|Customer service report: Security|
|Customers want hand-holding|
|You don't want to give a security vendor the keys to all your data. That makes it tricky to get good support.|
|By Gerald Lazar|
When it comes to providing support, the computer security industry seems to have engendered users with paranoia about looking to their vendors for guidance. But this industry has exceptions: some heroic acts and a few standouts.
Allusions to John Le Carre notwithstanding, computer and network security vendors frequently fall short on support. The industry has been consolidating in recent years, and customer service has often suffered.
Furthermore, antivirus products need constant updates as new viruses are identified. Users want those updates as quickly as possible, which can cause friction with the vendor. And not surprisingly, users don't want to acknowledge potential faults in their own systems.
"We really don't want people to know that there's been a problem with our security. It might give someone ideas," says one network administrator who works for a defense contractor.
"People are extremely touchy about security," says Steve Elliot,a network and systems management analyst with Dataquest Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "They want all their information and help up front, because of the topic area and how sensitive they are about it."
Complicating the quality of the support issue is that some users don't even want their vendors to know their exact security setup. For that reason, Elliot says, "many technology vendors are looking at a crunch in presales support. Users are demanding more, and sales needs customer service to be successful."
Complicating the picture even further, larger companies have been acquiring many of the security vendors. Cisco Systems Inc., Network Associates International Inc., and Axent Technologies Inc. have bought security suppliers in order to acquire their firewall products. Similarly, antivirus and encryption technologies are flowing upward to larger, general-purpose vendors.
When these companies expand by acquisition, "the need for customer support increases, too, but [vendors] often don't delegate the resources to it," Elliot says. This doesn't thrill customers.
"When Raptor [Systems Inc.] was acquired [by Axent Technologies], I almost had a heart attack," says a director of resource management. His company had gone with Raptor's firewall because one of its divisions was familiar with the product and the company. "We didn't know anything about the new company. We didn't know what we were getting into."
Axent had to work hard to make sure the user would be taken care of. "We were convinced that [Axent] really wouldn't affect the product," the director says. Since the acquisition, customer service has been credible, though not exceptional, he reports.
"More and more, firewalls and other security products are being sold as part of a package," says Phil Reed, network administrator for glassware maker Libbey Inc., in Toledo, Ohio. "I would rather have the ability to choose best of breed." Reed bought FireWall-1 from Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., in Redwood City, Calif., in part because it was sold as a stand-alone product.
Once a product is installed, users must rely on their vendors to provide frequent updates. That vulnerability makes users uncomfortable. Many would "prefer a little more help from the marketing side," in the form of information and hand-holding after the sale, one network administrator says. Libbey's Reed lauds Check Point's responsiveness to new security threats, citing one occasion when a patch arrived within 48 hours of an external threat being identified.
"Security users are looking for problem resolution, for a single point of contact, for technical expertise, and for access to their customer reps," says Dataquest's Elliot, adding that it's rare to find a company that will provide all four of those capabilities at once.
Larry Carroll, senior network administrator for East Texas Medical Center in Tyler, Texas, set up an Instant Instant firewall provided by his network vendor, Nortel Networks Corp., in Brampton, Ont. As network bandwidth increased, the firewall malfunctioned, and Carroll had difficulty locating the right support staff. Once he'd done so, "[support staff] were more than willing to work with us" to resolve the problem, Carroll says.
Gerald Lazar is a freelance writer in Tenafly, N.J. Each time he writes about computer security, he does a complete system backup and changes his PIN number.