Disk doctoring services now come cheap from one Canadian recovery company

Nick Majors probably isn’t in the habit of annoying people, but lately you’d think otherwise.

Majors heads a company called ActionFront Data Recovery Labs Inc., headquartered in Toronto. It’s up to him and his team to yank out stubborn data stuck in hard drives and backup systems when clients come crying. It’s a tough business, and a recent chat with a customer reminded Majors of that fact.

“He said, ‘You know, Nick, I paid you $700 for a recovery and you’re not even including the courier service (for the salvaged data) back to me in that.'” Majors said the client was clearly “outraged.”

But in the data recovery world, as Majors tried to tell the disgruntled customer, $700 is a low-end job. ActionFront shouldn’t be expected to take on the costs when the margin is minuscule already.

Majors would rather such calls from irate clients were few and far between, and now ActionFront has a plan to reduce complaints. Rather than annoy the end user, the company aims to annoy its competitors instead.

In November, ActionFront began offering “free fixes” for certain data recovery tasks. Essentially, if it takes less then a half-hour to wrest the data from the customer’s hard drive, ActionFront will drop the charges – save shipping, of course.

Majors said this proposal should keep 10 per cent of ActionFront’s customers from reaching deep into their wallets to pay the bill. In cases where the circuit board is toast, or during moments of “stiction” (when the platter doesn’t spin) for example, the company will retrieve the data and courier it back to the client.

Others would request $700 to $1,200 to provide this service that ActionFront proposes to complete for free, Majors said. So are his competitors overcharging? “I hesitantly say, ‘Yes,'” he said.

On one hand, the business of data recovery is an expensive and highly detailed undertaking, Majors explained. Companies like ActionFront must maintain a massive inventory of parts, enough spares to account for every upgrade and all minor changes in each manufacturer’s products – an expensive prospect.

But, Majors suggested, consider the customer’s position. “Once you send a job to a data recovery company, they can tell you whatever they want about the pricing and what’s wrong with the system. A lot of people have felt like they’re being held hostage.”

Majors said he hopes these free fixes endear his company to the masses, and helps set a service standard that will pay off in customer loyalty.

“This definitely costs us money. (But) if we can help somebody when they have a small problem, they’re going to come to us when they have a large problem and our reputation by word-of-mouth will spread very quickly.”

John Temple, information systems manager at Accord Communications Inc., is fond of ActionFront’s modus operandi. He recently sent a notebook hard drive to ActionFront because he couldn’t access the information stored there. He couldn’t even get the computer to boot up. ActionFront got the data out, burned it onto a CD and sent it all back to Accord in less than 24 hours.

As for what ActionFront did to discover the notebook’s secret, “I have no idea,” Temple said. “But they were fast and they appeared to know what they were doing.”

The free fix is supposed to bring customers back to ActionFront time and again. But, Majors said, it’s also supposed to prove to hard drive manufacturers how client-friendly his company is.

Drive makers tend to suggest certain data recovery firms, so the manufacturer itself isn’t held accountable if the disk goes boom.

If they’re chosen for the maker’s list, companies like ActionFront are allowed to crack the seal on hard drives still under warranty without penalty to the end-user.

Majors said it’s important to show drive makers how reliable and customer-oriented a data recovery firm ActionFront is.

Jim Case, the manager of customer relations at Western Digital Corp., agreed. ActionFront is on Western Digital’s list of suggested data recovery companies. However, Case was sceptical about ActionFront’s free fixes, which he figures are easier said than done.

“It’s a good policy, but it’s hard to do. If it’s a spindle motor or they have to replace a part, that’s going to take more than an hour. I’ve heard of disk recoveries taking weeks.”

But in Majors’ experience, a fair number of jobs require just a few minutes of bench work. When Network World Canada interviewed him, Majors said ActionFront had completed 400 free fixes since November.

He added that the thing to keep in mind is people’s perceptions: if ActionFront can prove itself by action, instead of words, perhaps customers won’t be annoyed by the data-recovery process after all.

Case had another suggestion: if users simply learned to back up their data regularly, they’d have no need for services from the likes of ActionFront.