Out of the Blue: A visit to the AS/400's Support C

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When last we saw our hero, he was wandering the frozen tundra of Rochester, Minnesota, speaking truth to power, and amassing a sizable stash of AS/400 marketing goodies.

For those who did not ply the pages of last month's installment, I had been invited by Gary Brun, manager of AS/400 Product Readiness, to tour IBM's Rochester facility and give a modest presentation to the people who put "support" in AS/400 Support Family (IBM's technical service offerings). Firmly in the tow of my capable guide, we were traversing the Rochester plant's 3.7 million square feet of opportunity to get lost, on our way to the Support Center, when my story was interrupted by my editor (who is exceedingly stingy with magazine space, but who is always, always right).

So (a month later) we arrive, winded, at the confluence of two nondescript corridors. This is the Support Center. They fooled me again. I had imagined a raucous, bullpen setting, with phones ringing, manual pages flying and guys yelling over the partitions: "Hey, Barb-you know anything about...?" Not so. The 42 people who staff the phones in the Support Center work out of individual or shared offices. They are grouped by area of expertise, bound together only by a web of technology.

Customers will be glad to know that IBM uses some of the same technology it hopes to sell to you. (Of course, they have the people who can make it work.) For example, the Support Center is experimenting with CallPath/400 to screen incoming calls and automatically route them to the appropriate group for resolution.

I watched a young man named David field a customer call. As the call came in, CallPath logged the originating number and checked it against a database of phone numbers of customers who had previously called the center. Before David actually answered the phone, his computer screen already displayed the company name, problem history, any pending or unresolved questions, and the probable name of the caller. Without having to ask protractive (and annoying) screening questions, he simply picked up the phone and asked, "Hello, is this Charlie at Acme Widget?" It was.

The system is elegant, but not simple. If, for example, the customer uses a telephony switch, a call made from the same handset can go out over any one of 40 different trunk lines. As a result, the Support Center's computer may not recognize the originating number. Also, CallPath first answers the phone with a recording that explains the call is being routed automatically. For those of us leery of recorded assurances of superior customer service, having a real human being answer the phone would be an improvement.

Allan Hansen, SupportLine Project Manager, points out that the SupportLine concept is a work in progress and will continue to evolve based on customer feedback and technological innovation. He begs a measure of indulgence and invites customer participation.

There are nearly 5,000 participating users of the Support Center, which fields about 400 queries each day. By far, the most popular Support Family offering is SupportLine with 1,350 subscribers, followed by Performance Management for the AS/400 (PM400) with 525. (Explanations of these and other Support Family services appeared in Significa's "A Smorgasbord of Services," MC, September 1992.)

SupportLine users seem most confused about PC Support and communications issues, which may be an indicator for Judy Kinsey, the manager responsible for user documentation, that improvements are in order. It would be an interesting exercise to link technical writers with Support Center staffers. (Kinsey has already married her writers with AS/400 developers.) Such an alliance would give those responsible for user documentation a much better understanding of where customers need help.

The SupportLine team is in turn supported by three AS/400s. Ironically, they reside in an old-style, raised-floor data center, hermetically clean, with air conditioning and backup power--all the amenities supposedly made unnecessary by less-demanding midrange systems. The center is run by Sue Johnson, an electric wire of a woman; pure energy recast in the form of a model data center manager.

An AS/400 E60 houses the online help desk database used by the technical reps. PM400 has its own D80 which uploads the customer's system usage and efficiency data, chews on it a while, then spits out graphs and reports for analysis. These two systems also act as mutual backups. Users of AS/400 Forum, the online user bulletin board, are assigned to a separate E60.

The technical reps are also connected to IBM's worldwide Virtual Machine (VM) network, giving them access to the monstrous HONE system (sales and marketing data, configurators, pricing information and just about a billion other things); E-mail through PROFS (Professional Office Systems); and RETAIN, a database that contains hardware and software problems. Often, usage issues are first erroneously reported as defects and logged in RETAIN. SupportLine reps can access a history of these items as needed.

No trip to Rochester would be complete without a pilgrimage to see the Holy Grail of American manufacturing prizes, the Malcolm Baldrige award. It sits on a revolving pedestal, in a glass case, in the center of a foyer, under appropriately reverent lighting. It is a representational piece, not in the artistic sense, but as the embodiment of IBM's commitment to excellence as expressed in the AS/400. It is valuable because it was earned.

If you are considering subscribing to the AS/400 Support Family and I could share just one golden nugget that I unearthed in Rochester, it would be this: Everyone I spoke with-- from the people on the manufacturing floor to those in user documentation; from the technical reps in the Support Center to managers- -all seemed genuinely and vitally invested in the welfare of their customers and in perfecting the products and services that comprise the AS/400 family. Conversations seldom strayed from what customers wanted and how IBM could best provide it.

I had gone to Rochester to argue for the power of human connection in customer service and discovered that the AS/400 Support Family is more than a grouping of services. It is a collection of people who, daily, tackle complex and demanding tasks and are determined to execute them to your satisfaction. They're on your side, and they want to help. (Did I do good, Gary?)

The notion of "being a customer" is a great leveler. We are all customers, and we all have customers. The more honest among us may even confess that customers can sometimes be overbearing, demanding, whiny and slow to pay their bills. Since MC readers obviously do not fall into that category, they will likely make a fine addition to Support Family's customer family. So, give Gary, Jodi, Allan, Sue, David and the gang a call.

One last thing: some unsolicited advice for Judy Kinsey. Don't quit your job and go into the candy-mint business. Remember those AS/400 marketing mints you tried to co-opt me with? Well, there's still a bowlful of 'em on my kitchen counter. Even Mikey didn't like them.

Victor Rozek has 17 years of experience in the data processing industry, including seven years with IBM in the Operations Management and Systems Engineering areas.