Readers Rate Service Support

Nov. 5, 2010
An Automation World survey on user satisfaction levels for both hardware and software support produced results that surprised some automation suppliers.

Maintaining automation and squeezing ever-more productivity from it requires a number of technically savvy hardware and software specialists these days. Because hiring more of these people is never in the budget, automation professionals have been increasingly turning to their suppliers for the expertise necessary to maintain their companies’ huge investments in hardware and software.

But is the service and support that they are receiving satisfactory? Are manufacturing companies really getting what they need from their suppliers? To find out, Automation World surveyed its readers electronically in August, asking them whether they are satisfied with the support that they have been receiving. Not only does this special report present the results, but it also explains how suppliers view the data.

To conduct the study, Automation World recruited participants by publishing an invitation in an e-newsletter that it publishes several times a week (go to to subscribe). The invitation appeared twice as a regular news item that included a link to a Web-based survey on SurveyMonkey and promised that participants would be automatically enrolled in a drawing for an iPod touch. In all, a total of 260 responded.

When participants arrived at the Web site, they were asked nine questions. The first asked whether they work for a manufacturing or production facility or for a machine designer or builder. The next three questions asked about hardware—whether they are satisfied with their suppliers’ product support, what they like about their policies and actions, and what suppliers could do better. The next three questions repeated the questions for software support, and the last two asked whether this writer could contact them.

Of the 260 respondents, 70 percent work for manufacturing or production facilities, and the remaining 30 percent are employees of machine builders and designers. Overall, 78 percent said that they were satisfied with the support that they are receiving from their hardware suppliers, and 21 percent said that they are not. Responses from production facilities and machine builders were roughly the same: 79 percent of producers and 77 percent of builders expressed satisfaction, whereas 21 percent and 22 percent, respectively, expressed dissatisfaction.

The rates of satisfaction dropped noticeably for support from software suppliers, however. Overall, 70 percent of respondents report satisfaction, and 27 percent, dissatisfaction. Not only is the rate of satisfaction with software support 8 percentage points lower than that for hardware support, but the rate of dissatisfaction is 6 percentage points higher. As was the case for hardware support, the rates of satisfaction are roughly the same among both producers and builders, at 69 percent and 71 percent, respectively. But the rates of dissatisfaction are slightly higher at production facilities: 28 percent to 24 percent.

Overall, “80 percent is a good number,” says Gary Klosak, the very satisfied information technology director at Chicago-based Kolcraft Enterprises Inc., a global manufacturer of toys and baby products. Although the score suggests that service and support in the automation industry as a whole have room to improve, “it is saying most vendors are meeting requirements.”

Surprise, surprise

Even so, the statistics have generated a fair amount of surprise both here at Automation World and among the suppliers, albeit for different reasons. “The results were much more positive than I expected,” admits Gary Mintchell, editor in chief of this magazine. His recollection from a little more than a decade ago when he worked in manufacturing is that users typically complain a lot about the price and availability of support, especially for software. He is gratified to find that the situation has improved.

On the other hand, some of the large automation manufacturers whom we recruited to comment on the survey results were surprised to see satisfaction so low. “We are just not used to seeing such low levels,” says Al Corcoran, marketing manager for technical service and support at supplier Siemens Industry Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga. In his internal surveys, his customers rate satisfaction in the high 90s. Milwaukee-based automation and controls vendor Rockwell Automation Inc. reports similar results.

Corcoran, at Siemens, makes an important point about method. “Clearly, the survey methodology will affect results,” he says. Unlike the informal survey conducted by this magazine, his surveys are more formal, administered by a third party and generated randomly from cases that have been closed. “We receive a 41 percent return rate on our surveys, which translates into roughly 14,000 responses per year.”

As surprised as automation manufacturers are by the low satisfaction levels in the survey just conducted by Automation World, they are not surprised to see less satisfaction for software support. “Hardware is a little bit more tangible,” explains Blake Moret, Rockwell Automation’s vice president and general manager of customer support and maintenance business. “Generally, hardware either works or it doesn’t.”

Unlike most hardware, software for industrial automation tends to be more susceptible to individual applications. “Software is always going to be very heavily dependent on the number of stations, tags, screens and so on,” notes Moret. “A system that is loaded too heavily sometimes will not work well without redesigning substantial parts of it.”

Another source of frustration is that software often involves unseen entities that change over time. “You’re dealing with databases and files that can be corrupted,” explains Brent Lilienthal, general manager of service at automation vendor Yokogawa Corp. of America, based in Sugar Land, Texas.

The growing complexity of software over the years has only increased these sorts of problems. Like other companies, software developers have turned to outsourcing in order to offer more capability for less money. Most now buy their operating systems, human-machine interfaces (HMIs) and databases from third-party experts. Even though two vendors may use the same operating system, for example, one may have a slightly different way of interacting with it. “So you can download a patch that works just fine for one control system, but not for the other one,” says Lilienthal.

