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Mon 30 Jun 2008 04:00 AM

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Service check

After-sales service and support are gaining increasing importance among enterprise end-users in the region. Sean Robson finds out how vendors across the Middle East are responding to and addressing this growing need.

After-sales service and support are gaining increasing importance among enterprise end-users in the region. Sean Robson finds out how vendors across the Middle East are responding to and addressing this growing need.

In the past, not many Middle East enterprises paid attention to the after-sales service and support that IT vendors provided. However, this has changed dramatically in the last few years, with organisations taking support into consideration even when making purchasing decisions. And most vendors in the region have responded to answer the need.

"Juniper offers a wide-range of support services under the name of J-Care Technical Services. All of the packages have standard deliverables of 24/7 access to the Juniper Networks technical assistance centre , unlimited device software downloads, access to Juniper's online support site, and a variety of hardware replacement options," explains Taj El-Khayat, the head of enterprise channel group for the Middle East and Africa at Juniper.

We ask ourselves, are the partners happy with the products and services they are receiving from us, and are they able to make money? Ensuring loyalty is about making sure our partners are successful.

Many vendors offer a hierarchy of assistance, which starts with the call centre. If the call centre operator is unable to resolve the issue remotely, either an engineer is dispatched or the relevant replacement parts are delivered to the customer.

"We offer two levels of support. One is a unique lifetime warranty which takes the form of telephonic support. This is provided by a call centre in Dubai. This is further enhanced with a parts and warranty swap out," explains Louis Helmbold, senior consultant with HP Procurve.

The call centre handles queries in two levels. "The call centre is open seven days a week from 8am till 6pm. It has two layers. The first involves taking call details and handling the relatively easy questions. The second layer sees an engineer deal with the more technical issues," says Helmbold.

Trapeze Networks approaches support a little differently and have tweaked its offerings in order to empower its resellers and end-users in the region. "We provide technical training for all our end-users free of charge. We do this in order to equip them with the necessary tools to solve the first level of issues by themselves," says the company's MEA regional manager Feras Zeidan.

Alongside this offering, Trapeze also provides maintenance and administration training, 24/7 local support in the UAE and Saudi Arabia for clients, as well as what it terms a ‘safety net', which is an extended maintenance and warranty contract.

Rise of the partners

Service and support go hand in hand with long term partner loyalty and this fact alone ensures that the partner's role is a position of power. The mesh or teamwork between vendors and their partners or resellers is an extremely important one and it is the general consensus of vendors that this partnership is crucial to their current and continued success in the region.

"We empower the channel to complement our efforts. We have specifically designed programs that focus on service, which enables our key partners to support our customers on our behalf. One of these programs is Juniper Networks Authorised Support Centres (JNASC)," comments El-Khayat.

Motorola operates a little differently as they centralise their services and support at the first level. "This allows a single point of contact for all customer inquiries and enables consistent performance management as well as minimal issue to resolution cycle times," notes Toni Junghaenel, a senior customer service manager at Motorola.

"While our customer services are reseller independent, all the resellers have access to them and can easily include them in their service portfolio. On top of that, our resellers offer a comprehensive variety of additional services." Junghaenel continues.Keeping the partners happy and loyal is an ongoing process, and vendors constantly have to adjust and amend their offerings.

"If you want your partners or resellers to be committed to you then you need to be committed to them. We ensure that we give our partners the opportunity to make the sort of margins that will allow them to afford the right people and training, which allow them to deliver the right quality of service," says Dharmendra Parmar, general manager of marketing at FVC.

Gautier Humbert, business development manager for the Gulf countries at cabling vendor Ortronics agrees that loyalty comes from margins and consistent business. "We ask ourselves, are the partners happy with the product and service they are receiving from us, and are they able to make money? Ensuring loyalty is about making sure our partners are successful."

We tackle support by not only ensuring that guidelines set by the vendor are met, but also that the reseller and user feel and understand the importance of the service.

Hand-in-hand with margins come training as resellers crave the latest skills and knowledge to service users with.

"We have a program where we certify partners according to certain criteria. We have three levels of partners. The elite level for instance requires 24/7 call centre, adequate master accredited service engineers, sufficient accredited service engineers, as well as sales trained personnel. In this way we can equip our partners and train them effectively," says HP Procurve's Helmbold.

Vendors across the region are also investing in training facilities and partnerships with centres for higher learning. Juniper Networks has partnered with both their channel partners and key universities, as well as setting up a learning centre. "With the Juniper Networks higher learning centre program we endeavour to integrate the different elements of education, career development, academic education, and practical experience into a blueprint that is lucrative for IT individuals," explains Juniper's El-Khayat.

