The wide world of tech support

The wide world of tech support

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In the course of my work, I talk to many storage managers and administrators. I hear numerous stories about how big and small companies are coping with such pressing issues as storage growth, regulatory compliance, backup blues and just about anything else that touches a storage environment. Invariably, the conversations roll around to technical support.

The impression I've gotten is that technical support varies wildly and has had a profound, polarizing effect on storage professionals--you either love it or hate it.

Sometimes, a company gets superior support because it's pitching tons of dough into the coffers of a single storage vendor that shows its gratitude by deferring to the customer's needs. That is to be expected. But some companies with more modest investments also report positive support experiences. Not-so-big spenders may have lucked out by being in a region where the vendor's presence is particularly strong, or maybe they're sophisticated users who can solve most of their own problems. Or perhaps, as one user told me, "The stuff just works." Whatever the reason, there are plenty of satisfied customers.

At the other end of the spectrum are horror stories about systems that failed to live up to expectations and vendors' inabilities to remedy problems. Let's face it, providing solid tech support isn't easy or cheap. But when a vendor puts a system on your shop floor, it has an obligation to help keep it running and doing what it said it would do when you signed on the dotted line.

Vendors often rely on their resellers to provide first-line support or they "job out" all support functions to third-party service providers. That isn't necessarily bad. I've heard from users who like the idea of getting support from a local outfit. But just as often, I hear things like, "Our guys know more than their guys." Resellers and service companies supporting multiple brands may lack in-depth training for a specific product line.

But even before you can get someone with a company logo on their shirt to make a house call, you have to work your way through escalation procedures, which usually start with a help-line call. Therein lies the problem for many users.

Vendors now typically staff phone-support centers in several locations around the world, touting it as "follow the sun" service. In theory, whatever time you call, you'll get a tech-support rep even if the support centers in your country--or hemisphere--have closed for the day. When you follow up the next day, your service record will be available to the next center that takes your call. But the links in the support chain often get strained, with the rep on the second call completely unaware of the initial incident report. Back to square one.

So how does this get fixed? Vendors need to improve their process to ensure that their reseller and service reps are truly capable of handling customers' problems. They also need to be up front about the level and extent of support users can expect--especially when their calls are answered by an outsourcing firm 6,000 miles away.

You can do some things, too. When you buy a system, insist that education be included in the purchase price. And get the vendor to throw in continuing education so your team can stay up to date. Before you close a deal, check with other companies in your area that have the same equipment and see what their tech-support experiences have been.

Vendors also need a little push. Given the cost of maintenance, it might seem as if they've turned tech support into a profit center, but it's probably a break-even proposition at best. The biggest incentive for vendors will come when they see that tech support ranks just as high on your RFP as features and functions.

This was first published in September 2006

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