Good Help Is Hard to Find
Articles and Tips:
01 Apr 1999
Although managing your company's network can be difficult, finding reliable technical support may be even more challenging. You must distinguish between capable technical support providers and technical support providers who have little practical experience solving the networking issues your company faces. (See "The Role of Certification.")
This article offers a few guidelines that you can use to find reliable technical support for your company's network. This article first helps you evaluate the type of technical support your company needs. This article then helps you determine which potential technical support providers have the necessary skills to meet your company's technical support requirements.
TYPES OF TECHNICAL SUPPORT
Every network--regardless of its size, its location, and its hardware and software--eventually requires some type of technical support. To solve each problem, whether large or small, you must answer two critical questions: First, do you have the resources you need to solve the problem yourself? And second, who can you trust when you need outside help?
Before you can answer these questions, you must evaluate the type of technical support your company needs. There are three types of technical support:
Critical-Care Technical Support. If you occasionally experience a problem that you cannot solve on your own, you can hire technical support providers on an as-needed basis. Technical support providers who offer critical-care technical support are similar to triage doctors who work in a hospital's emergency room.
On-Going Technical Support. If you need help completing complex projects, such as implementing new technologies, you can hire technical support providers who offer on-going technical support. These technical support providers are similar to family practitioners who treat you for chronic conditions.
On-Site Technical Support. If you need to supplement your company's technical support staff on a long-term basis but cannot hire additional employees, you can hire technical support providers who offer on-site technical support. These technical support providers are similar to home-care nurses who alleviate your workload while you are recovering from an illness.
Determining the type of technical support you need is the most important step in meeting your company's technical support requirements. In addition to considering the specific problem or project you face, you should consider other factors, such as the size and the experience of your company's technical support staff.
For example, suppose that you work for a small company and that network management is only one of your many job responsibilities. In this case, you may need all three types of technical support to ensure that you always have outside help whenever you encounter problems or implement projects that you are not equipped to handle. On the other hand, suppose that you work for a large company that has a full technical support staff. In this case, you may need only on-site technical support to ensure that you have an extra technical support professional who is dedicated to performing a long-term task.
You should also consider the cost of each type of technical support. Depending on the exact services you need, you may need to compromise to reduce costs. Obviously, if you cannot afford more than one type of technical support, you must choose the type of technical support that most closely meets all of your company's technical support requirements.
As you determine the type of technical support your company needs, you should be aware that technical support providers must draw the line somewhere. For example, you cannot expect a critical-care technical support provider to rush to your aid to add a new user to your company's network. Likewise, you cannot expect an on-going technical support provider who is implementing a database solution to restore a failed router.
You should also be aware that there is no better time than now to find reliable technical support. You should not wait until you are in the middle of a crisis.
TYPES OF TECHNICAL SUPPORT PROVIDERS
After you have decided which type of technical support you want, you must focus on finding an experienced technical support provider who provides this type of technical support. Sometimes the technical support provider you choose may be able to provide several types of technical support.
There are two types of technical support providers:
Most independent consultants provide reliable technical support in specific areas of expertise, often at a lower cost than consulting companies. On the other hand, consulting companies usually provide a broader range of services. And although consulting companies sometimes cost more, they may assign multiple consultants to your company's account. As a result, these companies can often provide more experience and faster assistance than independent consultants can provide.
You should always ask several critical questions before choosing your technical support provider:
How much experience does the technical support provider have with the type of network your company has, including the hardware and software used?
Does the technical support provider guarantee availability?
Does the technical support provider offer a single point of contact?
Does the technical support provider offer a list of references, enabling you to contact both past and current customers for more information about the provider's quality of service?
Technical Support Experience
I have provided technical support for many years, and many of my customers came to me because their technical support provider could not help them. Most of these customers neglected to ask the appropriate questions before they hired their technical support provider.
The most important question to ask is the one about experience. Among other things, you should ensure that your technical support provider is familiar with the server platform and with the operating system your company uses. Otherwise, your technical support provider may be not be able to solve problems with which the provider has little experience. This situation is especially common with independent service providers, who do not have a company full of colleagues to call for help.
To determine whether or not potential technical support providers have adequate experience, you should document your company's network, making a complete list of the hardware and software you use. You can then present this list to potential technical support providers so they know exactly what they are expected to maintain. This list can also help protect you from unscrupulous technical support providers who may try to convince you that you need unnecessary equipment or replacement parts, assuming that you are not familiar with each component in your company's network.
Guarantee of Availability
The speed with which your technical support provider responds to a service request may determine whether or not your company's network survives a system failure. For example, if a technical support provider cannot guarantee at least same-day response, you must evaluate the impact on your company if its network is down for a day or two--or possibly even longer.
