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Five years or so ago at a different publication, I oversaw what was a very
unusual test of anti-virus products. Rather than running a set of applications
through the paces to see how many malware samples they could detect, our test
was designed to evaluate the level and quality of tech support.

We went to great lengths in our test and, of course, we didn’t let the
vendors in on our plans. We set up a dummy company, stealthily bought site
licenses from five vendors, and developed four different failure scenarios that
would require Tier 1 and, possibly, Tier 2 support. We looked at everything,
from the vendor support teams’ technical knowledge and how well they resolved
our issues to how long we had to wait on hold to the quality of the phone line.

The results were astounding. There were incidences where our tester was left
on hold for an hour or more and where the quality of the phone line to some
overseas call centers was so poor that it inhibited communications. Often, the
quality of the support teams’ English was subpar. And, worst of all, the
recommended remediations often left our test environment less secure than the
failure state.  

That was five years ago. Surely things have improved, knowing partners and
end users have complained of similar issues. However, in talking with solution
providers, poor tech support—that includes all of the above problems—persists
to this day.

Yes, overseas tech support call centers are often less expensive to operate
(or contract) than hosting domestic facilities. Even with the constricting
economy and pressure on wages, tech talent remains expensive and hard to come
by. But vendors that fail to place a premium on superior tech support and
availability to partners and customers are running a huge risk.

For George Kafkarkou, tech support is a serious issue. As head of CA’s
Internet Security Business Unit, which has one of the anti-virus products
tested five years ago, he knows service and support issues have plagued the
company’s relations with partners and customers. If CA has any hopes of
rebuilding its security and channel presence, Kafkarkou knows it needs to
demonstrate a commitment to improving support.

“No vendor in the world will say that their tech support is perfect, but
we’ve made a world of difference in making improvements,” Kafkarkou says.

Where the average hold time for CA security support was once 13 to 15
minutes, investments and improvements have brought hold times down to an
average of just 3 minutes. “I would like to get it down to 1 minute, but 3
minutes isn’t bad,” Kafkarkou says.

Superior tech support is one of the pillars of Kaspersky Lab’s growth
strategy. Its solution providers say that price and margins are more than
reasonable, and capabilities and performance of products are great, but it’s
the quality of tech support for them and their customers that’s making the
Russian anti-virus company their choice.

While somewhat more expensive than the offshoring of support centers to India
or the Philippines,
Kaspersky locates its tech support centers in local markets, so its partners
will have quick and easy access to tech support.

“If you want to achieve the best quality of product and service support, you
need to have it local and close to the customers,” says Eugene Kaspersky,
founder and CEO of Kaspersky Lab.

And that’s a notion that solution providers are gravitating toward. When it
comes down to a matter of price and margin vs. service and support, solution
providers naturally want both. However, nurturing customer satisfaction resides
solely in the degree of service provided, and solution providers need that
first. A good product will win the sale today; poor service will deny a sale
tomorrow.

As the recession wears on, vendors will ask for sacrifices and concessions
from solution providers, and ask for their understanding when they do unsavory
things to their channels in the name of self-preservation. Solution providers
should, at the very least, demand and expect superior support. After all, solid
support benefits both direct and indirect channels.

And if you think you have to accept poor tech support, think again. Scores
of solution providers are making their supplier choices based on tech support.
Solution providers own the customer relationship, so they should only recommend
vendors that will ensure the customers’ total satisfaction.

Lawrence M. Walsh is vice president and
group publisher of Channel Insider.