Business Essentials: Emergency overload for 'AA of computers'

An IT-breakdown service wants firms to subscribe <i>before</i> disaster strikes, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

new computer-breakdown service is aiming to be the AA of IT, offering small firms the facility to get their problems fixed within the hour.

new computer-breakdown service is aiming to be the AA of IT, offering small firms the facility to get their problems fixed within the hour.

But while Universal Support prefers its customers to pay an annual subscription fee of £120 per computer, most opt instead to pay per incident, waiting until their machine breaks down before they approach the company. Managing director Michael Jacobs wants to find a way of building his brand and educating his market so that customers take out what is, in effect, a form of insurance.

Universal Support is based in the City of London, and its customers are firms with anything between one and 200 staff. "They tend to be people who have got screwed over in the past with IT support or who rely on friends," explains Mr Jacobs.

Universal Support claims to offer a better alternative using an advanced remote-management system. "The remote controlling of computers is nothing new," admits Mr Jacobs. "But we've taken the technology, which is robust and has been around for a number of years, and added two very clever applications at either end."

The first is connectivity. "By putting a bit of software into your computer, we can connect to you, regardless of your location, firewalls, IP addresses and passwords. We've even connected to a client's computer while he was on a flight to New York and fixed it by the time he landed," he says.

"The second feature is that this same piece of software provides what we call a 'Delta Management System'. This scans your computer in real time so that we're aware of every single process change - which enables us to diagnose any problem very, very quickly."

Mr Jacobs' vision is to run the company like a car-recovery service. "Everyone who has owned a computer knows they sometimes go wrong, usually at the worst possible time. We want them to insure against this."

But while this seems a good sales pitch, small businesses still tend not to spend money until things do go wrong.

Annual charges have obvious cashflow benefits, but Mr Jacobs explains how they can also help forward planning: "It means that we know exactly how many computers we have under management and can accurately allocate the right number of technicians."

The customer gains from this payment model too: "It costs them less in the long run."

In fact, he says, most clients say they prefer the annual payment model, but admit that what drove them to buy the service in the first place was a computer crisis. "We need to persuade them to see the benefits of the 'just in case' concept."

www.universal-support.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Hugh West, international vice-chairman, the Chartered Institute of Marketing

"Although lacking strong differentiation against its competitors, Universal Support's security offer seems significant, and with data protection a problem for many companies, this needs to be pushed as a major benefit to the customer. At the same time, the company needs to ensure that the client is happy with a piece of foreign software being installed on every one of its machines.

"IT support is a very negative business and most people only get involved when things go wrong. What about a starting screen that says it has been checking your machine for the last 'x' hours and there are no problems? Or, even better, 'When you were at lunch, we mended your machine'?

"This would build up confidence in the service, and a customer would see what it is paying for."

Stephen Pegge, head of communi- cations, Lloyds TSB Business

"Education may be part of the answer, and it's worth considering PR as the mechanism to achieve this - offering input for articles on contingency planning, providing useful guides on the subject, and holding seminars/events.

"You need to show small firms how they could save time and costs in the long run by using a service like this. So look into producing customer case studies, or setting up an incentive scheme under which existing customers refer new business to you.

"Finally, referrals via brokers or an organisation that might offer this in bulk to its members is worth considering."

Chris Bailey, head of business systems, AA Road Services

"The company should do a presentation detailing the benefits of signing up to the service. This needs to be a compelling business case that small firms can appreciate.

"Highlight the value of remote support, consider security issues - for example, how will permission to gain access be given? - and demonstrate the pricing model in a standard, pre-written contract. Then showcase the advantages for customers - for example, that this service gives them a set figure for support and so will allow them to manage cashflow far more accurately. They can compare the cost to that of reinputting data or losing information.

"Universal Support should also consider an appropriate payment profile, like direct debit."

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