Bye-Bye Free Tech Support

June 26, 2003
Paying for help because you have exhausted all avenues and are stuck? Like it or not, that's priceless. But you will pay big time

Rockwell Automation has introduced its TechConnect support program for users and OEMs alike. As always, if someone says its good for you, my curiosity level jumps and I temporarily relocate to Missouri.

Just like training, a service and support group is a cost center. So I have no trouble appreciating that developing, marketing, selling, and supporting software and new hardware technologies is expensive. In the time it takes for you read this column, Microsoft sells more software product than Rockwell Automation does in a year. And Microsoft doesn't have the intricacies of hardware and application issues to deal with.

Product development costs have been known for a while. Price points have been established, and with manufacturing becoming more agile, the cost to produce product is declining. Heck, Coca-Cola was upgraded by Morgan Stanley "in part because of improvements to the company's bottling system" (Yahoo Finance, May 7).

What's this? Industrial automation is partly responsible for a company's bottom line? What a novel idea.

So a technology company like Rockwell Automation must use automation to be competitive, and they do. That part of the business is OK. They produce software, which they sell to support that hardware--also, a known quantity. However supporting all of this isn't such a well-known quantity.

It costs a lot of money to have the capacity to tell someone they have the wrong cable for the PLC they are trying to configure. Whose fault? That may be obvious, but can or should you charge the customer for telling him that? Rockwell and other automation players are saying "Yes, we must."

Call centers don't always work for application issues. I remember back when Allen-Bradley was Allen-Bradley, they cycled people through the support desk to get them familiar with products. Most of them didn't have a clue and were little more than glorified secretaries for the product managers. Software was developed to lead people through the basics, although it seemed to never work for the people I talked to then. But it was free.

So now we have to pay for support. That's really not a bad idea if done right.

Rockwell has created three levels of service: eConnect, DirectConnect, and PriorityConnect, sort of an online level, a phone level, and a "you da boss" level. There are also distinctions for industrial OEMs versus end users. The constructs of the agreements favor the OEMs, so some good thought processes were followed.

Where I have an issue with all this is in the implementation. As a machine builder, you use PLC hardware with programming software, drives, operator interface, and maybe some specialized motion.

To be eligible for help with this application when things aren't working together as they should, you have to have a contract in place for each component of the application. I also wonder how a question like, "I can't get my motion card to talk with the drive using a ControlLogix PLC" would get answered, and by whom.

In the past, Rockwell indicated most calls are similar to the cable issue or configuration-type issues. The model works for that. The complex stuff might not.

But if the vendor provided enough information, tools, and online support to fix most problems, then support contracts might not be needed, right?

On the other hand, paying for help because you have exhausted all avenues and are stuck? Like it or not, that's priceless. It saves your butt. But make no mistake, you will pay big time.

The value proposition of support contracts is good, and paying for them outside of the cost of the product isn't a bad idea as long as the availability of good support is as advertised. Also, those well-known hardware or software anomalies should simply be made available, like Microsoft patches; paying for that knowledge isn't right.

Vendors can support their own configurations, but with multivendor solutions being implemented, the link is broken. I have to wonder if this can be used as a springboard to sell more engineering services when a customer can't get his system working to spec.

Rockwell's support plan is comprehensive. However, with sub-par support for a premium price a possibility, I can see that customers of varying types (users, OEMs, integrators) may turn to a new business group,one that provides multivendor support from an application point of view--or to those valued system integrators who really know their stuff.

You heard it here first.

E-mail Jeremy at [email protected].

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