Friday, May 18, 2007

Reminiscence of Mount St. Helens

I'll never forget May 18th, 1980. The day Mt. St. Helens blew her top.

I was living in Spokane, WA. Some friends and I had been visiting Idaho (about 30 miles away). We were driving back to Spokane. There's a spot where you get to the top of a mountain pass and start heading down into the valley.

We saw a huge, very dark cloud filling the sky.

"Looks like a thunderstorm."

"I bet it's Mount St. Helens."

"That can't be. It's more than 300 miles away. The eruption was only two hours ago."

[ Please see ]

We drove into the city. By now the ash was falling from the sky. We figured we needed to park soon so we didn't suck ash into the engine.

At a friend's house near Gonzaga University we ran from the car to the house. In that short time, our hair got enough ash to feel like we'd been rolling on the beach. The ash was unbelievably fine. Like baking flour.

Once the cloud was over the city, it quickly became darker. Darker than night: there were no stars. The street lights came on the the birds went to sleep.

Watching the ash fall was almost like watching it snow. Something (silica? glass?) in the ash sparkled in the street lights.

Darkness at noon.

When the sun came out again, I walked home. Almost no one was out.

The next day, I got up to walk to work. There was about 3/4 inch of fine ash on the sidewalks, and the streets, and the trees, and the houses. Everything was covered. Totally grey.

No cars. No tire tracks on the streets. I only passed two people in five blocks.

Every now and then I'd spot a trail where a bug flapped its wings but couldn't fly, so it made a winding, irregular trail in the ash.

So what happens if all the bugs die? After all, the ash was heavier and deeper as you went west. Only 100 west it was like beach sand instead of flour. And if all the bugs die, what happens to the birds?

I couldn't decide whether it was like walking on the moon or the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.

The event was so enormous that I couldn't comprehend what I was in the middle of.

Through it all, I never took a picture. What an idiotic thing. I didn't take a single photograph.

But I'll never forget the pictures in my mind. The enormous cloud. Ash falling like snow. The bleak, abandoned landscape.

I don't know that there's anything to be learned from such an adventure. Some things just touch you and stay with you forever. I still have a little jar of ash. Once a year I take it out and remember that day.

If you have to live through a natural disaster, make it one where few lives are lost and all the memories fill you with awe.

Worst Support Ever

As I look back over the life of my company, a dozen or so incidents stand out as the worst support ever.

Here's a quick summary of the top ten in chronological order. I won't bore you with the details. Each is worth a couple of tall brews in a nice pub.

  • AT&T Internet/T-1 Install. Guy before me worked on this for 12 months. I worked an additional 6.

    Result: Resolved to never recommend AT&T for T-1 service.

  • AT&T Wireless. Phone trouble.

    Result: Dropped AT&T service and resolved not to use AT&T wireless again.

  • Tech Data. (Customer service, not tech support.)

    Result: Dropped Tech Data and resolved to always have multiple suppliers.

  • CA / ArcServe. Years of declining support, culminating in one bad incident.

    Result: Stopped selling ArcServe. So, apparently, did everyone else.

    Note: CA resurrected this product a couple of years ago. We're softening up to the idea, but we still have a shrink-wrapped NFR box from two years that we've never opened. Bad taste lingers.

  • Microsoft SBS2003 PSS Incident 2004.

    Result: Prayed that they would improve. Complained and escalated. Was promised improvement.

  • Microsoft SBS2003 PSS Incident 2005.

    Result: Prayed that they would improve. Worked "back channels" and begged for better support.

    Engaged in dialog re: improvements and recommendations. Received full court press to just shut up, put up, and be patient.

  • Netscreen. Emergency went from bad to worse.

    Result: Dropped product line. We now sell SonicWall.

    Note: I LOVE the Netscreen products. Spectacular. But with horrible support, we can't afford to sell them. Now Juniper. Haven't tested new support. Bad taste lingers.

  • Microsoft SBS2003 PSS Incident 2005.

    Result: Prayed that they would improve. Worked "back channels" and begged for better support.

  • Microsoft SBS2003 PSS Incident 2006.

    Result: Complained and listened to their false promises. Made financial arrangements with other technicians to help in emergencies.

  • Microsoft SBS2003 PSS Incident 2006.

