At your Service?

The burgeoning demand for customised IT solutions and high-tech applications to run mission-critical business processes have compelled vendors to set up better support infrastructure and facilities in the region. Here, some IT vendors speak to Windows Middle East about the common trends related to after-purchase support.

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By  Vijaya George Published  April 29, 2002

I|~||~||~|The Middle East IT sector has arrived. The demand for customised IT solutions and sophisticated applications to run mission-critical business processes has seen a sudden increase in the last few years. This trend has, in turn, prompted international vendors and local resellers to set up sophisticated support infrastructures and facilities such as help desks, call centres, and repair and technology solutions centres to cater to the needs of regional consumers.

According to market research agency International Data Corporation (IDC), worldwide spending on customer relationship management (CRM) services, such as call centres and online computer help desks will increase to $90 billion a year by the year 2003. The Middle East currently accounts for 1% of global IT spend. Therefore, up to $900,000,000 could be spent in the Middle East within the next few years. And IT vendors are leading the way with sophisticated support infrastructures.

The highest beneficiaries of these support mechanisms are the high-end enterprises. Early this year, Compaq launched a technology solutions centre at Dubai Internet City (DIC), where its technicians simulate situations occurring at a client’s site to resolve problems. Additionally, the Centre also enables Compaq to create customised IT solutions based on the needs of a client. The client can sample this before he chooses to deploy the solution. This kind of consultancy has become the norm among higher enterprises that are willing to pay a high premium for such services. As a result, consultancy in terms of development and deployment of IT solutions, as well as regular maintenance, are part of the deal from vendors such as IBM, HP and Microsoft or even third parties such as EDS, Seven Seas or Emirates Computers to large enterprises in the region.

Microsoft Gulf, for example, has a lab at its DIC office to offer round-the-clock support to its higher-enterprise clients. The software titan has finalised large support agreements with more than 15 enterprise customers in the region within the last six months. In Saudi Arabia alone, the number of product support agreements it has signed has doubled over the last eight months. Moreover, the company has seen a 100% renewal rate on all its service agreements in the Gulf.

Mohammed Kateeb, general manager, Microsoft Gulf states that the chief reason behind the sudden demand for such services is that “more and more customers in the region are getting sophisticated in the use of technology for their business. So, support is going to be an integral and ongoing part of their everyday operations. These people run mission-critical applications on their systems and if their system breaks down at three o’clock in the night, we have to have engineers on call.”

Although it is mostly high-end enterprises that help to fatten the profit margins of such vendors, volume segments such as individual customers and small-and-medium business enterprises have not been neglected.

||**||II|~||~||~|Catering to their needs are special solutions centres, help desks, call centres and other support systems as well. Acer, for instance, boasts of having started the first solutions centre in the region and its spare parts centre stocks more than $1 million worth of inventory at Jebel Ali Free Zone, Dubai. Reseller Alpha Data recently invested $544,960 in building a customer service centre and warehouse facility at Mina Free Port area in Abu Dhabi. HP’s first service centre in the Middle East will be launched in June in Saudi Arabia, with a stock of 95-97% of all spare parts at the same facility. The company plans to have another spare parts storage facility at Jebel Ali as well in the next few months.

However, the surge in the number of support mechanisms deployed in the region do not seem to have made much difference to the average consumer. “Not so,” says Sunil Gopal, services manager, enterprise services, Microsoft Gulf and eastern Mediterranean. “Any Microsoft product bought off the shelf includes 90-day free support.” This means that a customer who has, for instance, purchased Windows XP and does not know how to install it or faces difficulties related to software, can call Microsoft’s hotline number and seek help. And this is for any of our customers.”

However, in most cases, where the purchase of an individual IT product is concerned, reading the fine print is imperative. Individual consumers need to come to terms with the fact that the level of service and support offered to them is radically different, and in most cases, less substantial than those offered to enterprises. Moreover, the level of support offered depends on several factors such as the type and price of a product, the type of customer and the place of purchase.