HP ProCurve has taken a similar approach. "What we have done is go to the Abu Dhabi Men's Higher College of Technology and give them the study material for our courses which they incorporate into their degrees and courses so when the students leave college they are skilled on the products," says Helmbold.

Although there is clearly an important reliance and even dependency on resellers, vendors must still source their feedback from the end-users as opposed to relying exclusively on that provided by the channel.

R&M is a big believer in personal contact, and technical director Eugene Botes relies on site visits and networking functions to maintain contact with clients, "When I inspect the site, I insist that the end-user be present so that they have the opportunity to share their insights and comments and I can address them."

There are a number of other methods employed including traditional surveys and call backs.

Trapeze Networks makes use of these methods as Zeidan confirms, "As soon as a deal is signed we engage the call centre to make sure the service level, the product level and service is correct. We have an end-user conference every year where we demonstrate the roadmap and generate feedback."

Facing the challenges

While vendors may have their partner roadmap drawn up and in operation, they still need to take into account the specific and often unique challenges of the region.Only by addressing these do they stand a chance of delivering in the heavily competitive market. One of these very real challenges is covering the region adequately.

"In our case we find that logistics can be a hindrance but we have recently relocated our spares base from Europe to Jebel Ali. This has enabled us to pre-empt many service issues," Helmbold says.

The problem of logistics is compounded by the fact that enterprises in the Middle East place great store in face-to-face contact with, not only resellers, but also vendors.

Ortronics is a willing advocate of the one-on-one culture, "Face to face contact is a real plus and so I appreciate the importance placed on it. We now have offices in all the major commercial zones in the region," says Humbert.

Botes weighs in, "We believe that you can always do more but that said our current spread is effective. It's key to look at the size of the country and allocate staff accordingly, we also take into account the partners or re-sellers we have operating in those countries. We use our partners to improve our spread."

One problem that is common to all vendors in the region is that of the skills shortage.

"The biggest challenge is that this region is not home to anyone and so we try to satisfy people on three levels. We look at their personal wealth, personal knowledge, certification and training. We believe this will allow you to capture the most valuable assets, people," says Zeidan.

When vendors are not directly affected by the skills shortage they can be hampered by a lack of skilled manpower on the side of their partners.

Zeidan affirms this saying, "Our biggest problem right now is that our partners, who manufacture solutions on top of the wireless platform, do not have a local presence. This can make providing a total solution a complicated task."

Humbert notes, "We have been lucky enough not to suffer from the skills shortage directly possibly because we are very selective in the people we go with in terms of skills and company culture. Our partners and installers have trouble finding the right people."

Managing expectations

Ask vendors about the importance their customers place on service and support in the region, and one is liable to receive varying answers.

Service challenges• Logistics - the region is large and locations are spread out

• Manpower - there is a lack of adequate training

• Skills - a skills shortage can hamper effective service

• Partners - the size of the region leads to a dependence on resellers

• End-user awareness - enterprises need to be better educated to understand service

• Cost - customers are unwilling to spend more for services

Although vendors disagree on the level of importance placed on post-sales support by customers in the region, they do concur that there is an increasing awareness of its importance in adding value to products, which is driving demand for better support.

"I find that the importance given varies from customer to customer. There are many companies which value service and place the needed emphasis on quality and quantity of service. However, there are enterprises that do not give the correct emphasis to service and proceed on the merit of the product, and so services like consultation and implantation are ignored," notes Parmar.

"Every enterprise customer we deal with considers support important, but not all are ready to pay a premium for it. Here in the region many enterprises still decide to rely on warranty instead of choosing a service contract from the beginning. We have begun to see a shift in customer requirements where those who have experienced the benefits of our services have continued to include relevant services in their next purchases as well," says Motorola's Junghaenel.

The team at FVC has found that some customers are not conscious of what good service means and sometimes there are partners that do not pay attention to good service.

"We tackle this by not only ensuring that guidelines set by the vendor are met but also that the reseller and user both feel and understand the importance of these services," explains Parmar.

Trapeze's Zeidan believes that there is a need to educate end-users when it comes to their expectations. "I personally think that the region's end-users abuse support services. They think they can demand 24/7 service after the warranty expires and believe they are eligible for immediate hardware replacement even if they did not purchase the coverage."

In order to create a more harmonious relationship, Trapeze has set about training its customers.

"We have trained more than 225 end-users all of whom are certified. We sincerely believe the clients we deal with are developing a datacentre mentality where they want to be self-contained and knowledgeable about the product."

Vendors seem to be doing their part when it comes to service and support, but they all agree that in the end it is up to the end-users to make best use of the services that are on offer.

Whether this apparent willingness of vendors is matched by customer understanding and adoption in the region is another story altogether.

Support tiers• Call centre

• Engineer call out

• Parts and warranty replacement

• Online support

• Software downloads

• Certification and training

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