REDMOND, Wash., June 14, 1999 — Multivendor support issues can gobble up a nightmarish proportion of a company's support costs. Where does a help desk turn when users are having a difficult time printing email attachments, and the company is running Lotus Notes on Microsoft Windows 95, connected to Hewlett Packard printers in a Novell-based local area network? Simply deciding which vendor to consult is enough of a mind game-guessing wrong means starting from scratch with the next vendor on the list. And the vendors themselves often don't know where to begin to solve complex problems involving a host of different vendors' technologies.
According to a survey of corporate help desks conducted by the Customer Support Consortium, 27 percent of calls to help desks that support open systems are multivendor support issues. These problems, loosely defined as "support incidents involving multiple technologies," consume well over 50 percent of support centers' budgets.
"It takes help desk managers five times longer to solve multivendor issues than it does for single-vendor issues," said Greg Oxton, executive director of the Customer Support Consortium, a multivendor think-tank that is proposing standards-based models to enable plug-and-play relationships between technical support organizations. "The fix is almost never determined on the first call. And help desks report that fingerpointing among vendors results in their having to tell their story over and over again," he added.
Microsoft is intensely involved in providing its customers with efficient, ongoing support for multivendor issues and is working with a growing number of technology vendors, including Compaq Computer, Citrix Systems, Inc., Entevo, Fastlane Technologies, Hewlett-Packard, Mission Critical Software, and Novell, to build digitally connected support communities that can share support information. The vision, according to Josh Anderson, multivendor support program manager at Microsoft, is to give customers an easy point of access, where the problem becomes an object that moves from vendor to vendor to get resolved, rather than the customer having to go from vendor to vendor explaining the problem.
"For a long time vendors have understood that PCs had to embrace open standards to be successful-they had to be interoperable with other companies' products," said Anderson. "Microsoft recognizes that support organizations and services need to interoperate in much the same way. These organizations have been proprietary for too long, isolated islands with no protocols in place for working with other vendors to solve users' problems."
Microsoft is taking a three-pronged approach to its multivendor support strategy. It is actively participating in shaping the direction of multivendor support organizations such as the Customer Support Consortium and TSANet. And it is executing the roadmaps these groups have created by developing model-based relationships with other vendors and deploying standards-based technologies to support such an infrastructure.
Enabling the Support Supply Chain
The support supply chain, in its simplest form, includes the end user, the corporate help desk, a third-party integrator, and the manufacturer or software development company. When a user has a problem that involves multiple technologies, every one of the interactions among the different players is nonstandard, non-scalable and unpredictable, according to Oxton, which explains why it takes so long for vendors to produce a solution.
While it's possible for vendors to develop independent contractual support agreements with each of the vendors whose products interface with their own, these relationships are difficult to manage, and they usually aren't scalable or even repeatable. To address these inadequacies, the Customer Support Consortium developed an initiative called "Solution-Centered Support," based on the notion that as support analysts solve problems for customers, the tools they use should be self-documenting so that they automatically create solutions that are immediately accessible to other vendors and customers.
For this concept to work, the consortium proposed that support relationships and the technologies used to integrate call management systems and solution databases among vendors should be based on approved standards. The consortium subsequently created exchange standards that enable the movement of information, and relationship models that enable business relationships to function in standardized ways.
The Customer Support Consortium is currently working with the Desktop Management Task Force (DMTF) to get its two exchange standards-the Service Incident Standard (SIS) and the Solution Exchange Standard (SES)-adopted industrywide. SIS is a common markup and transaction model that provides a set of definitions for how support incidents can be established digitally and transferred between vendors' call management systems. SES is a common markup and transaction model that can be used to document resulting solutions so that they can be captured digitally and shared among vendors' support databases.
By capturing support information using standards that are recognized by multiple vendors, a company's call management and support solutions systems can be accessed by any vendor so that customers' multivendor support incidents can be escalated appropriately by the vendors themselves, rather than by the customer.
The consortium has also defined four types of relationship models that establish rules of engagement so that companies can quickly establish how they will work together to solve support problems. TSANet, a multivendor support community with 76 members worldwide, has helped to define these relationship models and uses them to provide members a base methodology for interoperatibility.
Microsoft has invested a significant amount of effort to participate in and support the Customer Support Consortium's initiatives. Mark Perry, general manager of global support at Microsoft, leads the board of the consortium, and Josh Anderson represents Microsoft on the consortium's Multivendor Support Working Group as well as the Futures team. In addition, Kurt Samuelson, product unit manager at Microsoft, and John Chmaj, content architect at Microsoft, have played instrumental roles in the creation of the SIS and SES standards.
