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There are many levels of customer support

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Customer service report: Network infrastructure
There are many levels of customer support
When it comes to voice and data infrastructure problems, network administrators expect quick solutions, whether they use online documentation, paper-based manuals, or telephone support.
By Gerald Lazar

June 1999

Keeping a network infrastructure intact can be more challenging than any other high-tech area within the enterprise. Sure, the technology (routers, switches, modems, and so on) has been around long enough to be relatively stable–if not straightforward. But in many organizations, networks involve both voice and data, and that makes for a charged environment. People get a little impatient with data transmission problems, because they are used to computers going down. But the same users get downright hostile if voice transmissions aren’t as reliable as Ma Bell was in her heyday.

Support groups

Because many–if not most–companies have some kind of networking infrastructure installed, sales and support can be intimately linked: In vying for account control, the salesforce wants users kept happy. When you’re trying to sell equipment, you’d better make sure that the equipment you’ve already sold and installed runs properly.

Some companies, such as Cisco Systems Inc., have a reputation for providing this kind of “high-touch” sales model, and they are successful because of it. Others, such as 3Com Corp., are said to be struggling because they don’t provide a user-friendly presales support interface.

What network infrastructure customers say:
Network problems must be solved as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary.

Vendors’ response:
Vendors provide different levels of support to suit the customers needs, ranging from 24X7 telephone support to online databases and printed manuals.

At the front end, “most tech vendors are feeling a crunch on presales support because end users are demanding more of it,” says Steve Elliot, a network and systems management analyst with Dataquest Inc., in San Jose, Calif.

When evaluating post-sales support, users tend to look at many things, but it comes down to one central issue: wanting problems solved as quickly as possible. That means many users are willing to pay extra for 24×7 tech support, even though they may not use it.

At the East Texas Medical Center in Tyler, Texas, in-house staff fixes almost all of its problems itself. But the organization has opted for a support contract for its Nortel switches, routers, and backbone equipment even if the center only uses it a few times a year. “The only reason we have support for the infrastructure stuff is because we are a hospital,” says Larry Carroll, senior network administrator. “Twelve other hospitals connect to us. If I have a problem with a server…well, I can deal with that. But if a router or a switch goes down [and affects interhospital communications], that can affect patient care, and we can’t let that happen.” Carroll says that he is satisfied with Nortel’s support.

The kind of support a user gets depends on the vendor’s offering and the individual user. “Some people want a single person to call on the telephone,” says Dataquest’s Elliot. “Others want to go on the Web and do it themselves. Companies have to provide the option to do both.”

A Sampling of Network Infrastructure Vendors
Ascend Communications Inc.
Cabletron Systems
Cisco Systems Inc.
Extreme Networks
Fore Systems Inc.
IBM Corp.
Juniper Networks Inc.
Level 3 Communications Inc.
Lucent Technologies Inc.
MCI Worldcom Inc.
Nexabit Networks Inc.
Nortel Networks Inc.
3Com Corp.

(Note: This list is not all-inclusive)

“Most of us don’t work directly with Nortel, but through distributors,” says JoEllen Schultz, director of telecommunications for Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. “When something does go wrong [with the Nortel switches and routers], I talk to a live person; I get a body.” Such support is effective, she says. The support staff, whether at the reseller or Nortel, “are knowledgeable and responsive,” says Schultz. “If they don’t know the answer, they at least know what questions to ask.”


Most network managers seem to prefer to be their own first line of defense, calling in value-added resellers or a vendor’s technical support staff only when their own workers can’t do the job.

This is not always the case, however. One such exception involved a network administrator who asked not to be identified. In her capacity as administrator, she was paying Lucent Technologies a lot of money for technical support, and if any problem took more than five minutes for in-house staff to resolve, she called the vendor. The reasoning: “I’ve already paid for the service,” she says.

Since most users prefer to do their own repairs, they need as much information about the systems they’ve bought as they can get. “Technically oriented people want as much information as possible,” says Dataquest’s Elliot. “But the people signing the deal don’t always know that.” Perhaps because they’re working with networks all the time, network administrators are less reluctant than many to use Web sites as a major source of documentation.

“Normally I check the Web first,” says East Texas Medical Center’s Carroll, “although we keep both around. And maybe I am old-fashioned, but I prefer the manual so I can flip through the book.”

Gustavus Adolphus College’s Schultz says she takes advantage of Nortel’s Web site. “As a user, I have special Web site access,” she says. “Whether I use the Web or the manual depends on what I am looking for. But I find the manual still works better.”

Users may as well enjoy using the Web, because more and more it will be their first source for information. Online documentation can be updated more easily than printed material, and vendors can save the printing, warehousing, and distribution costs associated with paper-based manuals.

“I know there is value for the money. I don’t have any trouble with the expense,” says Schultz. “What machine is never going to break?” She contacts technical support no more than a few times a year, but she is nevertheless glad to have the support there. “People accept a little downtime with data, just because that’s the way it has always been. But with voice systems, people expect it to work all the time,” Schultz says. //

Gerald Lazar is a freelance writer in Tenafly, N.J. He has no vendor support for his networking infrastructure, as he is quite capable of replacing both the little tin cans and the string by himself. He can be reached at

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