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Sun 14 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

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Are you being served?

Over the past year, vendors have had to work very hard to sustain their current levels of business, as enterprises cut their budgets sharply. Imthishan Giado talks to CIOs to find if service has suffered or improved as a result.

Are you being served?
GUHA: I would love to see the intent of the senior vendor bosses of investing more time and money in the Gulf region.
Are you being served?
BHADAURIA: The UAE IT services market has evolved so much over the last four years that the competition is now very stiff.
Are you being served?
NASH: The worst companies are those get their money and then just disappear.
Are you being served?
PABICO: From their side, vendors must know exactly what’s happening in our organisation and document everything.

Over the past year, vendors have had to work very hard to sustain their current levels of business, as enterprises cut their budgets sharply. Imthishan Giado talks to CIOs to find if service has suffered or improved as a result.

Service. The word itself is highly contentious, because virtually everyone has got an opinion on what constitutes either good or bad service. Whether it be dining at your favourite restaurant or ordering a new blade server, the net result is the same – a satisfied or unhappy customer.

So where do CIOs in the region stand? Are they satisfied with the level of attention, implementation and after-sales support they are receiving from the vendors? According to Kavita Bhadauria, senior analyst for IT Services at research group IDC, satisfaction levels are reasonably high, with 45% of enterprises content with the level of service they receive. Out of all the markets in the region, the UAE is on slightly better footing, with 39% of companies satisfied, followed by Saudi Arabia with 32%. As she explains, companies have certainly had to work hard to achieve this level of recognition.

“The UAE IT services market has evolved so much over the last four years that the competition has become very stiff. With this evolution in the market, the service levels have definitely improved. I would not say that they are very good, but they have definitely improved and so has the satisfaction levels,” she states.

While enterprises may be telling analysts that they are satisfied, but the level of said satisfaction often depends on the customer’s expectations in the first place.

Indranil Guha, manager, for IT infrastructure management at Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) states that an expectations gulf definitely exists: “I am not totally happy because they are not catching up with the expectations of the customer. They have their own business model and I feel that they are living in a world of complacency and basking in the glory of the past. What model worked five to seven years ago doesn’t work any more. Generally the average is not good enough yet. There are some companies which are pretty good and efficient but on the other hand – the scale can be quite unbalanced and hence the average tends to be not so good.”

It’s also important to note, as George Orwell did in his famous satirical novel, Animal Farm, that while everyone is equal, some are more equal than others. For example, take Luis Perfetti, Oasis Hospital director of information systems, whose healthcare outfit is several orders of magnitude smaller than Guha’s RTA infrastructure – and he is doubly unlucky in that it is based in the remote oasis town of Al Ain.

As one would expect, he is not entirely pleased with the level of service and attention he receives: “The fact that we are in Al Ain and not in Dubai or Abu Dhabi definitely makes a difference and it shouldn’t necessarily be that way. We have had very good experiences in vendors based in Dubai or Abu Dhabi or before. Many times, I see that companies that are larger and sell large numbers of equipment to banks and government organisations, struggle to send quotes to us, even by e-mail. Starting from the quotes, it could take three to four weeks and repeated calls from our side, just to get a quote. Maybe they’re just not interested in the level of business that we can do with them.”

One might imagine that these economically tough times, vendors would cast their eye towards SME and SMB customers.

And indeed, Perfetti reports that companies have become more aggressive: “They become more annoying in trying to sell. I get so many calls and e-mails from people trying to come here and sell all kinds of things. Many of those that have come have not sold to us before. They are trying to get new business, so of course they will promise everything. I mostly go by our experiences – companies that have responded well to us before, I try to stick to them. I try to be faithful to those who are giving us good service, even if sometimes the prices are not the best.”

Another aspect to consider is that few vendors are willing to tailor their offerings differently for these smaller organisations, or consider alternative views of working. John Nash, ICT manager for Star International School in Dubai, works for a prototypical SMB organisation with relatively modest needs. But he’s proved that it’s possible to take a small IT outfit and accomplish great things, as evidenced as his selection as an IT Manager of the Year in 2009.