In the US, for instance, a money-back guarantee law ensures that a customer who is dissatisfied with his purchase can return the product and get his money back. The Middle East has no such governing law as a result of which a product with a manufacturing defect or any other damage only merits repair. The closest a company comes to the possibility of a refund or a replacement is if the product is dead on arrival (DOA), meaning a brand new product fails to work on first-time installation, says Hewlett Packard (HP). And if a product is faulty due to a manufacturing defect, HP promises to replace it with a “remanufactured product”. A remanufactured product is a defective product that has been sent back to HP’s factory and remanufactured as a brand new product. Wissam Kamal-Eddine, customer care manager, HP Middle East states that this trend is gradually spreading across the whole industry. Most customers who get such a product, however, are likely to feel short-changed.

Local resellers do sometimes go further with refunds in order to increase customer satisfaction. Says Hani Harik, president, Emirates Computers, “We have had instances where a product did not perform as intended or as publicised by the manufacturer, and Emirates Computers offered a complete refund to any client who was not satisfied, no questions asked. This was done even without proper support from the manufacturer.” This is one of the chief reasons why a customer needs to make an informed choice when purchasing a computer, laptop or other IT products, paying careful attention to the features of the product, warranty details, after-purchase support facilities as well as other important factors.

For example, not all warranties are created equal. Some have full international warranties, others only local. In a region like the Middle East, which plays host to a transient population and many tourists, international warranty is an important consideration. Is your last destination covered among the vendor’s international service providers? How many years warranty does a company offer — one or three? Is your warranty limited or full? Is it a carry-in warranty where you take the product to a service provider for servicing or does a technician have to come on-site to check your product? These are terms that a consumer needs to give careful consideration to, when he reads his warranty booklet.

||**||III|~||~||~|Most international vendors today provide both a local as well as an international warranty. But if an end user is going to Romania, for instance, and there is no service provider for his vendor there, he will have to go to the nearest available support centre or send the product by post. This increases costs and risks further damage. Therefore, it might help to consider whether the country the end user is likely to go to, is covered under international warranty. Does local warranty include the whole of the Middle East? In some cases, it does, as with IBM, where local warranty includes the whole of the Middle East. Consumers keep travelling from one country in the Middle East to another. Your vendor must be able to provide you with such services. Some companies like IBM and HP do not distinguish between local and international warranty. If their product is covered under warranty, it means it can be repaired in all countries “where the particular product can be purchased.” The reason for this little clause, explains Wissam, is that if a product is available for sale in a region, there will also be the required service skills to repair it.

The next issue to be addressed is the number of years for which a product is covered under warranty. Sameh Farid, regional manager, personal systems group, IBM Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan says that his company gives a three-year warranty on all their PCs irrespective of whether they are a corporate product line or home PCs. The only exceptions are IBM’s entry-level notebooks, which carry a one-year warranty. Compaq also has different warranty schemes depending on its product range. Most of its entry-level PCs come with a one-year warranty while the rest come with a three-year warranty.

Dell offers a three-year limited warranty on its corporate line such as Optiplex Desktops and Latitude Notebooks. However, its home and small-business products such as Dimension desktops and Inspiron notebooks come with a one-year limited warranty.
These are standard warranties offered by the vendor to a customer and are made available through a reseller. However, there are times when a reseller bundles extra value-additions with a vendor’s products to ensure better sales. For instance, Toshiba’s standard warranty on notebooks is one year. However, during the Dubai Shopping Festival, Al Futtaim Electronics, Toshiba’s sole distributor in the UAE included an additional two-year international warranty to the existing one-year, giving customers extra value for money. The reseller purchases this extra period of warranty from the vendor.

