Offshore tech support still stirs controversy

Dell Inc. last week announced a three-year contract to manage 57,000 desktop and laptop PCs in the U.S. for Honeywell International Inc., expanding a deal under which Dell already manages 16,000 Honeywell PCs in Europe.

About 18 months ago, Dell said it had stopped routing most technical support calls from U.S. corporate users to a facility in India after some customers complained about the quality of the help they received. The company didn’t completely end its use of offshore help desk services for U.S.-based users. But at least in regard to Honeywell, technical support will be delivered from sites in the U.S., according to Dell.

Honeywell deferred questions on the support issue to Dell. Bob Kaufman, a Dell spokesman, said the company’s help desk support plan for Honeywell is consistent with its overall goal of providing services based on customer needs and proximity.

A sensitive issue

For some IT managers, using offshore operations to provide telephone support remains a thorny issue. For example, when Emmanuel Ramos, CIO at Resun Corp., a modular building maker in Dulles, Va., considered outsourcing his desktop support last year, one of the first questions he asked prospective vendors was whether their help desks were located in North America. Ramos said he didn’t want to risk upsetting his users.

Fremont, Calif.-based Everdream Corp., the desktop managed services provider that Ramos picked, had started offshore support operations in Costa Rica. But Everdream CEO Gary Griffiths said he closed the offshore centre there a year ago, after deciding that sending technical support offshore could hurt customer relations.

Curtis Helsel, vice-president of data and technology management at the University of Colorado Foundation in Boulder, Colo., said his experience with offshore customer support on personal IT matters has led him to believe that communication can be difficult. The foundation uses a managed services provider, San Jose-based centreBeam Inc., that operates a help desk in Saint John, N.B.

Regardless of such views, though, offshore outsourcing of technical support is increasing, according to Marcus Courtney, president of the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, Communications Workers of America. “What I see is an expansion of companies moving their corporate help desk overseas,” Courtney said.

Reports of failures in offshore support services operations are “exceptions,” said B. Ramalinga Raju, founder and chairman of Hyderabad, India-based Satyam Computer Services Ltd., which provides help desk support and other IT services. “There are many examples of this being successful.”

While in India last week, Dell CEO Kevin Rollins the company plans to increase the number of workers at its call centres and software development operations there to 10,000 by year’s end. Dell now has between 7,000 and 8,000 employees in India.

Kaufman stressed that all of Dell’s support workers are trained to meet the same standards, “no matter where they sit.” The location of staffers chosen to support certain customers depends on factors such as time zones, he said, adding that Dell supports U.S. business customers from facilities located in the U.S. as well as in countries such as India and Panama.

Robert Schoening, CIO at Pathmark Stores Inc., which operates 142 supermarkets in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia metro areas, said dealing with offshore help desks on personal issues “can get frustrating.”

But Schoening, whose Carteret, N.J.-based company last week said it had signed a seven-year agreement to renew an outsourcing deal with IBM, added that he thinks offshore support could work. If IBM “thought it could be done efficiently and effectively, I’m not sure that I would have problems — partly because it’s hard to staff help desks,” Schoening said. “It’s a high burnout rate. . . . People don’t like to do that job.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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