    Result: Got pissed off. Began formulating alternatives.


How about the BEST support incidences ever?

Well, I have so many from HP that I can't count them. In the most recent incident, I got the absolute perfect technician and answer immediately. Literally zero minutes on hold. Record of good experiences: 95%.

We don't sell Dell, but every time we call Gold support we talk to a great, well-trained technician within five minutes. Record of good experiences: 90%.

SonicWall. They trip over themselves putting my customer first, then my company. Perfect. Exactly what we want. Record of good experiences: 100%.

When I get off the phone with these people, I want to write a letter to their boss and tell then what a great job they did. And sometimes I do that.


A few Notes:

1) The most recent incident is not the worst. By far. It just tipped me over because we've been begging for competent tech support for years and Microsoft just doesn't care. Absolutely nothing has changed.

2) In the case of every other top-ten worst experience ever, we stopped selling/using the product/service.

3) Microsoft's first and most persistent reaction is public relations: "Please give us time. You have to understand. We're doing everything we can. We care. We're working on it. Please use the system. Please give us feedback. Please please please. We promise we'll change."

And that all amounts to years and years of obfuscation and lies.

PSS for SBS2003 is worse today than it was a year ago.

After Cougar is introduced it will get even worse.

There is no competent first-line technical support for SBS2003.

The guys in Texas are superstars. But you have to go through the fourth level of hell to get to them. And at that point, you're likely to be cleaning up after the first-line support.

I'm not a lone voice here. Private communications have very consistent with my last two blog posts. One cheerleader for Microsoft and a large group of people who have come to similar conclusions but don't with to voice it publicly. And a huge group that seems to think that this is simply the way things are. It doesn't matter how horrible Microsoft's support is: where are you going to go?

Put your head in the sand if you want. No product can live when there's no real front line technical support. That's what killed ArcServe (since resurrected). To be honest, I think it played a big role in AT&T's long decline and demise. When SBC bought AT&T -- at one time the largest telephone system in the world -- there was nothing left but the name.


OK. I'm done now.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Microsoft's Terrible Tech Support Forces us to Consider Alternatives

First, Let me be very clear. I am not opposed to tech support from India, South America, or anywhere else.

Fifteen years ago I was supporting HP 3000's. Pretty big iron. When something went wrong, you called HP. And, depending on the time of day, you might be talking to someone in Australia, India, Taiwan, etc. Every single technician was qualified. No one floundered around, poking at this or that. They knew what they were doing and they fixed things.

Second, not all Microsoft support in India (or other countries) sucks. SQL, Exchange, and Server 2003 are awesome.

Third, Microsoft's support of Small Business Server is deplorable. Until you can escalate your call to one of the superstars in North America, you are just as likely to have them burn your server to the ground as to get a solution.


So a few weeks ago I'm having dinner with a Partner whose business is much larger than mine. More than 50 techs. And I express my frustration with Microsoft's horrible tech support. He says "We don't call them anymore. We call Zenith Infotech."

Zenith provides outsourced helpdesk and managed services for about $37 per server per month.

So when this partner works on a problem in-house for the allotted period of time, they don't escalate to Microsoft's incompetent tech support and hope to talk their way up to the competent technicians.

They call Zenith. And the very competent technicians in India "Just solve the problem."

We're going to give this a try. We have absolutely nothing to lose. At $37 per month, $444 per year to support a server, Zenith will pay for itself the first time I don't have to waste 1-2 hours sitting on hold working my way through the Microsoft jungle to talk to someone who has never see the product before.


I've recieved back-channel requests to "work this out" and "report the problems."

The reason I'm so pissed off is not that we've had one or two incidents. We've been communicating with the PSS people for years. They've made promises and begged us to be patient. In early 2005 I was told that it takes time to train competent technicians.

So now, two years later, I'm still waiting.

How long does it take to train a competent technician? SBS 2003 has been out for 3.5 years. And you still can't call the support line and talk to someone who can do anything except run the internet connection wizard.

Bottom line for us:

  • With every call to MS Support, we know we will waste at least 1-2 hours before we get to someone who can actually help us. Nowadays they simply refuse to escalate.