Unfortunately, the acclaim has brought him little in the additional attention, and precious fewer still are willing to take a chance on his open-source vision: “Obviously, the customer is always right. If I ask for a quote today and then later ask for something slightly different, then they should be jumping through the hoops to do that and they’re not.

“Even when you ask them to try and think out of the box and save money here, talk to them about doing things using open-source technology – what I find with a lot of companies is that they’re very inflexible. They seem to drop themselves into a niche, send workers off for training on for example something like VirtualBox and then that’s the only product they’re going to push. That’s across the board,” he continues.Not an ideal state of affairs then – but it gets worse. In previous years, the model vendors followed was to sell certain pieces of equipment and then support them through parts replacement or an implementation partner which could provide onsite engineers for technical visits. This led to a highly piecemeal ecosystem, so today many vendors instead offer an umbrella-style service-level agreement, which infers a certain level of up-time for equipment and penalties if the vendor cannot deliver on those levels or provide a replacement. It should be a win-win situation for both; enterprises can focus on the final business result as opposed to the technical aspects of the project, while vendors have a specific area of responsibility and accountability to be responsible for.

Unfortunately, Perfetti’s experiences show that vendors are not easily bound by SLAs: “Our experience is that they don’t [follow them]. We have had three of four different hardware issues and they were clearly not under the SLA. SLAs don’t really have penalties – you pay for the whole thing, you’re not paying monthly and cannot deduct something if they don’t supply the service. You’ve already paid the whole three years contract, so what do you do?”

“Especially in networking, we have cases where companies send people who know the basics but when it came to doing something just a bit more complex, didn’t know enough. After two days of trying to make a server work, they didn’t respond to our e-mails or call any more. They gave up,” he criticises.

From this statement, it may well seem that the problem lies in the amount and quality of resources vendors are willing to devote to the region. The RTA’s Guha says there is no generic answer, but generally bigger vendors have more to offer.

“Some of these high-end vendors are ready to invest and have the mass in terms of size of business, either in the region or globally, to invest in an account, get some consultancy, show their value and then slowly turn it into a business relationship. If you’re a smaller vendor not so cash-rich in terms of investing manpower, doing such studies, they obviously find a crunch,” he believes.

Resources can often shift from vendor to vendor and when they do, a trail of chaos is left in their wake as enterprises discover gaps in documentation. Rodel Pabico, acting IT manager for the Dubai School of Government, has noticed this problem on several occasions.

“Most of the best personnel have been in the company for a long time. Then after some time they will leave the company or the organisation is shifted to a different one. With the transition of new people, who’s going to handle the system? From their side, they must know exactly what’s happening, but it’s not written in the contract that you need to have documentation,” he notes.

“If you have big problems with security configuration, and the person who’s handling it has left the organisation, the vendor doesn’t have the record of what that person has done. After that experience, we always ask the organisation now to provide us with these things,” he further adds.

On top of these issues, SIS’s Nash says, many companies are highly attentive until they receive their last payment: “Then you start finding out if they are really a good company or not. The best companies are the ones where I talked to the top managers and they’ve been very supportive, have been able to send the guys in when I needed them. The worst examples are the ones that, as soon they get their money, just disappear, gangway guarantee.

“Now, you find a lot of the financial managers are making policies that stipulate they only give 40% at this stage of the project and then another 10% at this stage. Six months after the project is finalised, then they’ll pay the rest of the money. That’s happening increasingly. It doesn’t make for a good relationship between company and vendor,” he says.

Clearly, vendors need some sort of wake-up call, but it’s also easy to rush to generalisations. At the end of the day, says Guha, service levels are not really bad but perhaps just mediocre.

“I have seen companies mobilise spares, people to help us out. I’ve even seen some help us beyond the realms of the contract,” he reveals.

“If things don’t work out, it’s not about a penalty or holding onto an invoice, it’s my business value, it’s my project that has to complete successfully. It has been a learning curve over the years that these are the areas that we as a customer have to tighten up,” he concludes.

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