Hardware-support results

Some interesting trends stand out when one digs deeper into the survey and looks at the open-ended comments made by the respondents. For example, one would expect the cost of hardware support to be a top concern, but it was on the minds of only 7 percent of respondents who took the time to write comments. The biggest group—13 percent—came from dissatisfied production facilities. Among the satisfied, 10 percent of builders and only 6 percent of production facilities cited cost as a concern. No dissatisfied equipment builders listed price among their complaints.

The biggest concern across the board for hardware support was the ability to get the necessary service when it is needed. Some 15 percent of all respondents, for example, cited response and delivery times as a concern. Dissatisfied respondents did so more than twice as often. Of the dissatisfied respondents, 27 percent said that hardware vendors could improve response and delivery times, whereas 12 percent of satisfied respondents said so.

The issue, moreover, seems to be of greater concern at production facilities than at builders. By a margin of 32 percent to 18 percent, dissatisfied production facilities almost twice as often cited response times as a problem. About 13 percent of satisfied producers gave the same response, and only 8 percent of satisfied builders did.

The opposite was true for complaints about the stock that suppliers carry in their inventories. About 12 percent of dissatisfied builders and 5 percent of dissatisfied production facilities noted insufficient stock by name. “It seems like no one stocks what they put in their catalogs anymore,” says one dissatisfied respondent at a production facility who asked not to be identified. Only 3 percent of both satisfied builders and producers reported the same problem.

Getting to a person who was technically competent enough to offer the required assistance was a related problem for 15 percent of dissatisfied respondents but for only 2 percent of satisfied ones. As a group, dissatisfied builders found this to be more of a problem than did dissatisfied production facilities. About 35 percent of them identified this as a problem, whereas only 5 percent of dissatisfied production facilities did.

One of those dissatisfied builders is Clay Bodenheimer, senior electrical engineer at Spiroflow Systems Inc., a builder of material handling equipment in Monroe, N.C. Communication hardware seems to be at the core of his frustrations. He finds it to be one of the most misunderstood components of any system from the various suppliers that his company uses. “It is one of the fastest changing,” he notes. “This leads to a lot of confusion.”

A related response was a desire for either more or better communications with their hardware suppliers. This time, it was the production facilities that took the lead. About 16 percent of dissatisfied production facilities and no dissatisfied builders identified this desire by name. Similarly, 5 percent of satisfied production facilities and 2 percent of satisfied builders want their hardware suppliers to be more proactive in offering them advice on preventing obsolescence and getting the most from their products.

Another recommendation on the radar screen is improving the documentation of product specifications and the publishing of technical bulletins. About 6 percent of satisfied respondents and 9 percent of their dissatisfied counterparts cite documentation as something that their suppliers could do better in both paper and electronic formats. Builders seem to be more concerned about it than production facilities: 12 percent of dissatisfied builders and 10 percent of the satisfied found fault with the information, whereas only 8 percent of dissatisfied production facilities and 4 percent of the satisfied cited it as a problem.

Software-support results

When asked what their software suppliers could do better to support them, participants responded most commonly by citing a need for shorter response times, streamlined access to knowledgeable people, better manuals and lower prices. At a much lower frequency, they also expressed a desire for more communications with the vendor and noted concerns over the complexity of software products and the upward compatibility of upgrades.

These trends were most pronounced among those who reported dissatisfaction with software support. The most common complaints in this group were response time and difficulty in getting ahold of people who were knowledgeable enough to solve their problems. About 20 percent complained about their difficulties in getting ahold of knowledgeable people, and 16 percent did the same for response times. Only 3 percent and 5 percent of the satisfied respondents made the same complaints.

“Whether it’s remote support or field support, customers want to get to a knowledgeable person as quickly as possible,” says Moret at Rockwell Automation. “They resent having to go through multiple stages of lower-level support.”

For this reason, his business unit and many of his competitors have flattened the process through a callback mechanism. A troubled user still leaves the pertinent symptoms and contact information with a customer service agent. Afterward, though, the user hangs up, and a triage occurs behind the scenes. “We identify the closest appropriate resource,” explains Moret. “Before showing up on site, however, our resource will call the customer just to confirm that he understands the nature of the problem and to let the customer know that help is coming.”

This avoids the ill will that was often generated in the past by a technician arriving unprepared to solve the problem and having to return later—or even worse, by a technician with the wrong skills arriving on site and appearing to be incompetent. “Early communication between technical resources on both sides has increased customer satisfaction,” reports Moret.

Although other open-end responses were fewer in number, they also follow some interesting trends. By a margin of 9 percent to 6 percent, for example, those who reported dissatisfaction with software support were 50 percent more likely than their satisfied counterparts to express a desire for lower prices.

