Oracle users wary Web-based support plan

Oracle is moving its technical support services to the Web, but customers are skeptical that the change will do them good.

Attendees at the International Oracle Users Group - Americas meeting here last week told Oracle support services executives that they don't want their phone privileges taken away.

"I'm reluctant to use [the online system]," said Jerry Webb, Oracle support project manager for the computer operations division at Deere & Co. in Moline, Illinois. "With the phone, at least I get to talk to somebody, even after being put on hold."

Oracle has a big incentive to move support onto the Web. It has attributed a $1 billion cost reduction for last year to the use of its own e-commerce applications companywide - a feat it would like to repeat.

For about a year, Oracle has offered Metalink, an online system that lets users contact customer support analysts and access technical documents.

Attendees said Metalink isn't as effective as voice-to-voice contact with Oracle technical analysts, even though callers are often left on hold for long stretches. Skeptical users also complained of frequent downtime with the current system.

According to Oracle support services senior manager Dave Muirhead, a second server has been purchased and will be configured to mirror the existing server to eliminate downtime altogether.

And in keeping with the companywide campaign to do business on the Web, Metalink will be bolstered by the addition of Oracle's own electronic customer relationship management (ECRM) applications.

The ECRM technology will boost the system's ability to maintain searchable documents and handle greater traffic, according to Oracle. The upgrade is scheduled to begin in November and will continue incrementally through the rest of the year. Once it's in place, users will need to go online first to initiate a service request, rather than go to the phone.

User should gain a higher success rate, faster resolution and a richer, centralized database of support information, according to Oracle.

Mark Graham, database administrator and webmaster at Compaq Computer's professional services division in Houston, said he was concerned about how assistance-request routing will be prioritised under the new system.

"Some junior [database administrators] will have high-profile problems," he said, and will need contact with experienced analysts rather than equally junior support staff.

Terry Palanca, an analyst at Giga Information Group, said other firms have tried to apply self-serve aspects to customer support, with mixed success. "A level of self-service is great for known issues, but undocumented, unique problems cannot be solved in a self-service environment,'' she said.

Muirhead acknowledged that users' trepidation was reasonable but asked that they be patient during the transition.

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