Tech support - For what it's worth

Control system engineers unhappy with the concept of paying for tech support began to assemble.

By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

Joe FeeleyThe conversation began with a buyer’s question. “Who [else] would ever pay for technical support from a PLC manufacturer?” he complained. “Well, I did today and it really frosts me. If I were some dum-dum asking which direction electrons flow, I could understand it. I am, however, an engineer with 15-plus years using this vendor’s equipment.” This guy’s convinced he pays once in an inflated product price, and a second time when he needs help.

The expression of dissatisfaction found considerable support. Control system engineers unhappy with the concept of paying for tech support began to assemble. “We’ve bought 150 servo amps from a major vendor in the past year at $780 each,” one said. “We’ve had units fail right out of the box with a fault-indicator light that would not clear. We returned these to the vendor for repair and we got them back with a report saying no problem was found, accompanied by a bill for $250 for the evaluation.” He thinks he’s been had because work clearly was done. “What is strange to us is that the replacements work fine,” he said. He’s begun to seriously seek other sources.

Meanwhile, the first objecting vendor checked in. “It’s very common for an inexperienced person to ask me to send an example of ladder logic or software configuration to do a very specific thing, or review a program they’re having trouble with,” he reported. The dilemma is clear. If he spends time on pet projects, 20 other calls go unanswered. “That’s why we provide fee-based contract services for application programming,” he said. He says a lot of the callers need training, not tech support.

Another supplier was, albeit reluctantly, sympathetic to the complaints of the buyers. “As an instrumentation manufacturer, I feel that it’s difficult for me to charge for repairs, even if the problem is caused by the customer,” he laments “I can’t imagine charging for technical support that should, theoretically, help the customer, and in the long run, help me.”

This component buyer was ready to pay for tech support, with a few prerequisites. He demanded a manual that—properly done, mind you—shouldn’t even require help pages. He also wanted Web-site FAQ accessibility that’s current and complete, and the understanding that qualified vendor reps will freely fix program or hardware bugs. “I’ve worked with enough bozos to figure out that I’m paying extra for products because the vendor is supporting people that are stupid, lazy, or generally incompetent to do a job without someone holding their hand,” he—none-too-gently—concluded.

This was an important arguing point for another vendor. “One of the things I get to do is read customers the instruction manual,” he lamented. His point is simple: “Somebody has to pay for that.” He said his data supports this position. “We’ve been doing a survey for over a year now, and we’re finding well over 80% of the ‘technical support’ calls we receive are questions that could be answered by reading the manual, or with basic technical knowledge any user should have,” he argued. “Those remaining 20% are usually real toughies,” he said. “We like those because it keeps us sharp.” He said, probably with a grin, he’d pay to hear from them, since those are the calls that help him make better products.

This is an issue that really generates a lot of emotion, so tell us where you stand on this. We’d like to hear from you, because, in the words of that vendor, it keeps us sharp, too.