Buying Auto ID technology can be a minefield...

What is it that your client is looking for when buying a new printer, scanner, or any piece of IT equipment? Is it the lowest price? Is it the best functionality? Is it the piece of kit with the most buttons? Or is it the best support package?

In reality its probably a combination of all of these variables. But while the first three categories can be easily evaluated, either through product specification, reviews or even a trial, the final variable, support, is much more difficult to research or test.

Todays purchaser isnt just looking for a product that delivers the lowest unit cost, they are looking for added value and a service that delivers tangible benefits.

To evaluate the maintenance requirements across the entire IT sector and deliver a sensible synopsis of what you should look for would take more pages than we have available - in fact it would probably need an interactive GUI to help decipher the Gigabytes of data you would need to trawl through to find a sensible solution.

So let us focus on one of the most competitive and critical markets in the IT industry - Auto ID and bar code equipment.

So, your client needs a lot of printers, scanners and the associated Auto ID equipment, and you start to look at what is right for them. You do your homework and find out which delivers the best cost per label, which has the functionality they require and which fall within the budgets. Now you have a shortlist and its time to make contact with the distributors or manufacturers to talk support packages. After all, you dont have the expertise in-house and youre certainly not going to employ someone full-time to maintain your clients printers.

However, this is not an area anyone can afford to neglect. Your clients printers and auto-ID systems are system critical and every minute of down-time hits their profit margins and your reputation in a very real way. So what do you need to look for in a maintenance package to enhance your solutions sale and professional reputation?

Neil Anderson, managing director of a leading Auto ID maintenance specialist Qcom Maintenance Ltd takes a more detailed look at your needs and creates a check-list of requirements.

Trained Engineers Does the service provider have fully trained and accredited engineers? Are they not only trained but experienced at working on this particular equipment? And are they used to working in appropriate environments do they have the right health and safety know-how for example, and have they been security cleared?

If the answer to these questions is either no or even vague - walk away. Would you let an unqualified dentist work on your teeth, or even let an unskilled mechanic fix your brakes?

Although this comparison is a little severe, the fact remains, your clients business depends on reliable systems, and down-time is extremely costly. So dont cut corners when it comes to trained engineers. Most reputable field engineers will be manufacturer accredited, which means they have all been independently assessed and achieved a suitable standard of competence available. And while we are on the subject of engineers, never underestimate the importance of professional and courteous staff in the field. They can really make the difference between average and great service.

Immediate response A reliable and efficient field engineer service is essential, but what if the problem can be resolved over the phone, wouldnt that reduce down-time further?

When you ask about the service contract, find out about the helpline, because sometimes a conversation with a trained engineer over the phone can mean a problem is fixed within minutes, or at least that they arrive on site with the right parts.

But if the problem cant be fixed over the phone then you need to be sure an engineer will respond immediately. So be clear at the start. Set an acceptable service level agreement and make sure they stick to it.

Right first time So youre thinking, a quick response is all well and good but if the problem isnt fixed correctly first time the problem might just continually recur or you could be left waiting days for a return visit. So ask the question of your service provider; what percentage of calls do you fix first-time? And if the answer isnt up in the nineties walk away.

If a service provider has the right team in place and has the right training they should be looking at a fix first time rate of 90 per cent or above. No-one can get it right every time, but you need to be sure that its at least nine times out of ten at the very least after all your customers expect the same standards from you, so why shouldnt you demand it from your suppliers.

Regular contact and feedback If you made the call to report a problem three hours ago and you havent heard anything in all that time then you probably want to know whats going on.

You have to be realistic things will go wrong from time to time. What is important is how these things are dealt with. Make sure that there is an escalation procedure in place to ensure that you are kept updated at every step of the process, even when there is very little to report. Small issues can quickly turn into big ones when customers dont know what is happening.

Parts and Back-up The worst case scenario in any maintenance situation is that the equipment cant be fixed on-site. When this happens you need to be sure that your service provider can respond either with a loan system or has a replacement part in-stock (or, better still, in the field engineers car boot).

Ask the service provider what happens if it cant be fixed on-site? Most providers will have a system of loan stock, but if they dont you could be in for a much longer period of down-time than is necessary. Ask to see their facilities, take a tour of the store rooms, see the help desk in action and meet the engineers in the team.

The bottom line is that your support partner should have a large stock of spares and backup equipment so that in the eventuality that equipment cant be fixed a temporary replacement will get you back on-line.

Coverage Finally, if your business has more than one office in the UK then you need to be confident that your service provider can respond quickly to any of your locations.

At the same time, even if you only have one location you need to be confident that even though your maintenance supplier is based in the Midlands and you are in the North West it has a robust network in place to meet your needs. And when you are considering this, remember to check on backup arrangements for holidays and sickness if your clients equipment goes down, its of no comfort to them to know their regional field engineer is sunning himself in Tenerife!

The after sales package is a crucial part of a total solutions sale in the modern market. There are a lot of questions that you have to ask any potential maintenance provider, but by asking them before buying you can reduce the risk and feel confident that you made the right choice.

So next time you are putting together an Auto ID package, make sure you have every box ticked in the support service list the first time you make that call for help youll know you made the right decision.

Qcom is a leading provider of maintenance and technical services for Auto ID equipment, thermal printers, scanners, IT systems and generic technology products across Europe. The company offers a wide range of outsourced service options from a superfast four-hour response to an economy two-working day option, as well as installation, training, preventative maintenance, spare parts and workshop repairs. Central to Qcom's market leading position is reliability, with engineers strategically located throughout the UK and Ireland enabling Qcom to respond to calls within the agreed service level.

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