CA WORLD - Customers: CA's service reforms are working

Efforts begun several years ago by Computer Associates International to improve its then-rocky relationship with its customers appear to be paying off, as attendees at this year's CA World overwhelmingly report satisfaction in their dealings with the software vendor.

Computer specialist Erika Pierce said her organization, the U.S. General Services Administration, used to have trouble getting problems resolved but in the past year has seen a "night and day" change in the way CA responds. She was impressed with the emphasis CA executives, particularly Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sanjay Kumar, placed at the show upon improving customer service.

"He spoke with such passion about it," she said following Kumar's Sunday evening keynote.

Likewise, Texas Instruments Inc. senior systems programmer/analyst Sheila Wright said that while the troubleshooting skills of CA's "level one" technical support staff are sometimes lacking, problems are always quickly resolved once they're elevated up the support chain.

"Getting there can be a bit tricky," she said, "but once you get through, they know right away what to do."

Systems integrator Nivis LLC, based in Atlanta, signed on as a CA customer last year and has had no problems since, said CEO Marius Ovidiu Chilom. After spending more than a year evaluating Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView and IBM Corp.'s Tivoli, Nivis selected CA's Unicenter to manage its networks after a three-month trial.

When Nivis encounters Unicenter problems, it makes just one call to a customer management director at CA, who then organizes a project team, Chilom said. That team is generally able to resolve issues within a day.

For example, Nivis recently hit a snag upgrading its Linux systems when it encountered on one older machine data that could not be upgraded or transferred to a new machine. Nivis needed an agent residing on the old machine to pull data and feed it to the new machine. With the help of CA's technicians, the agent was created and deployed by the next morning, Chilom said.

Analyst Michael Dortch of the Robert Frances Group said he's hearing from many customers that customer service problems at CA are now a thing of the past.

"You don't become the number three software company in the world for long by annoying your customers. You might get there, but you don't stay there," Dortch said.

CA gained heft in the 1990s by buying many of its competitors, a strategy that left it trailing only Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. as a software behemoth, but alienated some customers who were unhappy with shifting support teams and CA's sales tactics. The serial acquisitions also led to charges CA couldn't internally create compelling products.

CA recognized it had a problem and has been actively working to correct it, Kumar said earlier this week in an interview.

Two years ago, it created the worldwide Client Relations Organization (CRO), a unit that interacts with every CA customer. Last year, it began withholding 20 percent to 25 percent of its sales employees' compensation for product sales until after customers report to the CRO that they're happy with the software's initial installation.

The internal reorganization of CA announced this week also plays into its desire to better meet its customer needs, Kumar said: One goal of the shakeup is to make CA more responsive to customer requirements for software features and functionality.

"There is a shorter path now from the customer all the way to somebody who is responsible for that product business," Kumar said.

CA executives pointed to this year's CA World attendance as a sign of their customers' support despite the economic slump and slashed travel budgets. This year's attendance totals more than 10,000, according to a company representative, up from last year's, which the company last year said was about 10,000.

Although thousands turned out for keynote addresses and education sessions, few attendees were shopping on the show floor for add-on software and services.

Mark Kale, founder and chief technology officer of Minneapolis consulting firm Caribou Lake Software LLC, said that in the show's first three days he swiped nine badges from attendees requesting more information on his firm's services. A nearby vendor reported talking to 30 people and obtaining three solid leads during the show, while a representative of storage networking hardware and software maker QLogic Corp. said he'd spoken with "four or five" people per hour.

Most of the exhibition floor was taken up by a sprawling CA exhibit encompassing dozens of kiosks and demonstrations. Less than 100 third-party vendors were scattered around the floor's perimeter. Although several major companies, such as Microsoft Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp., returned to CA World after participating last year, other former exhibitors opted out, including Palm Inc., Vignette Corp. and Oracle Corp.

Representatives from Palm and Vignette said their companies chose to spend their marketing money elsewhere this year but may go to future CA World shows. An Oracle spokeswoman said her company no longer exhibits on the floor of other vendors' trade shows. Oracle was still participating in CA World, she noted, and had representatives presenting at several of the show's sessions.

Technical glitches and dropping attendance -- 2001's turnout was half of 2000's -- dissuaded some of last year's vendors from making a return appearance.

"There's no way I was attending that mess this year," said Tim Tuomey, an area sales manager at Intertec America, in a telephone interview before the show. Last year's logistical problems only compounded Intertec's dissatisfaction with CA, he said, noting that many of Intertec's clients remain unhappy with CA's customer service and sales practices. He isn't convinced by CA's professed changes and commitment to keeping customers satisfied.

"They said that back in '93, said it again in '98, and continue to say it year in and year out," he said.

But many on the floor said they're happy working with CA and pleased with the CA World show despite the sparse exhibition floor crowd.

"The quality of the leads is a lot better than last year," said Software Pursuits Inc. Director of Sales Brett McCosker. QLogic's Troy Christopherson agreed, calling this year's crowd "more knowledgeable" than last year's.

After two years in Orlando, CA World will migrate west for next year's show, planned for July 2003 in Las Vegas. Scheduling considerations and user groups' requests for a new locale prompted the change, Kumar said.

Given the trials CA has endured in the past year, a trip to the Sin City and a bit of luck may be just what the company needs.

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