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Dell to EqualLogic users: Trust us on customer service

EqualLogic customers are concerned about Dell's customer support, particularly given Dell's reputation for outsourcing it.

Customer support is a major concern for EqualLogic users in the wake of Dell's acquisition of the iSCSI SAN vendor. Michael Dell has been taking his case directly to EqualLogic Inc. customers and channel partners, pledging a smooth integration as well as quality customer support after Dell Inc. closes on its $1.4 billion acquisition of the iSCSI SAN vendor.

Following "town hall" meetings with the Dell founder and EqualLogic CEO Don Bulens, EqualLogic customers appear cautiously optimistic about product support, while channel partners are wary but appear willing to give Dell a chance.

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Dell held a customer town hall meeting on Nov. 26 and a partner town hall meeting on Dec. 7 to offer assurances that the service and support organization EqualLogic has developed will not change. Dell revealed plans to purchase EqualLogic Nov. 7, and it expects the deal to close early next year.

Customer service is a major concern for EqualLogic users. Dell's reputation for outsourced customer service focused on "deflection rates" -- the number of calls turned away -- precedes it. "Dell seems to outsource service and support, while we have a very hands-on experience of sales and engineering support [from EqualLogic]," one customer said on the customer town hall call.

Dell and Bulens responded that EqualLogic's support organization will have to be scaled out to take on Dell's customer base, but they pledged that the quality of EqualLogic's support would not change. EqualLogic's support team consists of 90 sales and service engineers in the U.S., and it has earned high marks from customers for its support approach.

For instance, EqualLogic keeps help requests active even after it's been determined the problem is not with EqualLogic's product. "The plan is going to be to continue the on-site support model EqualLogic already has, and leave it in place in Nashua," Dell said. Dell has 5,000 full-time service personnel to add to the organization, and Bulens said EqualLogic will "identify ways to enrich self-help resources among the community of users and provide more proactive support as we go through sales."

This seems reasonable, according to EqualLogic customer Steve Meckling, network services administrator at Shiloh Industries Inc. "Things like 'walk me through an upgrade,' I don't think you need level 3 support for things like that," he said.

Hoping for lower pricing

Customers asked that EqualLogic engineers remain tasked with designing systems, while hoping that Dell's economies of scale would lead to lower pricing on system parts. Bulens responded that the intention was to add value to that "full package," but not to reduce the overall price.

EqualLogic's practice of bundling all of its software functionality with hardware is a good deal at first, according to Meckling, but it gets expensive when adding storage later. "Spending $50,000 for the full package every time you need to buy 14 disk drives can make incremental purchases of additional storage cost-prohibitive," he said. One of the departments at his company found it less expensive to run new applications on a Fibre Channel array instead of adding an iSCSI array from EqualLogic.

Storm brewing with channel partners?

So far, EqualLogic customers seem willing to give Dell the benefit of the doubt about its integration plans. It's not quite the EMC-VMware scenario some of them hoped for, with Dell running EqualLogic as an independent division. But Dell's saying the right things about retaining EqualLogic's products and commitment to service. "So far, I have no reason not to be positive," said Alan Hunt, operations manager for law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC.

But Dell may have a tougher time convincing EqualLogic's channel partners. Dell is considered no friend of the channel, with a direct sales model and a reputation for poaching channel sales for its direct sales force.

Dell made channel partners suspicious by revealing plans to sell EqualLogic direct, but promised channel partners on their conference call that they will be formally protected from the vendor's direct sales.

The best Dell can hope for from EqualLogic's channel partners is a "wait and see" approach. "Dell has been a very tough competitor," according to Chris Baer, account executive with Broadleaf Services Inc., a consulting firm that's also an EqualLogic partner. "Traditionally, we haven't had any kind of relationship with them. I want to see if they really are interested in building that relationship."

Another EqualLogic partner, GreenPages Technology Solutions, started to partner with Dell over the last year and found them more solicitous of partners than in years past, said Ron Dupler, president of GreenPages Technology . "Due to our relationship with Dell improving, we're somewhat less apprehensive than others about the acquisition," he said. But, he added, "We know we're in the minority."

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