Moreover, Al Futtaim Electronics offers a full warranty on the Toshiba line, which includes the cost of labour and spare parts. However, there are other vendors that offer only limited warranty in that they charge for labour as well as shipping of spare parts. In the case of IBM, warranty is limited to manufacturing defects and the software and components shipped along with the PC. Each vendor is likely to define limited warranty subjectively. Customers must check these details at the time of purchase. Another important term in warranty is carry-in. In the case of most consumer products such as the Compaq Pressario, the customer has to take his product to the service provider for servicing, while technicians from authorised service providers (ASP) of vendors go to corporate clients if the product carries an on-site warranty.

Most vendors in the region rely heavily on their authorised service providers to offer good support and service to customers. To ensure this, resellers and ASPs are given incentives by vendors to provide good services. Moreover, most ASPs stock common parts to avoid delay in repairs. However, in the event of a spare part not being available, vendors have a time period by which the spare part must be shipped in from its storage facility. Philip Ashkar, access business group manager, Compaq Middle East, states that it takes the vendor only two working days to ship in a spare part that is not locally available. In the case of Toshiba, “99.9% of all spare parts are available with Al Futtaim Electronics,” confirms Ramesh Belani, sales manager, Toshiba Computers, Al Futtaim Electonics. Dell, likewise, works through its Dell Authorised Service Partners (DASPs) to provide training, call management and technical support processes as well as spare parts to its customers.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Most vendors also stipulate a time period by which ASPs must repair products and gauge them by this performance. In most instances, priority is given to corporate products as opposed to home PCs. Most of Acer’s desktops and notebooks are repaired within two business days, while the Aspire line takes five business days “because this is usually used by home users and they don’t run mission-critical applications,” according to Suhas Bartar, director, customer service, Acer Computer Middle East. Acer does annual audits to ascertain the service capabilities of its ASPs and sometimes the incentives for ASPs to repair a machine in the fastest time are so high that their compensation can equal a certified technician’s monthly salary, says Bartar. Acer has one of the most sophisticated repair centres at the Jebel Ali free zone, which is said to be electro-static discharge (ESD) protected. This means that right down from the flooring to the clothes and shoes that employees wear at the centre are anti-static to counter any static produced by the body. Moreover, the Taiwanese vendor has more than 32 ASPs in the region and has mandated that each of its ASPs must have at least two Acer-certified engineers on board.

IBM, likewise, has 70 authorised service providers in the whole of the Middle East but does not have a spare parts centre in the region. According to Farid, “shipping a spare part from Amsterdam to Bahrain takes as much time as from Dubai to Bahrain.” So, the company prefers to keep its spare parts facility in Europe. In just the UAE, Al Futtaim Electronics has eight centres to service Toshiba’s products. Compaq, likewise, has ASPs across the region to service its products, and has certified accredited systems engineers as well as technicians to carry out repairs depending on the nature of the job.
An ASP is obliged to service a product if it is under warranty irrespective of whether the product was bought from it or not. If an ASP refuses to do this, a customer can revert to the vendor directly for help. HP, however, recommends that any customer who has a problem with its products call its call centre directly. Explains Kamal-Eddine, "The typical trend in any infant market such as the Middle East is for a customer to go directly to the reseller or retailer, from where he bought the product.

But we’d rather that our customers came directly to us because we have very sophisticated infrastructure, services and information to supply the right answer to our customers, and our agents are well trained on the latest issues.” He explains that retailers will not be able to update themselves with the kind of information that pours into HP’s knowledge pools from all its agents worldwide. HP’s call centre sometimes observes patterns and trends in customer problems that retailers may not notice.

For instance, a customer who uses the Arabic version of Windows might get skewed print-outs when he uses an HP printer. Customers tend to think that this is a hardware problem and take it to their retailer to get their printer fixed, which could cause unnecessary damage. “Actually, there is a simple software fix for this,” explains Kamal-Eddine. “And there are hundreds of other problems like this that can be solved easily. That is why we recommend that our customers call our call centre.” The call centre solves most software problems and refers the customer to its nearest ASP in the event of a hardware problem. “90% of our calls are answered in 15 seconds,” says Kamal-Eddine. “80% of our customers’ software problems are fixed in the first call itself — what we at HP call a first-time fix. This is one of the best first-time fix rates HP has worldwide.”

||**||V|~||~||~|Warranty support is just part of the service equation. Software vendors are extremely crucial to the efficient running of a company’s mission-critical applications as well. After-purchase support, however, works very differently for software as opposed to hardware.

