You get what you pay for

When it comes to databases and customer satisfaction, the more you spend on support, the better it is and the better off you are.

Most users are delighted when database vendors are involved in a price war. They're the beneficiaries of falling licensing fees as the database providers vie for market share.

But there's a price to be paid: As the vendors feel the squeeze, they're trying to save money where they can. Since technical support and maintenance have traditionally been cost centers, vendors have been trying to restructure--or reprice--their offerings in those areas.

That's why, when users find a responsive vendor with quality technical support, they're loyal to the point of fanaticism. But if a vendor lets them down, anger runs deep.

Presales support

Because databases are frequently considered mission-critical applications, vendors had better be prepared with their materials. "The larger vendors are solutions oriented," says Carl Olofson, a research director at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass. "They have a range of software products and partners...that's necessary if you're going to sell an enterprise solution."

John Cochran, division manager of Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio, says he was very impressed with the support offered by IBM Corp. when Nationwide was shopping for database solutions. "They were extremely helpful," he says. "IBM has a whole facility to help figure out the right solution."

The administrator isn't always involved in the presales strategizing, though. "High-end sales tend to be less technical and more solutions oriented," says Olofson. "The database administrator would be involved with evaluation, but at the enterprise level, decisions have to be made by the CIO."

Post sales support

Although vendors might wish it otherwise, people still count on tech support. Users will try to solve problems on their own first, but when that fails, they want quick contact with their vendors.

One analyst says:
"Vendors are trying to get away from paper documentation. It's really expensive. They can save on those costs by posting product documentation on their Web sites."

Customer says:
"I'm usually too busy to look on the Web. When I want to find and study something, I want a [hard copy] manual."

While Internet-based tech centers, automated telephone response, and fax back capabilities are offered by most major database vendors, users still crave human contact.

"We're very much people oriented," says Maggie Tompkins, computer specialist for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service of the Department of Defense in Kansas City, Mo. Oracle keeps consultants on site, she says. "And they have been fairly responsive" to tech support calls. The DOD uses Oracle's Designer 2.1 product.

Not only do most users want to talk to people, but they want to talk to the same person each time. A single point of contact is a delight to users.

"This is the first time I can call a sales guy with a question, and his first words aren't 'I'll have to ask somebody,'" says Brett Holley, senior programmer/analyst for the city of Denton, Texas, an Informix customer.

Of course, that kind of individualized service is rare. "A single point of contact is difficult to manage," says IDC's Olofson, "especially when you have a lot of customers. What happens when the same guy gets calls from a lot of customers at once?"

Most vendors encourage users to use Web-based tech support first. They claim that with a good search engine, Web-based support is more efficient than waiting on the telephone for a live person.

But it's an open secret: Analysts and users know that staffing help desks is expensive. Many vendors such as Oracle and Informix offer several levels of tech support, ranging from business hour access to 24x7 live support. How easy it is to reach a live person depends on how much you're willing to pay.

A Sampling of Database Tool Vendors
Ardent Software Inc.
Cloudscape Inc.
Computer Associates International
IBM Corp.
Informix Corp.
Microsoft Corp.
Object Design Inc.
Oracle Corp.
Poet Software Corp.
Sybase Inc.

(Note: This list is not all-inclusive.)

"At the high end, if you sneeze, they are there with a handkerchief," says Olofson. The high-end service may actually be profitable, he says. As with any insurance, companies pay for a year of coverage but only use it twice in that period. "Companies pay for this top tier as insurance, not because they use it often."


The first line of defense is product documentation. How you get it is a matter of some dispute. "It's all online," notes the DOD's Tompkins. "And all the information is there, once you get used to it. And it does take some getting used to. But I still have my own private library of books."

"I'm usually too busy to look on the Web," says Cochran of Nationwide. "Maybe younger people are more used to it, but when I want to find and study something, I want a [hard copy] manual."

Says IDC's Olofson, "Vendors are trying to get away from paper documentation. It's really expensive: There's the printing cost, warehousing costs, shipping costs, and distribution costs." Vendors save on all those costs by posting product documentation on their Web sites.

"The documentation is out there," says Denton's Holley. "When we requested a printed set of documentation, they gave it to us. Of course, it is a whole shelf full of stuff."

After years of charging a fixed percentage of license fees for maintenance, vendors are trying to recoup some of their losses by adjusting the way they provide maintenance. High-level decision makers at a user site may opt for an inexpensive support package, but this may prove to be a mistake. "I find that opinions of vendors can be very much based on the level of support they've contracted for," says IDC's Olofson. "If the higher ups don't want to spend so much money on support, the DBAs tend to have a low opinion of the vendor...even though they're getting what they've paid for." //

Gerald Lazar is a freelance writer in Tenafly, N.J., who keeps all his documentation in a pile on his desk. He can be reached at