Beyond the help desk

It's a whole new concept: application development tool vendors and their customers partnering for better solutions. The best part is, it's working.


What users of application development tools most want from vendors, they say, is to get as good as they give. They strive to provide good tools and strong service to their own customers. So, they demand nothing less from the makers of the tools they use.


How much emphasis do users place on finding vendors that provide comprehensive customer service?

"It's nothing short of life and death," claims John Kelley, president of Atypica Inc., a Web development and consulting company in Bedford, Mass. "We rely completely on the development products we use. We deploy mission-critical, 24x7, transaction-processing applications for our customers. If we can't get help with the tools we use, we'd be letting our customers down. We simply can't afford to be orphaned by a vendor."


DB tools customer says: "If we can't get help with the tools we use, we'd be letting our customers down. We simply can't afford to be orphaned by a vendor."

That explains the trend among vendors toward more intensive customer service--now frequently given the label "partnering," says Sally Cusack, an analyst with International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass.

"Clearly vendors are getting better and better at building tools with the components customers need," Cusack says, "but the truth is, most customers need more help. Not simply help using the tool, but help building successful applications."


SilverStream Software Inc. responds: "Rather than being left wondering what's going on with a problem that they've brought to us, every client now receives a call every day with an update--even if it's just to say 'We're still working on it.'"

Cusack points to companies such as Symantec Corp., of Sunnyvale, Calif., maker of tools that include Visual Cafe, as an example of the move by vendors toward partnering. In general, companies that do partnering offer their larger customers help that goes well beyond dial-in support or regular upgrades of user manuals. Instead, they make an effort to understand their customers' customers, the business goals being addressed, and the other technologies and tools being employed. In partnering with customers, these vendors "own" the problems that may arise and attempt to become more proactive in dealing with them.

Some of the larger vendors, such as IBM, Cusack says, are well positioned to offer their development tool customers everything they need: "They have the service experience that's required. They simply won't let their customers fail." In addition, their size often means they can afford to have technicians specialize in one or two critical areas, such as DB2 or Java, instead of requiring them to be jacks-of-all-trades.

Size isn't everything

That doesn't mean size and age are necessary prerequisites of companies that provide top-notch service. Some smaller, newer tool makers are leading the pack, notes Phil Costa, an analyst with Giga Information Systems in Cambridge, Mass. Among the vendors he cites: Progress Software Inc., of Bedford, Mass., and SilverStream Software Inc., of Burlington, Mass.

A sampling of app dev tool vendors
Bluestone Software Inc.

Computer Associates Inc.

Forte Software Inc.

IBM Corp.

Microsoft Corp.

Oracle Corp.

Progress Software Corp.

Rational Software Corp.

SilverStream Software Inc.

Sun Microsystems

Sybase Inc.

Symantec Corp.

(Note: This list is not all-inclusive)

According to Giga clients, SilverStream is cited for being unusually responsive to customers. Several changes to its support and service operation have given them a boost. One example, according to SilverStream's new vice president of customer services, Diane Gordon, is the proactive service update. "Rather than being left wondering what's going on with a problem that they've brought to us, every client now receives a call every day with an update--even if it's just 'We're still working on it.'"

A new addition to the service offerings at SilverStream is the Tech Support Incident Base, a database of thousands of service calls and their solutions. While SilverStream's field support team has always had access to the Incident Base, the company has decided to make it available over the next two months to clients--at no charge. "Sure we could make money from it, but we're convinced we'll make more through customer loyalty," says Gordon.

Atypica's Kelley uses Progress' WebSpeed, Symantec's Java, and a variety of Microsoft Corp.'s tools on a regular basis. He's been most pleased with the support and service he's received from Progress.

In the course of creating a site for Intel Corp. using WebSpeed 2.0 and Microsoft Internet Information Server, Atypica developers ran into a problem having to do with issuing cookies. The tech support team at Progress managed to reproduce the problem, then admitted that a bug in their tool caused it.

"Instead of making us wait for the next upgrade of the product, they actually put us in touch with the developer herself," says Kelley. "She did a fix immediately and shipped it to us as a DLL. You just don't get custom fixes like that from everyone." //

Stephanie Wilkinson is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Va. She can be reached at stephw@cfw.com.







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