In addition, you should find out whether or not potential technical support providers maintain their own supply of replacement parts. If a technical support provider does not stock replacement parts for the hardware you use, you may find yourself at the mercy of manufacturers' warehouses and shipping services in the event of a hardware failure.
Single Point of Contact
Having a single point of contact may not seem important when your company's network is functioning properly. But when something goes wrong, you cannot underestimate the value of being able to contact a technical support professional who is familiar with your company's network.
A single point of contact is also useful if you are trying to juggle multiple projects simultaneously. In this case, your contact can act as a project manager, ensuring that each project is on track.
In addition, a single point of contact provides you with a technical support professional who can evaluate all of the services you are receiving and determine whether or not you are satisfied with these services. Otherwise, you may receive unsatisfactory services because no one is coordinating these services.
List of References
Nothing beats references when you are trying to find reliable technical support. You should always request a list of references from each potential technical support provider. This list should include contact information for several customers who are using or have used the same technical support provider and have received services similar to the ones you require. You should then contact these customers, ensuring that they have had a good experience with the technical support provider.
A reputable technical support provider should supply you with contact information both for customers who praise the provider and for customers who have experienced problems. You can then determine the technical support provider's strengths and weaknesses.
You can also use references from other companies to track down potential technical support providers. You may want to ask your company's partners, suppliers, and customers whether or not they are happy with their technical support provider. In addition, you can ask other network administrators, such as members of your local NetWare user group, if they have any recommendations. (To locate a NetWare user group in your area, visit http://www.novell.com/nui/groups.)
DOING YOUR PART
After you choose a technical support provider, you should ask what the provider expects from you. For example, I do not accept a new customer without first performing a basic health check on the company's network. This health check allows me to conduct an inventory of the hardware, software, and services that are running. I can also determine if all of the current patches and updates are installed.
Based on what I find during the health check, I know if I should accept the job. If the network's overall health is relatively good, I may accept the job because I do not have to spend an inordinate amount of time reconfiguring hardware and software and installing current patches and updates. If the network has significant problems, however, I may decide to reject the job because the extra work I am faced with may interfere with the time I must dedicate to my existing customers.
A reputable technical support provider may have a similar selection process, which helps ensure that the provider can properly support every customer. Technical support providers who are willing to take on any and every customer may eventually end up spending all of their time and resources with the one customer whose network is in the worst shape, leaving little time for the remaining customers.
Managing your company's network is only part of your job. You also have the responsibility of finding reliable technical support--a process that requires you to do your homework. You must evaluate your company's technical support requirements and determine what type of technical support your company needs. In addition, you must interview potential technical support providers, asking them a variety of questions and checking their references.
If you complete these steps, you are far less likely to make your company the unwitting victim in a technical support horror story. Instead, you may develop a successful technical support relationship that can serve your company well for many years to come.
Mickey Applebaum has worked with NetWare for more than 14 years. Mickey provides technical support on the Internet for The Forums (http://theforums.com) and operates Proactive Team Solutions, a consulting firm located in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Role of Certification
When choosing a technical support provider, you should factor in industry certifications. Although you should not rely solely on industry certifications, you can use these certifications as a baseline for comparison. In other words, you may want to begin your search by considering technical support providers who have industry certifications. You can then narrow your search by evaluating the experience of each technical support provider.
Comparing the role of medical certifications and networking certifications helps clarify the relationship between certification and experience. Like technical support providers, medical students may receive one or more certifications in their field. To earn these certifications, medical students must engage in rigorous classroom training, learning the scientific theories behind medical procedures. Some medical students pursue a general certification, which covers a broad range of basic medical issues, whereas other medical students pursue a specialty certification, which covers specific medical issues surrounding a particular disease or area of the body.
Many technical support providers also pursue either general or specialty certifications. Technical support providers who pursue general certifications want to address basic hardware and software issues. Technical support providers who pursue specialty certifications focus on a specific network component, such as routers.
With both doctors and technical support providers, you seek out a specialist if your problem is severe enough or complex enough to exceed a general practitioner's skills. However, there is one significant difference between the role of medical certifications and networking certifications: After their classroom study is completed, medical students are required to complete several years of hands-on training before they can become doctors. Technical support providers, on the other hand, usually begin working immediately.
Potential technical support providers who have earned certifications obviously believe in the importance of classroom training. In addition, they are willing to spend the time and the money necessary to pursue that training. But you should not assume that a technical support provider who has earned certifications knows how to solve every networking problem. Instead, you should gather as much information as you can about the provider's actual experience, and you should use this information to make your final decision. In short, when choosing a technical support provider, you should follow the steps outlined in the main article.
* Originally published in Novell Connection Magazine
The origin of this information may be internal or external to Novell. While Novell makes all reasonable efforts to verify this information, Novell does not make explicit or implied claims to its validity.