Servicing servers

When the stakes are high, customers expect plenty of support from hardware vendors.

A box is a box is a box...until it becomes a solution.

That difference is key to understanding the high level of customer service and support IT managers expect from their server vendors. We're talking the difference between PC file and print server and a mainframe-class server running an ERP application, for example.

Several factors can increase the need for good vendor customer service and support: a big dollar investment in the server, a mission-critical application running on the server, a large number of users, and high visibility.

As a user of eight IBM OS/390 servers, Dan Kaberon, manager of computer resource management at Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting firm, says vendor customer service is vital. "Working with a vendor that has a good product and good customer support is the only way to blaze into the future with confidence," says Kaberon, in Lincolnshire, Ill.


When customers say,
"The faster the response I get, the more likely I'll continue to buy a vendor's product..."

...Vendors respond:
Many recognize the importance of customer service and the tie back to customer loyalty. Compaq Computer purchased Digital Equipment in part because of Digital's service and support organization.

What's good customer service to Kaberon? It means being able to establish a rapport and sense of partnership with the vendor from day one. "With technology evolving so rapidly and radically, and getting increasingly complex, I want someone else's skin in the game," he adds, noting that he gets that from IBM.

Apparently many IT shops share Kaberon's outlook. According to a customer satisfaction survey conducted quarterly by Business Research Technologies (BRT), in Hampton, N.H., customer service has become a more visible issue for organizations over the past six months. Two possible explanations are the increasing complexity of server technology and the difficulty of recruiting qualified technicians, suggests Julie Perron, manager of consulting services at BRT.

Quik International, of Carson City, Nev., a franchise ISP with over 100 locations, is a case in point. Even with its highly qualified technical staff, the IT department requires help from its primary server vendor, IBM, when it encounters operating system problems, hardware failures or difficulties getting software installed and running. "Our customers' expectations are that the system will run perfectly all the time. If it doesn't, they'll go elsewhere," says Jack Reynolds, president at Quik.

Customers are pretty savvy when it comes to server technology, according to Jim Garden, director of technical services at BRT. "Post-sales support might be their greatest need," he says, noting that a customer's experience after the sale affects the next purchase decision.

"The faster the response I get, the more likely I'll continue to buy a vendor's product," says Anthony Fusco, manager of IS at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Fusco, like many IT managers, is a big fan of Web-based customer support, particularly as a means of distributing product information or for noncritical troubleshooting.

A Sampling of Network Services Vendors

Compaq Computer Corp.
Dell Computer Corp.
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Hitachi America Ltd.
IBM Corp.
NCR Corp.
NEC USA Inc.
Siemens AG
Silicon Graphics Inc.
Sun Microsystems Inc.

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

Even with the advent of self-service customer support, IT managers agree there's still nothing like highly qualified telephone technical support when a critical situation arises. However, the pricing of services is often an issue, with service costs lower for commodity or open systems products and higher for proprietary hardware.

While IT managers are willing to pay for vendor services, some say they may not always be getting their money's worth.

Look at the big picture and it's easy to see that different vendors have different philosophies about customer service and support. For example, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. are well known for their hand-holding and strong customer service organizations. Other vendors in this product space tend to be It's clear that many vendors recognize the importance of customer service and the tie back to customer loyalty. Compaq Computer Corp. purchased Digital Equipment Corp. in part because of Digital's service and support organization. Dell Computer is reportedly in the process of beefing up its support army.

IT managers want to be able to choose among a range of options for vendor customer service and support. "When it comes to servers, the need for a response is getting faster," says Fusco. //

Lynn Haber, based in Norwell, Mass., writes about the evolution of networking technology and the issues faced by users of the technology. She can be reached at lthaber@ix.netcom.com.







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