By John Kolkmeier, Director, Global Service Delivery, SSCS

In my last blog, I wrote about a few ways in which IT procurement could better vet hardware support vendors by drilling with questions about Communications & Tools. Before that, Mark Havens shared one with the same purpose, but focused on questions that forced transparency around Parts & Logistics. Within this blog, I really want to help readers (IT procurement and Data Center decision makers) understand how to get the Technical Expertise they deserve from a hardware support vendor – especially a Third-Party Maintainer.

I also want to feature the importance of looking at “style” of these vendors. When you ask great questions, the responses you receive should help you discern whether (or not) the vendor is committed to a level of transparency that best serves your interests. Most would agree that it’s not likely you’ll see the style trait of transparency from an OEM. But, this market of independent support providers should be hard-wired to be different from the OEM – always providing a level of transparency that serves you and furthers a partnership.

Permit me to return to Technical Expertise for a few paragraphs.

As I write this, I recall a story from a co-worker, someone who joined our company, coming from a competitor in the last few years. Although his previous employer had built a fairly respectable training program, there were numerous incidents of unforgivable Service Quality. His past employer had been awarded a large contract from a globally-respected banking institution, comprised of multiple data center sites throughout North America. Although this co-worker was not in a field support role, he had technical knowledge and was to join each FE team during onboarding, helping the transition and providing process-specific support where needed.

Disappointingly, he learned that the regional technical supervisor for each location had intentionally chosen to mislead the client with sub-par field engineers to each account. At each site, there were engineers assigned that had not yet touched (or received even basic training) for over 50% of the assets under the support agreement. The supervisors’ excuse? Sales had been so eager to close the deal, that they ignored a short on-boarding window and field operations did not have time to deploy basic training for each engineer at each site.

This co-worker friend winces in disgust when he tells about the field engineer that said aloud, in front of the client contact, “I’ve never seen or touched a pSeries server. Which ones are those?”

Up until recently, these sorts of stories were unheard of within this industry of independent break/fix support. But, I am sad to report, there are some trends impacting the Service Quality this industry has become known for, and from which all third-party maintainers (TPMs) have earned respect.

All that said, dear readers, you need not recoil in fear or hesitation for this entire industry. Why punish all when you really can minimize your OpEx AND get remarkable Service Quality. Instead, you just need to know what questions to ask during vendor vetting. Before I help by providing questions that should really help, I’d like to share several facts to give you a sound basis of knowledge for hardware break/fix best practices:

• Level III and Level IV technical expertise is needed across each OEM/platform, to provide support to (and training) for the onsite field engineer, who will often be Level 1 or Level II in skills.

• In addition, global providers MUST have this Level III/IV support existing and available in multiple continents, sun-up to sundown – no matter the geography of the client. Top-level backline support can have no holes, or the client (and local field support team) are at risk. I’d call that, “Unacceptable Risk.”

• OEM or platform-specific training need not come from the OEM. In fact, troubleshooting logic is often impaired by OEM training and OEM process. Not always, but often. I’d rather find someone skilled it problem determination across simpler and unrelated systems. Then, maximize their ability to blend logic with client-focused innovation.

• But, any TPM must have a sound training program that is documented and built by Level III and Level IV experts. In recent years, we’ve heard too many stories of FEs sent onsite that did not know how to access the system interface, or even open a door.

I have been highly tempted to limit this blog to focus on field expertise and backline support. But, in recent days have convinced myself it is important to go at least one step beyond, when discussing “Technical Expertise.” The next few statements are where I tie technical expertise back into the character trait of “Transparency.”

Not all post-warranty assets should be moved to independent support. You need to find the independent hardware support provider that will:

• Help identify which assets should remain under OEM support (OS patches, stability, etc.)

• Help identify which assets are absolutely 100% eligible for independent support (zero risk)

• Help identify which assets have some risk. Then, have the technical ability to articulate the risk for each so the decision is 100% yours.

Be cautious of the independent hardware support provider that only seeks an asset list, then gives you their price for those assets. Instead, seek those providers that will generously share their expertise, helping you minimize risk, maximize resiliency and reduce costs where and when it makes sense to do so.

There are, among our competitors, those who would sell an expensive Hummer (with a “Hemi”) to your 86-year old grandma, who has been diagnosed with macular degeneration.

Once you’ve chosen a strategy to extend asset lifecycles and reduce costs by using the independent support industry, you should be less enamored with cost-savings and seek out independent vendors that will help you balance acceptable risk-to-reward ratios with a genuine level of transparency. You see, it takes technical expertise AND transparency to help you get what you need.

Finding Technical Expertise; Revealing the Transparency Trait

Here are a few questions to help you find vendors with both technical expertise and transparency:

1. Will the field engineers assigned to my account be Level I or Level II engineers? Can you document their training on asset families in my environment? Would you provide a course synopsis for any platform family I request, and do so within 24 hours? Do these field engineers have regularly updated resumes/bios or a LinkedIn profile? Would you provide those to me within 24 hours of my request?

2. Can you document the Level III and Level IV coverage, with back-ups (for illness/vacation) for the geographies represented in my RFQ? Will you provide resumes/bios or LinkedIn profiles?

3. Would you permit our team an oral exam for any engineers you intend to designate for my site(s), before we sign an agreement? If any FE replacement were necessary for our site(s), would you permit our team to be included in second/third interviews – and be the final determining factor?

4. After I give you an asset list, what happens?

5. What kinds of experts are included in review of our asset list? What is their background?

6. Does your review of our proposed assets include direct consultation about the level of risk for each asset category or platform family? How does this work? What will we learn? How do you transfer that knowledge so we have that data in our asset management programs?

We directly correlate expertise and transparency with Service Quality. More of our competitors used to do the same, but are now diluting what had once been industry standards. If trust is to be earned, you must know what factors to observe and questions to ask. If grandma can’t climb into that Hummer, or see over the dashboard, she shouldn’t be sold one. No exceptions!

John “JK” Kolkmeier, Director, Global Service Delivery, SSCS

This year will be John’s 29th year with SSCS Global IT Services. A graduate of University of Houston, Clear Lake, most of John’s field service career has been with SSCS. Having several years of experience in direct field service and break/fix maintenance for multiple OEMs and platforms, John was promoted to Global Service Director eight years ago. All global field support and OEM subject matter expertise reports up to him.

In addition to his deep levels of interest in data center support best practices, John is an avid outdoorsman and conservationist, committed to non-profit groups dedicated to habitat protections and enhancement. He is also an avid fan of all sports, with a great appreciation for golf.

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