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Lotus's goal: To serve and support

IBM's Louis V. Gerstner got the heartiest round of applause at the Lotusphere trade show by pledging to "fix the Lotus service and support problem."

ORLANDO, Florida--After four days of new product announcements at the annual Lotusphere trade show here, it turns out that the heartiest round of applause went out Monday. That's when IBM's (IBM) chairman Louis V. Gerstner pledged to "fix the Lotus service and support problem."

While the audience was generally enthusiastic about new products unveiled here this week, attendees were most excited about the promise of decent support on existing products, a fact that illustrates just how bad Lotus support is right now.

Gerstner outlined plans to build a new World Support Center in Lotus's hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and add support for Lotus products at IBM's offices.

He also said Lotus will deploy IBM-style critical situation management teams and a Lotus emergency response team, ready to race to customer sites whenever code changes are too urgent to await future software releases.

Users cheered, but insiders are skeptical about how quickly the new services will roll out, or even if they'll really materialize at all.

Service and support issues have clearly concerned Lotus and its parent company--and its growing roster of customers--for the Notes groupware flagship. Lotus said it more than doubled the number of Notes seats last year, bringing the installed base to more than 9 million worldwide. Company executives are predicting they will double the number of worldwide Notes users again this year.

While the company's momentum in the marketplace is great for the balance sheet, it will continue to raise service demands by dramatic levels during the next few years.

"They have some aggressive growth targets [for next year.] The question is, can they support it?" said Ian Campbell, an analyst with market research firm International Data Corporation. He asks if the company will have the infrastructure in place in time.

Building a large-scale customer service operation will take Lotus at least 18 months, estimates Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research.

"[Lotus is] going to anger a lot of people over the next year" as it struggles with building a service operation reflective of its growing list of customers, according to Brown. But, to be fair, he pointed out that Lotus is not the only company with a problem in this area.

"I hear more complaints [about service] regarding Netscape Communications," he added, referring to the company that many industry insiders expect to give Lotus and Microsoft a competitive run for groupware market share when it introduces products later this year.

Some Lotus executives feel the company isn't being judged totally fairly. Expectations may be rising even faster than service problems, suggested Lotus strategist Mike Zisman, now that Lotus is part of a global company known for its emphasis on solving customers' problems and solving them fast.

"I'm not suggesting that we don't have support problems, but the real issue is one of raising the bar" to the level maintained by IBM, a clearly rankled Zisman told reporters Monday.

Lotus has already taken steps to engineer a worldwide customer support operation that will provide customers with rapid and consistent help. A few weeks ago, Jim Krzywicki, a Lotus vice president, was reassigned from his post at Lotus Education to tackle the job of growing the company's worldwide service and support operations.

The company also has set up LotusLink, an applications suite that can be used to troubleshoot common problems. It also has online support via its Web site and over special telephone lines. Lotus officials also said they are always on the lookout for independent software developers and systems integrators interested in taking some service and support problems off their hands.

One such business partner, GWI Software, was awarded a Lotus Beacon Award this week for its Help Notes and Domino help desk application. The Vancouver, Washington-based developer has already sold to the IS departments of 150 companies, according to Lotus.

But Gerstner's comments seem to indicate that Lotus will emulate IBM's in-house approach, at least to some extent. That might improve its service record, but such an approach would provide a lucrative revenue stream for Lotus. Service has been one of the the biggest sources of revenue for IBM for many years.