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Get more from your support contract and reduce IT costs

Your support contract may be costing you more than downtime. Learn how to maximize ROI from your support contracts and reduce IT costs.

In the current financial climate, almost everyone is trying to stretch every dollar. As an IT manager, one of your best bets for cost savings is in the software support contract. The contract is like health insurance: It's wasted money until you need it -- and you don't dare live without it. Having worked as a support engineer for mission-critical and business-critical support, here is my take on how to get the most from support services.

First, determine the level of support you need. Vendors that offer systems-level support will present several levels of services. The price will be based on the guaranteed response time, which could vary from an hour to 24 hours. Often there are Web and email options for issues that don't require immediate attention. Obviously, lower response times will have a higher cost.

With this in mind, I recommend purchasing multiple contracts, then placing support calls under the agreement that make the most sense. Also, if you pay per incident, consider purchasing a number of incidents in several categories. Response times will vary, but the following information will give you an idea of what to expect from your support contract:

  • One-hour response time for mission-critical issues. A mission critical issue is one that causes critical outage/downtime. I recall one mission critical situation I worked in which the CIO said they were losing $1 million per hour with a SQL server being down. I've also handled many "mission critical" cases that were not critical. They might be urgent but not "system down." Support engineers will recognize this and typically downgrade the priority of the case. From your perspective, it means you've wasted the extra money you paid for that call. It is important to manage the logging of cases.
  • Four-to-six hour response time for important, but not mission critical issues. Most of your calls will fall into this category. Here's a hint: Just because a four-hour response time is guaranteed, experience has taught me that the response time is faster than four hours.
  • A 24-hour response is appropriate for issues that need research, and for "how to" questions or errors you are concerned about but that have no immediate impact.

There is a lot of flexibility in contracts that can make a big difference in cost management. Here are some more cost saving tips on support contracts:

  • When determining next year's support contract requirements, examine past history. Review the logged incidents and analyze how appropriate the guaranteed response time was for the calls. Note the distribution of calls. This will help establish future needs.
  • Talk to your IT staff and review the effectiveness of the support services. Are the support engineers helpful and effectively resolving the issues and keeping downtime to a minimum? Are they prompt and responsive?
  • Are there other vendors that can offer equal or better service for a better cost? Before you go with the cheaper contract, though, evaluate the contract's quality. Look at the support engineers' experience. If they lack experience, it will hurt you by increasing downtime. Also remember that certification is no guarantee of experience or knowledge.

Finally, get the most out of your support contract by paying close attention and managing the logged cases. Be sure your support vendors give you a summary of each case including the resolution.

Here are some tips on how to find out if you're getting your money's worth:

  • Determine if the problem justified a support call. Many support calls are made that could be eliminated by better training or research by the IT staff. Support engineers -- especially for "level 1" incidents -- resolve cases by using tools and websites that could be used by your staff.
  • Evaluate the "time to resolve." Many times a problem will justifiably take days or weeks to resolve, but a lot of cases are needlessly stretched out because your IT person was busy with other issues, a vacation and so forth. If this is caused by your staff member, you can deal with that. If it is an issue with the support vendor, and if it is a pattern, then it's time for a new vendor.
  • Manage the case. A surprisingly large number of cases are closed because of customer unresponsiveness; and you pay for a support incident but receive no value for your money. The call will likely be logged again for resolution, so now you have paid double for one resolution. Failure to provide logs and relevant data also causes delays to resolution. So be sure to provide the necessary data in a timely fashion because, in my experience, the delay in resolving a problem is linked to the customer's failure to provide appropriate data.

Careful evaluation and management of how your support contract is used will ensure timely responses, reduced time to resolution and lower cost per incident. It requires careful management and an IT staff that works together.

Gary Olsen is a systems software engineer for Hewlett-Packard in Global Solutions Engineering. He authored Windows 2000: Active Directory Design and Deployment and co-authored Windows Server 2003 on HP ProLiant Servers. Gary is a Microsoft MVP for Directory Services and formerly for Windows File Systems.

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