Out of the Blue: Good service is in the eye of th

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"You've been meddling with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale...and you will atone!" Remember Howard Beale, mad prophet of the airwaves? From the movie Network. "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." Well there I was, not unlike Beale, railing against the dehumanization of IBM; preferring people to technology, personal contacts over maintenance contracts.

Well, I'm atoning. Like it or not, technology is as primal as forces get, its encroachment as inevitable as tomorrow's sunrise. Besides, some pretty bright folks in the Midwest and the Northeast have swallowed a dose and it tastes just fine, thank you.

I've had this conversion, you see. Initially, I was skeptical of IBM's new AS/400 Technical Service offerings primarily because they so obviously substituted remote, technology-based support for your favorite SE. (See MC, "Out of the Blue," December 1992.) Then I spoke with some actual users of the service.

In truth, this wasn't a random sampling. They were references. Provided by IBM. Now, the more skeptical among you will deduce conspiracy. I mean, you'd have to be extremely unclear on the concept to pick people who were going to give you a bad reference. Frankly, when I got the five names, I was expecting a snappy flag-salute. You'll be glad to know that IBM appears to have a clear grasp of this concept, because I wasn't disappointed. But beyond concurrence I also got a sense of enthusiasm. If the good people of Iowa and Wisconsin are any measure, IBM's new AS/400 Technical Services are a double-breasted, finger-poppin' hit.

Vox Populi

The people I spoke with represented a variety of industries, from retail to financial to state government, supported by a mixture of AS/400 D and E models, with staffs ranging from six to ten people. They subscribe to an assortment of AS/400 Technical Services, but the two they apparently find most useful are the AS/400 SupportLine and Performance Management 400 (PM/400).

SupportLine inquiries varied, but operating system and PC Support issues were most common. Everyone was pleased with the service. Questions were often answered immediately, but if they needed to be referred upward, someone invariably would return the user's call the same day. Rarely were all lines busy. The manager of a new installation, with no in-house technical support staff, said she used the service frequently. Usage questions, she explained, were typically answered on the spot, while problems were usually referred to the proper expert for resolution and required call-backs. The downside was an annoying tendency to be asked the same set of screening questions every time she called. But she complained, and it stopped.

Subscribers to PM/400 indicated it allowed them the luxury of fine-tuning their systems, a task previously pushed to the bottom of the urgency stack by the axiom that day-to-day problems will always expand to fill all available time-plus overtime. PM/400 monitors your system and pipes information to Rochester where it is interpreted, reported, graphed and bundled, then returned to the customer in an easily digestible, coated-capsule format. Full- color charts and graphs are provided which, according to the users, are enormously helpful in justifying hardware purchases and keeping their management apprised of system performance. One manager estimated that performance monitoring and capacity planning for his two systems was the equivalent of a half-time position. PM/400 provided the necessary information for a fraction of the cost of an employee.

If the hosannas were to be expected, the rationale behind them had an undeniable verity. As the AS/400 evolved, I was told, it became complex beyond the ability of a single person to master. Many accounts were (ouch) dissatisfied with their SEs who may have been proficient in one arena-say, operating system-but knew little about communications or PC Support. To answer questions, SEs often had to track down the appropriate expert. Turnaround time was long; frustration was high. One manager, who had spent many years in the mainframe environment, observed: "Frankly, I prefer a body (SE), but I get better service over the phone."

That's the case because the best AS/400 brains have been boxed and shipped to Rochester. One of the main benefits cited for using the AS/400 Technical Services was the elimination of the SE learning curve: you always get an expert the first time.

Additionally, customers suggest that pay-for-play technical support will likely expand the variety of services IBM is able to offer. When service was bundled with the cost of the computer, there was little incentive to provide new or innovative support. For IBM, the expense of every new service offering meant a corresponding decrease in profit margins. Now, if enough customers require a specific service, IBM has the financial incentive to provide it. Those services which lack customer support will simply be dropped. Thus, service can evolve in direct response to market demands.

Several accounts addressed the inevitability of remote technical support. The days of free frills are over, not so much by IBM's choice as by competitive demand. I asked one woman what services she still received from her SE. "None," she said; a fact that seemed to trouble me much more than it bothered her. She was untroubled, she explained, because AS/400 Technical Services provided quality technical support, with high availability, at a reasonably low price. Price, in fact, was not an issue for any of the people I interviewed.

On the lighter side: One manager I spoke with was reluctant to provide me with information. When pressed (dare I say, by my crack investigative reporting skills), he confided that just today he had, er, resigned his position as DP Manager. "No problem," said I, tenacious in my pursuit of truth, "so what did you think of IBM's AS/400 Technical Services?" But I could tell he really didn't want to talk about it. Given the enthusiasm of the other respondents, I can only assume he did not resign his position because of lack of technical support.

The message here is simple: Try it. Take a realistic look at the changing marketplace, identify your support needs and understand which of them can be met in-house and which you need to farm out.

As for those of us who dare resist the certain march of progress, it is helpful to reflect on Howard Beale's fate. He was shot for his troubles. Hope you all had a safe holiday.