2007's Support Leaders

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In the 2007 VARBusiness Annual Report Card survey, solution providers evaluate vendor support according to five metrics: sales support, maintenance

support, quality of field management, market support and training. This year, Intel, in the Client or Server Processors product category, earned the highest rating in the first four of those metrics, coming in at least 13 points above average in each. In maintenance support, the company tied with IBM's mainstream business server group. Both vendors earned a score of 80, 14 points above the ARC average.

"A great road map is nothing without a good support system," said Shirley Turner, Intel's director of North American distribution and channels. "Both sides need to make the investment. For vendors, this is a critical part of a relationship with the reseller community. And for VARs, there needs to be an understanding of what's [required] to get the proper level of support. Both sides have to set expectations up front."

With so many ways to evaluate a vendor's support, what matters most to the channel?

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According to the results, partners gave the highest weight among the support criteria to maintenance support in 12 of the 15 product categories. Maintenance support also got the highest average score among the support criteria (66), indicating that vendor efforts are roughly aligned with partner needs. The product category where maintenance support is the most important relative to all other support criteria is Display Technologies. Partners in this category rated maintenance support 10 percent higher than the average rating for all criteria. In the Security Software, Business Software/Strategic and Business Software/Management categories, sales support barely edged out maintenance support as the most important support criterion.

The highest average scores in support went to vendors peddling products in the category of Client or Server Processors (69 points), followed by Mainstream Business Servers, Business Software/Management and Workgroup Color Printers, all of which scored 67.

"No. 1, I don't want [a product] to fail; but when it does, I want to know it will be resolved," said Guy Kittelson, president of Plan-IT Computing. He pointed to Intel has having the best warranty-replacement program out there. "You go to the Web site, put in a part number, and get the replacement. It costs a little more, but they stand behind the product. There's a reason others are cheaper." In one example, Kittelson had a computer fail at a customer site. He arrived at 4:30 p.m. on site, determined it was the motherboard, and called Intel. A replacement was there by 9 a.m. the next morning, he said.

But good maintenance support goes beyond product replacement. As customers increasingly demand integrated solutions rather than point purchases, vendors must expand support beyond the individual product. That's another way that Intel sets itself apart.

Next: Customer Is The Customer

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"There's always the nightmare stories, where you call vendors and get nothing," said Doug Moglin, director of product development at Southwick, Mass.-based Whalley Computer Associates. "The problem is these are often multivendor solutions and everyone wants to point their finger. Intel is the one organization that I deal with on a day-to-day basis that always seems to realize the customer is always the customer."

Moglin once went to Intel when a customer reported performance problems with an Intel server that did big volume. The vendor immediately brought engineers from all areas to the table to help nail down the problem, which was rooted in the memory. They put a basic input/output system (BIOS) fix in place for Whalley, as well as for the general VAR and customer base. In another instance, David Valdez faced a production issue while waiting for support of 4 Gbytes of RAM in Microsoft Vista. Similar to Whalley's situation, Intel worked with his own engineers, and in two hours wrote and deployed a BIOS fix.

"You talk about making an elephant dance, but Intel was able to immediately get the right people mobilized to resolve the problem quickly," Moglin said. "This was about memory--not even one they made, but one they had blessed to use with the system. They didn't say, 'Your problem is with your memory guy.' They said, 'Even if technically the memory is the problem, we blessed these products to play, so we'll deal with it.' VARs buy multivendor solutions; the vendors have a vested interest in dealing with what's going into those solutions."

Not all vendors earn such high reviews in maintenance support. When Eaton & Associates found out that 10 of 11 Lenovo laptops dropped-shipped to a customer site came with bad AC adapters, inside sales manager Alana Johnson couldn't get the vendor to come through with replacements. Eventually she paid money out of her own pocket and drove hours to deliver them.

In contrast, Johnson called SonicWall when a customer reported power outages with six security appliances. In four hours, she had a representative at her doorstep, willing to take a ride from San Francisco to Sacramento, Calif., to deal with the problem. She also gives good reviews to Hewlett-Packard and Xerox--the latter of which earned the ARC's second highest overall score in support.

"If a vendor wants me to buy product, step up," Johnson said. "I want to be able to reach someone intelligent. And if they're wrong, own it and fix it. We as a VAR are putting our reputation and money on the line. They need to do the same."

Vendor support should seek to make the customer experience as seamless as possible--whether dealing with a channel partner or the vendor directly. For that to happen, vendors have to offer both a high level of responsiveness and thorough training.

EMC, which earned the highest score for training at 76, 14 points above the average, stays connected with VARs through a partner advisory council and intense collaborative workshops, supplemented by video-on-demand training, partner portals and Webcasts. Partners are also invited to new-hire training. The goal is to arm partners with the technical training and accessibility to resources needed to serve customers with authority.

"People don't call three months before they need a support function; they have an active sales campaign or active implementation and need an answer to the questions on the first pass," said Pete Koliopolos, vice president of global channel marketing at EMC. "We make sure partners receive the same knowledge that our own people get. The customer should see no discernible difference."

That said, support is a two-way street. Vendors are limited in what they can do for channel partners if those partners don't step up and voice their needs as well as the needs of their customers, and participate in the various training opportunities and partner sessions. Often these events are voluntary, which leaves the ball in the solution provider's court.

Further, solution providers should exhibit a dedication to serving the customer, rather than handing the reins over to the vendor the moment a technical or purchasing issue emerges.

When Whalley Computer's Moglin contacts a vendor to help address a customer issue, all possibilities have been considered. The solution provider brings helpful information and resources to the table, and collaborates with the vendor to find a solution.

"Vendors tell us we're low-maintenance," Moglin said. "When we call to say we need help, they know they'll have to escalate it and usually do without a lot of kicking and screaming." The company also sends employees to Intel's quarterly training and annual conference.

Beyond help with technical issues, solution providers have to communicate with vendors. Whether technical training, product innovation or partnership, vendors cannot address issues that they do not know exist.

"In order for us to better understand their business, we have to understand the impact of our program," EMC's Koliopolos said. "Partners give us a sense of where we're hitting the mark and where we need to improve. We're proud. But we're never too quick to sit on our laurels."