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Making the most of VMware technical support

Navigating third-party technical support systems for VMware can be time-consuming and fruitless. Here's how to make the most of technical support and resolve your VMware issues.

Edward Haletky

Today's economic climate forces even technology giants such as IBM, HP and Dell to outsource support functions. And as exasperating as it is for end users, it has created technical support frustrations. After participating in a VMware VMTN communities podcast #38, on VMware Support, I gave more thought to users' frustration with third-party support for VMware products. While some gave IBM, HP, and Dell VMware support call centers decent ratings, the majority were unimpressed.

In this tip, we discuss how to make the best use of VMware technical support from third-party vendors. This requires understanding the call center system, knowing how to get to the right department more quickly and being prepared as you explain your technical problem.

Go directly to VMware?
People call vendors such as Dell, HP and IBM for support for one-stop shopping support. If you have a hardware-related problem that may be related to VMware, the support organization will help you, as it has VMware and hardware support people available within the organization. If all you have is hardware support with the vendor they will tell you to call VMware, VMware will tell you to call the vendor. The support engineers within the third parties are there to work on your behalf to avoid the back-and-forth. This is not always the case, however.

So how do you make the most out of a technical support call? First, read the support agreement. Understand the level of support you have purchased and the kind of response time you can expect. Use the support organization's website to determine whether anything has changed. Understand problem severity levels and diagnose your problem appropriately from the support organization's point of view-- what you consider a severe problem may not be according to the documentation.

What to expect from third-party technical support
If you're unfamiliar with third-party technical support call centers, here's the process for handling calls. A customer calls the support line and reaches a front-line support agent. This agent's role is to gather information as quickly as possible. If a front-line agent can troubleshoot the problem, he will. If the problem diverges from an operator's script, however, the operator is probably lost and may try to get you back on the script.

Most front-line information gatherers are not people you will actually get support from. They redirect your call to the proper team. Their job is keep to their metrics, which is difficult. Some are required to be on the phone with customers for a minimum of 6.5 hours a day and may have 30 seconds to two minutes to get the call into the proper queue.

Getting to the right department
To help front-line operators, you need to have a clear problem statement and, while explaining your issue, you need to mention keywords they recognize. It might be too much information, for example, if you say you have a VMware High Availability (HA) problem with an IBM DS3400. Why? Mentioning VMware HA would then direct you to the VMware team; mentioning DS3400 would direct you to the storage team. Before you make the call, decide where to start your discussion with the support organization – in this example, VMware or storage, but not both. Do not give the frontline people too many decisions to make on your behalf -- they will often get it wrong and you will end up frustrated.

Third-party VMware support agents: Be ready
Once the call has been moved to the appropriate queue, you will reach a third party VMware support agent. The third party VMware support agent is often part of a team dedicated to VMware, but he may also be a member of the Linux or Windows team. Ideally, he is from the Linux team and will thus be more likely to assist you with VMware ESX-related issues. Essentially, this person can go off script and assist you. As frustrating as it may be, you may have to re-explain the problem. They will ask for clarifying information, and, for VMware issues, often a vm-support file. It behooves you to have everything ready so you can ask where to send file X as you've already created it.

I want to emphasize that your problem statement should be as clear as possible – often difficult because technical problems raise murky questions, but your phone support technician is bound by metrics that can undermine getting good support. If a technical support representative cannot answer the question in a certain amount of time, he has to move on to another customer. This system of churn is frustrating, but if the question requires information you still have to collect, there is not much support can do on a single call. And of course, support varies among representatives: some are slow to understand your issue; some are helpful off the bat.

When problem progresses to the next support level
At this point your support case is either solved, elevated to VMware, or elevated to the tech support organizations' next level of support for more research into the problem. If they elevate the question to an internal team, this is the group that will may be your main contact and will hopefully facilitate conversations with VMware. They may have to involve several groups to find your answer. Storage is often one of these groups. It's highly unlikely that you'll be told if your case is actually elevated to VMware --, we were told to say we elevated a case to engineering or our research support group. If they elevate directly to VMware, the second line of support, or the last technician you spoke with before the organization elevated the problem to VMware, is your main contact.

If it gets to this stage, it's unlikely that you will be allowed to talk to the VMware engineers directly, but it's possible to arrange a conference call to get all parties involved. If you feel this would be in your best interest, and often it is, ask for the conference call. Most support organizations will be willing to do so. Another tip: get dates and times for call backs or email responses.

How to handle complaints
Of course there are support center horror stories, and occasionally I have been asked to quell such horror stories. Again, remember that support teams are often hampered by metrics requirements and a lack of qualified people. That said, there are two numbers you should have access to for any support concern: the support phone number and the direct phone number to the manager on duty. If you believe your issue is not getting the proper priority, contact the manager on duty. Note the names of the support agents with whom you have talked if you pursue a complaint at the higher level.

If you reach the on-duty manager, you can use the call to complain or to move your case forward. Here's a hint: If you want to resolve your problem, complaining may not be the first thing you to do. Get your case moving, then call back to complain. It may seem like more work, but your main objective is to get the support case moving and your problem resolved. Complaints bog the case down. If you address your problem first, keep notes on your complaint and call in after the conclusion of the issue to praise the ultimate resolution or to condemn.

Other than to raise complaints, the most common use of the manager on duty is to raise the severity of the case based on the politics involved. If a case is at severity level 3, or a low priority for the support organization, but politically the case is at severity 1 --that is, your job or millions of dollars in sales are at risk -- use the manager on duty to express the political sensitiveness of the case.

Given the emphasis on support metrics, it is increasingly difficult for support people to do a good job of handling problems. As a customer, you need to know how to work the system to bring your case to a successful conclusion. If you do not hear about your case by the deadline given by the support agent, call back for information. Do not expect the support organization to do all the work; as the customer, you have to meet the support organization halfway. If necessary request a conference call with the VMware team to further discuss your case. Do not ask to talk with VMware directly -- it won't happen and you will end up frustrated. While you can buy a support level in which the support technicians do all the work for you, it gets expensive.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edward L. Haletky is the author of VMware ESX Server in the Enterprise: Planning and Securing Virtualization Servers. He recently left Hewlett-Packard Co., where he worked on the virtualization, Linux and high-performance computing teams. Haletky owns AstroArch Consulting Inc. and is a champion and moderator for the VMware Communities Forums.

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