HP, Dell Tie on Computer Support Services

A new survey by Technology Business Research shows that it's tough to tell the top computer makers apart when it comes to the level of service they provide. The companies tied for second place behind in-house support.

When it comes to computers, good service is getting harder to define.

Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. were neck-and-neck in customer satisfaction during the first quarter, shows a new study by TBR (Technology Business Research Inc.), of Hampton, N.H.

The survey, released Friday, polled 648 IT managers at 422 companies in North America on their satisfaction with service and support provided by the three largest computer companies—Dell, HP and IBM—as well as by in-house groups.

The resulting report, which measures services ranging from telephone support to parts availability as well as respondents overall satisfaction, paints a picture of how those responsible for purchasing the support services from Dell, HP and IBM feel about what theyre getting. These days, they seem to be having a harder time telling the big three apart.

Dell stayed nearly the same in the first quarter, with a score of 82.1 out of 100 possible points. HP scored an 81.7. Because their scores are within 1 percent of each other—TBR considers a difference of 1 percent or greater or a change in score of 1 percent or more to be meaningful—the two remained tied for second place behind in-house support.

IBM Global Services, meanwhile, came in with a rating of 79.6. As is most often the case, companies in-house support scored the highest of all, at 85.3 out of 100. As in-house support represents an ideal, TBR uses it as a benchmark.

Some small movements did occur during the quarter, with TBRs adjusted scores showing that Dell inched up by just over two tenths of a percentage point and IBM rose by almost seven tenths of a point, while HP slipped by almost seven tenths. But still, the difference between the big three, as perceived by survey participants, remains fairly small, said Julie Perron, manager of primary research at TBR.

One reason is because certain areas of service and support, such as fixing broken hardware on-site, have become commoditized. At times, the big three all use the same field-service techs to execute repairs. The report, as a result, shows little difference in satisfaction with the three companies break/fix services.

But because of the similarities among their services, one of the main differentiators between the three has become price. HP and IBM have responded with new pricing to try to compete with Dell as of late. But there is a "continuing lack of services differentiation," Perron said. "Price is the main differentiator [among the three]—and even that isnt always evident."

Thus TBR is recommends that the big three look elsewhere to try to break out of the pack. One potential avenue is to boost the amount of automation, including providing customers with automated diagnostics software.

But that doesnt mean that things such as traditional telephone support, which has been a sore point with many in the past, cant also be improved, the companys report said.

Phone support was a major factor in a 2004 support ratings slip by Dell. The Round Rock, Texas, company, saw its satisfaction ratings dip dramatically enough to cost it the lead rating to HP for the first time since the study began in 2000. Dell has since recovered, and there is some evidence that the first-quarter deadlock for second place behind in-house support may be coming to an end.

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Dell and HP are taking different paths. Dell, in one example, is working to bring on more experienced, company-employed field representatives who can help differentiate it by working on more complicated jobs. HP, for its part, has been expanding the use of automated diagnostic software, according to TBR.

"For the past year, Dells advantage regarding the value of its services hadnt been as evident as it had been in the past. But we did see it come back this quarter," Perron said. But "more recently—in looking at the January-to-March interviews and some through May—it looks like HP services may be weakening a little bit."

HPs rating may be wavering because of cost-cutting, she said. But the Palo Alto, Calif., company also may be exhibiting some growing pains from switching to automated tools. The change, which will work to reduce the number of site visits HP has to make, ultimately could lead to satisfaction gains, Perron said.

That "sounds like a really good approach," she said. So, "it may just be that customers are getting used to that or theyre starting to implement it."

TBR has just begun to track automated tools as well as managed services, which include offerings such as providing cradle-to-grave management for PCs, within the first-quarter report. Improvements there also could make differences in future reports, Perron said.

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