"Microsoft has participated in every one of our initiatives and has made significant contributions in terms of piloting and being an early adopter of new support methodologies," said Oxton. "They're really on the leading edge in terms of testing multivendor support concepts and standards. The work the company has done with Hewlett-Packard is a great example."
Microsoft and HP are the first and only vendors to implement the consortium's Support Incident Standard into their call management systems. SIS allows the two companies to facilitate the efficient exchange of customer support incidents. When customers call HP with a support issue, for example, HP is able to escalate the incident to Microsoft if necessary via the companies' call management systems. Microsoft's solution is then automatically incorporated into both systems. This provides HP and Microsoft support staffs the information they need to easily provide a fix to the same problem should it come up again.
"Working closely with Microsoft over the past several years in the area of support technology has provided many benefits for our joint customers," said Amy Scrivner, manager of the R & D Microsoft Alliance in HP's Customer Service and Support Group. "Both companies are very focused on making it easier for customers to get their multivendor support issues addressed."
Microsoft is also supporting the SES standard and will be among the first vendors to implement the standard using XML, so that the company can exchange its support knowledgebase with several partner organizations. Using SES allows Microsoft to leverage common industry data definitions and a common format to efficiently disseminate Microsoft support content to multiple vendors.
Strong Vendor Support Relationships Are Key to Customer Satisfaction
Microsoft has also focused a lot of attention on helping to shape the direction and initiatives of the largest and most successful multivendor support community, TSANet. In addition to serving the Customer Support Consortium's committees, Josh Anderson is also an executive member of the TSANet Board of Trustees. According to Dennis Smeltzer, executive director of TSANet, Microsoft has been very supportive in developing new TSANet programs and offerings.
"Because Microsoft is actively involved in the strategic operations of both the Customer Support Consortium and TSANet, the company has been able to act as a liaison between the two groups," said Smeltzer. "Their significant investment of time and energy underscores a strong commitment to provide effective multivendor support to their customers."
Microsoft is closely adhering to the roadmap TSANet provides by developing support relationships with other vendors such as Compaq, HP and Novell, and uses the TSANet mechanism to establish and foster these liaisons. This year the company received an excellence award for "Best of the Best Multivendor Company" from TSANet. TSANet awards this distinction to three companies annually.
In Microsoft's relationship with HP, the two companies have developed support agreements in which HP support staff have round-the-clock access to Microsoft's highest-level engineers, which creates a virtual lab to support global customers who are running mission-critical applications. In addition, the two companies jointly staff HP's Mission Critical Solution Center, which builds, configures, tests and certifies mission-critical configurations for Windows NT environments. As a result, HP is able to provide 99.9 percent uptime commitments for Windows NT environments worldwide.
Another vendor, Compaq Computer, also has a strong support relationship with Microsoft. Like Microsoft, Compaq is a TSANet member and plays a significant role in shaping the direction of the organization.
"One of our most effective support relationships is with Microsoft," said Randy Kane, Service Delivery Planning and Strategy Manager at Compaq. "When you combine Compaq Services' decade-long relationship with Microsoft, plus our experience in solving multivendor customer problems, the result is the ability to resolve customer issues in significantly less time."
Microsoft also formed support relationships last March with a number of directory management vendors, including Entevo, FastLane Technologies and Mission Critical Software. With these companies, which develop directory management solutions that simplify Microsoft Windows NT Server administration, Microsoft will work jointly on customer issues, and share technical support information in an effort to provide a seamless support experience for joint customers.
Under the agreement with Entevo, for instance, the two companies have direct access to each other's support organizations and support databases. Microsoft and Entevo support groups also are trained on each other's products so that they can maximize their familiarity with their joint customers' environments.
"Many of our customers are already Microsoft Premier Support customers," said Spencer DeGraw, manager of technical services and systems engineering at Entevo. "So by virtue of this relationship, if one of their technical problems turns out to include an Entevo product, they can be assured that Microsoft and Entevo will work together to solve their problem, without having to make several calls to get the help they need."
Forging Ahead on Standards, Relationships and Deployment
In the near future, Microsoft plans to continue its support for the Customer Support Consortium and TSANet. The company will be actively involved in pushing for the adoption of the Customer Support Consortium's exchange standards and will continue to develop support relationships with other vendors and continue its ongoing implementation of a technology infrastructure that can support the exchange of incidents and solutions with other vendors.
"We look to expand our support relationships to other vendors and are eager to engage with any other vendors who plan to integrate the SIS standard into their call management systems," said Microsoft's Anderson. "We are committed to building a support community that can take care of whatever multivendor support issues our customers encounter."