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11/10/2003
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Other Voices: Do Tech Companies Even Use Computers?

IT people manage a flood of technology and, when the waters get too high, walk on them. Why can't vendors at least give us water wings?

Every IT person loathes wasting away on the phone seeking help from vendors. Ever spend the better part of a week doing this to solve a problem? As IT people, we're expected to manage a flood of technology and, when the waters get too high, walk on them.

We manage security, a plethora of updates and patches, and integration; ensure compatibility and reliability between old and new applications; and maximize uptime with minimal expenditure and shrinking staffs. We manage products from scores of technology vendors, so you'd think those vendors would have their own houses in order. Well, it's just not so.

First, there's the vendor Web site. If done properly, you should almost never need to phone for support. To the contrary, you search a vendor Web site for the problem at hand and find no mention of it, so you call. Surprise--the company knows about the problem because many people are calling about it, and it has a solution. So why isn't this on the site? Most customers are eventually going to go through the same thing you just did. Just think of the phone calls and time (read: dollars) that could be saved by both you and the vendor if the Web site could be used as intended.

This holds true with not just technical support, but also when searching for accurate, detailed product information. The Web lends itself to this, so why are vendors, especially those who sell technology products, so stingy when it comes to bringing data to the masses?

The Web site is the ATM of information. The days of calling a vendor and holding should be as infrequent as the need to stand in line at a bank to make a withdrawal. A vendor site should be a one-stop shop--intuitive, dynamic, and easily searchable (don't get me started). These are companies that sell computers and technology--why not try using it more intelligently?

What happens when you pick up the phone and call for support?

Consider the large, well-known vendor my company uses for servers and PCs, whose name will go unmentioned ("Dude!"). The phone call begins with a prompt to enter a lengthy code to identify the system I'm calling about. One would assume this would present the vendor with my customer and contact information. The person on the other end should be ready with a "Hello, David!" Instead, he or she asks for my name and serial number. (I asked once why the call center didn't have it already, as I'd already entered it. The answer was empty nonsense about "their system.") Then I have to recite my name, address, phone, and E-mail address so my records can be updated--records they don't seem to know how to use anyway.

Not to be too picky, but how is it that we still need to give our city and state? It's astonishing that most call centers can't type in a ZIP code and obtain it instantly. This is 1980s technology.

Vendors continue on apace otherwise. They keep getting larger, splitting into divisions. Perhaps the idea is that smaller divisions are more responsive and can better serve customers, but the perception from the outside is that the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing.

There's usually an online division, so if your transaction began online, forget about getting help from a sales rep you call on the phone. Customer service, an oxymoron if there ever was one, can't help with that problem, you need technical support, or vice versa. You'd think every vendor telephone has a button that says, "Press here to transfer them to the wrong department," because that's where we often end up.

If you've had any issues with software licensing recently, then you know how confusing that can be. There are agreement numbers, contract numbers, serial numbers, activation numbers, SKUs, order numbers--as IT people we have to use a database to manage the overabundance of information thrown at us by vendors, for fear we'll never get what we need.

There are some good examples of vendors maximizing technology to deliver critical information to their customer base.

Symantec Corp.'s Security Response site is a dynamic list of top virus threats along with severity ratings and a plethora of details. Considering there are almost 65,000 known viruses, this is no small task. In the wake of the Blaster worm, Symantec had everything I needed in one place: details about Blaster, an automatic removal tool, manual removal instructions, even links to the Microsoft patch.

What I like best is that the site isn't restricted to Symantec customers, allowing IT people to refer relatives and employees to the site to fix their home PCs. No doubt this goodwill has generated some new Symantec customers.

Microsoft, for all the heat it has taken lately, has a fairly decent knowledgebase. It allows searches to be restricted to specific products. It's surprising how many big-name software vendors don't do this. One can search the entire article or just the title, using any of the search terms, all of the terms, or an exact phase. Such granularity is needed when searching through thousands of documents. The Microsoft Download Center is also good, featuring a list of the 50 most popular downloads and a searchable list. Now adapt this idea to a "hot list" of support issues that people are searching for and you have an immensely helpful tool.

We continue to live with belt-tightening and cutbacks that place more burden on fewer people. This is precisely the time for companies to be reviewing how they present themselves to buyers, simplifying the process of getting customers the information or person they need. After all, a technology company can only be credible to the extent that it uses what it sells.

David Fosbenner is senior IT administrator at Eastern Alloys Inc. in Maybrook, N.Y.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit the Talk Shop.

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