of people who buy your software will hopefully never even have any contact with you beyond the transfer of funds into your now growing bank account. But the law of numbers (and Murphy), guarantee that a select few will need more than a bit of handholding. After trying to explain the intricacies of installing FogBugz over the phone for the hundredth time last year, we came to the realization that the entire conversation consisted of us asking “What do you see now”? If we could just see the users” screens, we could have fixed their problem in less than a minute.

Tech Support: “Ok, in the bottom left hand side of the screen, can you see the ‘Start’ button displayed?”
Customer: “Wow. How can you see my screen from there?”

We tried using VNC which is an open source remote desktop viewer that allows you to see and control another person”s computer over the internet. In order to get around firewalls, we set up a special copy of VNC that allowed the customer to connect to us. So they just had to download a file, enter in some info on the VNC dialog to connect back to us, and it would just work!
Except it didn”t.
One night, Joel was here late and a customer called and he answered the phone. The customer was very technically adept and knew about firewalls, how to poke holes in them to allow applications through, what an IP address is, and what VNC was and how to use it. It still took around 15 minutes for them to get connected over the phone as he tweaked his router, recited some cryptic firewall incantation, and finally magically made it work. This took even longer than before!
We gave the freebie VNC a hearty try. And we even tried other products like WebEx (watch my co-worker Babak and I struggle with Geek Squad as they use WebEx to try and help us). In the end, we had a serious pain that every other software company was experiencing; there was a void for a product that would solve this problem. Fog Creek Copilot was born.
The guiding principal for creating Fog Creek Copilot was to make helping other people fix their computers as simple as possible. By allowing you to take control of their computer (and for them to watch you and learn), you can get back to what you love: writing code and making that bank account grow. Any microISV can sign up for a subscription account and purchase minutes just like a cell phone plan. Then when your customer calls you for help, the only thing you need to tell them is:

.
“Go to copilot.com and enter in this invitation code: 123456789111″
.

Twenty seconds later their screen is on your monitor and you can fix their problem. No firewall voodoo. They don’t need administrator rights on their machine. Even my mom was able to use it and she still types with her two index fingers.
If you have a particular situation where you need to connect to someone over and over again, you can save the helper application that you downloaded and rename it BobWalsh.exe for example. Then Bob only has to download his helpee application once to his desktop and save it there. Next time we want to connect, we don’t even have to visit the website. Bob double clicks his app and I double click mine and we’re connected.
When you disconnect you can even have Fog Creek Copilot delete the .exe from the customer’s system, which leaves no trace of the help session.
If any of this was confusing, you can watch a demo here. If you found yourself saying “I could have used that yesterday!”, then hop on over to copilot.com and sign up for an account, or try out our free 2 minute trial.
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Michael started Fog Creek six years ago together with Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software. The Fog Creek crew can be found in their bionic offices, currently undergoing renovation, located in the middle of midtown Manhattan. You can reach Michael or anyone else at Fog Creek via http://contact.fogcreek.com.

1 Comment

  1. This isn’t a comment on your article.
    It’s a comment on a phrase that FogCreek keeps using about CoPilot: “…just like a cell phone plan.”
    Why do you think that people have good opinions about cell phone plans?
    I’ll exaggerate to make the point clear. If your product was similiar to tobacco, cancer or pornography, would you compare it to those?
    Right now, cell phone plan marketing departments are running as fast as they can away from the phrase: “cell phone plan”. Cell phone plans have a terrible reputation among consumers.
    Keep doing everything the same, if you want. But, for your own good, just stop using the phrase, “… like a cell phone plan.”

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