Dell looks to serve the small fry

The computer maker launches a new program to help small businesses manage computer networks, offering them on-site tech consultants and support for gear from other manufacturers.

Dell Computer is trying to be a better buddy to the little guy.

The computer maker on Monday announced a new program to help small businesses buy, install and manage computer networks. For the first time, Dell will provide on-site technology consultants to assess a small company's network needs, install networking gear, provide online training programs, and offer support for networking equipment made by other manufacturers.

The program, which begins with a consultation at a starting price of $199, is aimed at small-business owners who are eager to get an effective computer system in place, but are unsure where to turn to for advice, said Chris Hilderbrand, Dell's manager of small and medium business services.

Dell customers often have asked the company to play the role of networking expert, Hilderbrand said. "They're telling us, 'We need help'...They want Dell to do it."

As part of the program, the computer maker will enlist third-party companies, such as Austin, Texas-based TechSolve, to do on-site consulting. Dell's training software, which costs $99 per employee per year, gives workers access to online courses for 340 applications.

Dell is trying to tap into a lucrative market. Worldwide spending on IT services by businesses with less than 100 employees will total $31.7 billion in 2002, according to consulting firm Access Markets International (AMI) Partners. Although that figure represents a decrease from 2001, spending on local area networks will likely reach $48.2 billion in 2002, up 15 percent year over year, AMI said.

"There is substantial money to be made by vendors in the (small-business) space," said Eric Shuster, AMI managing director. "This particular revenue opportunity will not be captured by deploying large enterprise service models, but rather through skilled, service-minded networks at the local level."

Dell is not alone in trying to appeal to small businesses. Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Cisco Systems all have programs targeting small- and medium-sized companies. Cisco, a giant in the networking sector, sells billions of dollars of gear annually to small and midsized businesses. Like Dell, Cisco has a network of local partners to provide on-site consulting. Hewlett-Packard also has a network to serve small businesses and offers computer training in specific industries such as real estate.

Hilderbrand said Dell's focus on small businesses will help it stand out from the pack. For example, because of Dell's relationship with local partners, small-business customers can obtain the network of their choosing in two to three weeks. That timeline is very different from large corporations, which are used to working on planning cycles of four to six months, he said.

Dell's new service is part of a multiphase launch. The next step is a centralized help desk to be offered in early 2003. With the new help desk, if a customer were to ask a detailed question about Excel, for instance, Dell would provide the answer instead of forcing the person to hang up and call Microsoft's customer support number.

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