  • As my business grows, and I rely on SBS2003, I have to budget this wasted time. Because we've already spent so much time on the issue, we are almost invariably not billing our client. Which means that 2 hours is costing me labor plus lost opportunity to be billing someone else. It is very frustrating, as I hire more techs, that I have to budget thousands of dollars for sitting on the phone wasting time, waiting to be put in touch with someone who can help. It is truly unacceptable.

  • If I have ten incidents in a year, I'm looking at perhaps 20 hours of lost labor, which has direct costs of about $1,000. If I could be billing half of that at $120-150, that's another $1,200-1,500. So, my real costs (not counting frustration and customer relations) are in the range of $2,200-$2,500.

  • AND then there's the cost of cleaning up after the incompetent tech support. That costs even more.

  • As I continue to grow, my budget for flushing money down this hole will have to increase. I don't have to do this with Dell, HP, Veritas, Symantec, Diskeeper, or any other product we work with.

We can't switch away from Microsoft for the core O.S.

But that core O.S. doesn't have to be SBS.

Microsoft still provides competent first-line tech support for Server 2003. So rather than switching vendors, we could switch operating systems.

We love SBS. But Microsoft has not properly supported this product. They will continue to make promises they have no intention of keeping. They will continue to beg for more time. The product is about to be replaced with the next version! How much more time do they want?

You think support for SBS2003 sucks now? Wait until they take the "good" technicians and put them on Cougar. The 2003 line will be populated by people who've never seen Windows before.

Strategically, we can't continue to sell a product that Microsoft won't/can't support.

Looking forward to a better experience with Zenith.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Death of SBS

I've often wondered when the era of SBS would come to an end.

It was painful in the days of 4.0 and 4.5

It was great in the days of 2000. In fact, it was good enough to have lasted another five years!

The product, in the days of 2003, has been over the top spectacular. A truly unbelievably great package! I can't think of a better bargain anywhere in technology.

So where does SBS end?

We're seen hints. You join the SBS blog and all they can talk about (which isn't much) is getting you to sign up for the Centro beta. The SBS dude, Kevin, is really the Centro dude.

Meanwhile, Exchange has become way too complicated and robust to include in SBS for very long. So you can see that spinning off. Perhaps SBS will become a combo of Server, RWW, and Sharepoint (premium adds SQL and ISA).

But the real DEATH of SBS will come from the shitty, absurdly imcompetent technical support provided by Microsoft.

Note: if your time is worth nothing, and you clients are perfectly forgiving, then you can waste huge amounts of time and labor dealing with morons who are supporting a product they've never seen.

[I'll never forget the a-hole who browsed through the active directory until he came to an empty "users" container and panicked. I thought he was going to hyperventilate. "Where are your users?"]

They destroy computers and they waste money.

I have better luck posting a request on a newsgroup and hoping someone can post a reply at 2:00 AM.

Which makes SBS no better than Linux.

I've complained about the horrible tech support for years. Microsoft's only answers are:
1) Be patient. It takes time to train people.
2) Since you're a certified partner, we offer a much higher level of support where you can always talk to someone who's competent. It starts at $7,000 a year.

Here's a memo I just posted to my technicians:

    Beginning immediately, no one is authorized to call Microsoft support for any issues involving SBS.

    They are the most horribly unprofessional, untrained, arrogant, and incompetent technical support we ever deal with in any company whatsoever.

    These bastards admit that they are completely incompetent and don’t know what the f*ck they’re doing, but they refuse to escalate.

    They sign our agreement that they won’t make changes to our system, but they do anyway.

    They put us on hold and then poke around all over the place demonstrating that they don’t know what they’re doing.

    They waste hours and hours and hours of time because they are absolutely incompetent – most of them have never seen SBS before!

    If you want to call Microsoft, remember:
    -- The PSS line will waste a minimum of four hours of your life – which we are paying for – and they will not solve your problem.
    -- If we can hold off the customer, we will contact the alternative support systems we have in place (Vlad, Erique, etc.)
    -- If we can’t hold off the customer, put in CD 1 and reinstall.
    -- If you want to avoid this and call Microsoft, you MUST call me personally to get permission. If you can’t get ahold of me, you are NOT authorized to call Microsoft.

    SBS is an awesome product that will die a slow death because the tech support is the worst it can possibly be.

