When IBM (IBM) chairman Louis Gerstner promised to improve customer service at its Lotus Development subsidiary four months ago, customers cheered, and the thunder of clapping hands set changes in motion that will bear fruit next month.
In June, the company will offer to customers who pay for its top-tier support plan a new competency center to provide testing and simulation of planned systems, said James Krzywicki, Lotus's vice president of worldwide customer support and education.
Lotus's top-tier support plan, called the Enterprise Support program, serves the company's 200 largest customers and costs $165,000 a year.
The center, to be based in Massachusetts, will also offer Lotus's large corporate customers with custom help fixing bugs and changing code to keep their mission-critical applications up and running, Krzywicki said.
Namrita Sethi, a senior analyst at International Data Corporation said the new service will be well received by Lotus customers.
"Companies are realizing that if there is downtime it directly impacts their profitability," said Sethi
"It's really crucial to keep a competitive advantage for companies like Lotus," Sethi said. She noted Lotus's rivals in the groupware market, Netscape Communications, and Microsoft, have also recently moved to beef up enterprise service and support.
Krywicki said the company began work to revamp customer service and support as early as last October, months before Gerstner made the pledge at January's Lotusphere trade show. "We knew that we had some issues," said Krywicki. But, the audience response prompted company executives to step up the efforts, he said.
The company has also faced higher customer expectations since it was bought last year by IBM, a company that built its reputation on service and support. Since the merger, Lotus has seen sales of its flagship Notes and Domino groupware products skyrocket, creating new customer service challenges, he said.
According to Lotus, the number of installed seats of its Notes flagship product last year grew to 9 million, from 4.5 million a year earlier, which put serious pressure on its service network. Company executives hope to have some 18 million seats installed by the end of this year, which is creating further challenges, Krywicki said.
The center is part of a broader strategy that brings Lotus's support efforts closer under IBM's extensive service umbrella. For instance, the two companies have linked their customer call-in systems to offer one-stop support to customers who use both Lotus and IBM products.
Lotus has doubled its service and support budget this year compared to last year. Krzywicki would not disclose the exact amount of spending, but he did say annual spending has risen to the hundreds of millions of dollars. The company will add a total of about 300 new customer representatives to bring the total to about 1,000 support and service staff, he said.
The company has also set up an emergency response team at its Westford, Massachusetts, development lab. The office has six company engineers who keep packed suitcases next to their desks so they can get on a plane and offer on-site support when Lotus's largest customers experience serious problems with the software.
The company plans to set up smaller teams in a few key cities nationwide to be able to respond more rapidly to its largest customers.
The company is also beefing up its lower-end support, Lotus Link, which offers a combination of Web-based and call-center support. It is designed to deal with frequently asked questions, offer fixes to common problems, and help Lotus track customer information on problems and solutions.