The satisfied, on the other hand, were twice as likely to express a desire for better manuals and other forms of documentation and to want more communications with their vendors. Moret attributes these desires to the good advice that they have been receiving from their vendors’ support teams. To satisfy this demand, his business group has been developing specialized consulting services for such fields as machine safety and performance, and training assessments.

Although a small number of respondents mentioned the upward compatibility of upgrades, the dissatisfied were four times as likely to complain about it, by a margin of 4 percent to 1 percent. Almost the same ratio of respondents also brought up complexity of software (3 percent to 1 percent) and bugs and the reliability of the product (7 percent to 2 percent). The consensus in the latter group is that too many software vendors rush untested products to market and expect their customers to pay for the testing and debugging.

At Spiroflow, Bodenheimer’s dissatisfaction with one vendor of programmable automation controllers (PACs) lies largely with its updates to the programming software. Because its updates often create new problems, the vendor has built in ways to go back to earlier versions. “I like it when my suppliers have automatic updates and let me know what the updates fix,” he says.

Another satisfied respondent, a producer who declined to be identified, summarized another underlying sentiment running throughout the commentary. He recommended that software developers leave their egos at the door. “Software guys, in particular, like to show how clever they are,” he wrote. “However, that typically does not lead to supportable software. Simple is better.”

Secrets to success

Although Klosak at toy-maker Kolcraft might agree in principle, he notes that complexity and customization are facts of life for useful software. “Unless you buy custom software, it will never be exactly what you are looking for,” he notes. “Everything that you buy off the shelf has to be tailored or tweaked for your operation.”

For this reason, he invests a lot of time up front into ensuring that those tweaks and the service afterward are what his company needs. Before installing new manufacturing resource planning (MRP), product data management (PDM), and product lifecycle management (PLM) systems over the last five years, he began meeting with engineering, finance, manufacturing, maintenance and other work groups within his organization a few months before contacting any vendors. “Once the shopping started, we had everything that we needed at the top of our list,” he says.

“I took them to some demonstrations and made sure that the hardware and the software that I was selecting met the requirements of all the end-users and support groups in my organization,” he continues. “And it never hurts for order-entry clerks, shop-floor technicians and other end-users to associate names with faces. So whenever service technicians come out to visit, they can get right down to business.”

Because Kolcraft is a global organization, it needs software support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “When I looked for a support package, I leveraged my whole organization against the vendors,” says Klosak. The exception was Microsoft Corp., the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, because he knew that reliable 24-7 support is available from that vendor on a per-instance basis.

For hardware support, he went to small value-added resellers. “I deal with the smaller VARs because they tend to treat you with more of a personal touch,” he says. He adds that the global economic crunch has inspired a lot of creativity in these circles.

Big automation manufacturers, however, report that they too have been unrolling creative ways to offer more support at lower cost. Most of them involve the Internet—such as access to video tips and various kinds of remote support.

“To improve their experience, we encourage customers to use our Online Support Request,” says Corcoran at Siemens. “We find that the initial information that we receive from customers is much more complete and concise.” This method, moreover, allows attaching screen captures, log files and actual code. This combination both streamlines the resolution of problems and boosts satisfaction among users.

To deliver even more service faster and cheaper, many automation manufacturers are investing in the infrastructure necessary to offer various levels of remote monitoring and diagnostic services. Not only does this kind of service decrease response time and increase customer satisfaction, but it also permits highly knowledgeable engineers and technicians to “visit” multiple installations in one day, thereby holding costs down.

Lilienthal reports that Yokogawa is also investing in the infrastructure that would allow its hardware to monitor its own health. As a problem develops, a device would report it to one of the experts over a secure Internet connection. “We would then be able to notify the customer and ask whether we should go ahead and solve it,” he says.

Because remote monitoring is fairly new, it is taking a while to catch on. “Clients are usually nervous about giving Internet access into their facilities,” explains Lilienthal. “And it requires two completely separate pieces of the organization to buy in—the operational side and the IT (information technology) department.”

He reports that, at one global company that has recently given the green light to the idea, just convincing both sides that the connection is, in fact, secure, took a year. Yet he is confident that industry-wide satisfaction levels will only continue to rise as more users learn to exploit the proactive support services made possible by the technology.

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About the Author

James R. Koelsch, contributing writer | Contributing Editor

Since Jim Koelsch graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, he has spent more than 35 years reporting on various kinds of manufacturing technology. His publishing experience includes stints as a staff editor on Production Engineering (later called Automation) at Penton Publishing and as editor of Manufacturing Engineering at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. After moving to freelance writing in 1997, Jim has contributed to many other media sites, foremost among them has been Automation World, which has been benefiting from his insights since 2004.

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