    Wherever a client does not absolutely *need* RWW or SharePoint, we will stop quoting SBS and quote Server 2003 and Exchange 2007. It’s a little more expensive in the short run, but Microsoft is still providing competent technical support for these products. So, over the course of three years, this will be a much wiser decision.

    I’m sorry that Microsoft has completely given up on the prospect of providing competent technical support for SBS.

    But we cannot continue to dedicate our business to a product with no support.

    And we cannot afford to support SBS without competent support from the manufacturer.

    We’ll discuss at Monday meeting.

Because of Microsoft's horrible and incompetent technical support, we are considering relying on another Indian-based help desk that does provide competent support: Zenith Infotech.

More about that later.

I welcome your feedback. I've heard of people who've had great support from PSS in India. But more often, I've heard from people who are happy because they've figure out ways to get around the morons in first level support and get to the real superstars in North America.

None of this bodes well for Cougar. You can't cheerlead a product with terrible tech support and expect it to take off. It might even be a better product, but we'll never know unless there's real tech support to back it up.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Vladar - Radar for Vlad

There are some people you just have to keep an eye on. Even if you're not sure why.

One of these is Vlad Mazek. Always moving. Always doing something different. In some ways, a force in the SMB space who is NTBFW (not to be messed with).

If you've "lost" Vlad, here are a few places you can catch up.

1) Vladcasts !
Vlad's lastest adventure
-- Check out the whole set. Easy to catch up now: there have only been five. Don't know what book he's giving away, but jump on it now.

2) Blog Uno
is his personal philosophy and Vlog.

3) Blog Dos
is more of the professional topics.

3) Vladfire
Video Vlog

4) Own Web Now / Exchange Defender Blog
For folks who use, or are interested in learning about OWN and ED products.
Not those E.D. products.

5) SBS Show
I have an MP3 player that has all of the SBS Shows on it. I guess that's now an archive device.
Super good stuff.
Still praying for a revival.

If I missed anything, Vlad will surely send me an email correcting my lazy ways. So stay tuned for that!

OH! I almost forgot the pricing. Here's what it costs to keep up to date on what's what with the Vladosphere:

1) Vladcasts
Great news. Quick and easy. Great price.

Who wants to pay for maniacal rantings anyway?

Great info on up-to-the-minute news, warnings, etc. in the SMB space.

3) Vladfire
Okay, not always great. But always informative and entertaining. Certainly worth watching.

4) Own Web Now / Exchange Defender Blog
Primarily tech support related, so you might not expect to pay for this.

5) SBS Show
Required listening for everyone in the SMB space.
And it's free.

Thank you, Vlad, for spewing so profusely on the community.

Notice: Everything is subject to change.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Friends, Associates, and Hangers-On

Side note: I know I owe some posts on SMB Nation. I just got back. Need to catch up. Stay tuned.

So my friend Vlad posts this little ditty on his new Vlog:

and I start to think about that quote.

One of the amazing advantages of the SMB Community -- and any professional associate to some degree -- is that you widen your circle of friends and associates. People I just met last year were associates. In the last twelve months a few have become friends. Not "best buds," but people I genuinely enjoy spending time with and look forward to see.

And as the net filled with friends and associates grows, some other cool stuff happens, too.

These people pound on head with ideas about how they run their businesses. I hear these silly things like HaaS until I'm ready to scream. Or adopt a new strategy for my company's future success.

It is often difficult to tell the difference between really great business opportunities and crazy schemes. But the more you expose yourself to new ideas, the better you get at filtering.

I have made some major, important decisions about how to run my business in the last week. In each case, the following was true:

1. I had been exposed to the idea more than a year ago (and dismissed it).

2. One other person and I had talked about the details over dinner/lunch/etc. That person implemented and I did not. Now, a year later, that person gives me the wisdom experience.

3. With a community spirit in which I can sit down for two hours and openly discuss everything from profit margins to the people coming out of the elevators, I was able to put this idea into the context of my own business and figure out how to make it work.

Last year's crazy scheme is this year's great idea.

There IS a lot of distraction in the community, at conferences, online, in the groups, and it your personal life. There just is.

But you have two options: Stay at home doing what you've always done, or get out and get involved.

I say: Participate. Give. Jump in. The rewards are awesome.

In the short run, your head will be full to overflowing. But you'll learn to filter.