Nice Guys Finish First

— September 01, 2006

With little left to differentiate their products, mobile computing vendors should be vying for customers' attention the old-fashioned way: By offering service with a smile.

"In terms of performance, functionality and price, a lot of this hardware is increasingly less differentiated," says David Krebs, director of mobile and wireless practice at technology
market research firm Venture Development Corp. (VDC). "What is left in terms of evaluating vendors? Clearly service is a major contributor."

According to recent market observations and customer satisfaction data, VDC found that many customers' purchase decisions are increasingly driven by vendors' service capabilities--but satisfaction in those services ranks low. "According to end users, no one is really excelling with regard to their service capabilities," notes Krebs. "This is an opportunity for vendors to provide differentiation."

Customer service ratings for the top rugged and commercial-grade vendors show little variation among companies, although overall satisfaction has increased over the past year, says Krebs. Intermec and Panasonic received the highest service/support rating among rugged mobile computer vendors. On a scale of 1 to 6 (where 1 = poor and 6 = exceptional), Intermec scored 4.6, up from 4.4 in 2005, while Panasonic scored 4.5, up from 4.4 in 2005.

Service offerings can vary considerably in terms of regional and global coverage and how many countries have authorized service centers, notes Krebs. Intermec has expanded its global services footprint and offers certified services in more than 70 countries.

Panasonic has one of the most expansive service networks, relying on partners and internal depots. The company's service solutions emphasize technical support and break/fix services. Many of its major global customers include global service obligations as part of their contracts.
Symbol, which received a rating of 4.3 for service/support, recently introduced new service guarantees on some of its products, says Krebs. "It's a 'no questions asked' policy with regard to maintenance and break/fix services." The company has also reclaimed maintenance services from its channel partners and opened two new service centers.

In comparison to the rugged computer vendors, commercial-grade vendors Dell and HP have been aggressively pushing three-year bumper-to-bumper warranties that compete with Panasonic and Itronix. "That's resonated among end users," says Krebs, "but there's fine print even in those programs in regard to what's covered and what isn't."

Krebs urges customers to read the fine print: "Although a lot of vendors tout broad service solutions, there are limitations to some of these programs." Customers should look at the service record in terms of how long repairs take, how close the service center is and what the process is for receiving services," he says. "At the end of the day, the investment in service solutions should benefit the customer." //

Kassandra Kania was an editor at Field Force Automation magazine.

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