Several customers in the region, for instance, run their mission-critical applications on Microsoft’s servers and its other sophisticated technologies. One example is Dubai Internet City, whose IT infrastructure is based on Windows 2000 Advanced Server, Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server and Microsoft SQL Server 2000 as well as Windows XP operating systems and Office XP applications on desktops. The government organisation recently signed up for 24/7 support from Microsoft. The services partnership with Microsoft gives DIC access to a variety of on-line knowledge resources including webcasts, roundtables and technical discussions conducted by experts at Microsoft’s headquarters. In addition, DIC’s technical teams will also be able to download hot-fixes and service packs from these secure sites.

Depending on the agreement with a vendor, various levels of support are provided. In this case, a dedicated Microsoft professional will spend 50% of his time working with DIC to maintain mission critical applications and avoid system or operational bottlenecks. Some clients ask for a dedicated Technical Account Manager (TAM), who will work on the client’s site all day. Most service agreements are customised to the needs of the client and they are also expensive contracts that guarantee large customers full support including technical support for existing and future vendor technologies, skills transfer and training. Likewise, large licensing agreements signed between software vendors and enterprises allow them to manage software upgrades over time. However, software support is not restricted to higher-end enterprises. Microsoft, which has constantly come under fire from the media for loopholes in its software that have made systems easily vulnerable to viruses, defends its stance by stating that most people do not know how to use the tools provided in its software to secure their systems. “People most affected by viruses are the home users and the small-and-medium business enterprises that do not have proper security systems and procedures in place,” explains Kateeb.

||**||VI|~||~||~|Outlook, for instance, has a personal firewall that can be enabled; the mail system can be set in such a way that it does not download attachments and it can strip e-mails of VBS (visual basic script) files. However, customers who are pondering the possibility of seeking liability from the software giant for damage to their systems as a result of virus attacks will be disappointed. “Liability in a software business does not exist because customers build solutions on Windows and develop software based on this operating system. So, how far do we go in terms of liability?” asks Kateeb. “If there is a short circuit in your home, would you blame the electricity board for it?”

However, Microsoft has introduced checks and balances within its software to try and minimise virus attacks on the unwitting end user. For instance, “before we used to leave all the doors open and tell you to close the ones you want,” explains Kateeb. “But now, we close all the doors and ask you to open only the ones you want.” Moreover, software vendors maintain an ongoing relationship with their clients to keep them updated on new viruses and offer fixes as quickly as possible. “A fix for the more recent virus was provided in just one hour,” states Gopal, who adds that Microsoft offers free telephone support to any legal user of its products who has been affected by a virus. Consequently, 80% of the software vendor’s customers have returned a “very satisfied” verdict on Microsoft’s customer support policy. Most hardware vendors conduct similar customer satisfaction surveys over regular intervals to improve their support services. As Kateeb says “Customer satisfaction is our eyes and ears to the world. It’s the only way to gauge how good or bad our support is.”

Clearly, customer service and support have not just established roots in the West and Europe; it has gradually gathered momentum in the Middle East as well with the increase in demand for hardware and sophisticated IT infrastructure. Customer support is no longer limited to physical spaces. The dramatic changes brought on by unified communications, wireless accessibility, and Web access and delivery has prompted vendors to consider the possibility of offering more cost-effective customer support. The telephone, Web and chat are beginning to play an increasingly prominent role in resolving a substantial number of customers’ problems. It doesn’t seem like it will be long before other more efficient and sophisticated modes of customer support hit the market. One wonders, however, if in the harried rush to implement the latest technology and provide new channels of support delivery, the customer himself will be forgotten and his level of satisfaction will become just a dot on a graph.
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