The next time one of your staff complains about dragging a replacement PC a few floors to a remote office in the building, tell them about Chris Jacobs.

Jacobs is the network engineer for technical services at H&R Block, and every year he oversees the replacement of about 16,000 computers in more than 10,000 offices from Hawaii to Maine to Alaska to Florida. H&R Block also has offices in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

When Jacobs goes computer shopping, he keeps several critical priorities in mind, including:

  • A direct supplier relationship.
  • Support and services as part of the deal, leading to reduced total cost of ownership.
  • The ability to take advantage of technical evolution to solve remote support issues.

Relationships are important
As Jacobs shops around for a computer vendor to meet his company’s needs, he’s keeping an eye on Compaq, which has won H&R Block’s business in recent years.

Once he dealt with computer suppliers, then had the computers shipped to InaCom, a company that configured and set up the new computers with the company’s disk image loaded on the hard drives. InaCom then parceled them out to the appropriate offices. Now, that’s about to change.

“There is a very large and rapid movement among enterprises toward a direct relationship with their PC manufacturers,” said Kevin Knox, a Gartner analyst and research director for Personal and Distributed Technologies. (Gartner holds a majority interest in TechRepublic.) “Not only does this allow the PC manufacturers to be more aggressive on price, but more importantly, it improves customer intimacy and accountability with the OEMs,” he said.

Gartner predicts that by 2002, 70 percent of all PC shipments will come directly from the PC manufacturers. Compaq, like HP and IBM, has to move to selling directly to corporate customers in order to compete with Dell Computer, Knox said.

“Although the OEMs do not have a lot of experience in direct relationships, they will do everything in their power to make this work—they cannot afford not to,” he said. “The future of Compaq lies in how well they can make the transition to direct.”

What can you do for me?
Jacobs and Knox both noted that most of the big-name OEMs offer similar technologies. So buyers are looking for services that add value to their purchases.

H&R Block is definitely one of those companies looking for added value in whichever company wins its bid for new computers, Jacobs said.

“Compaq is moving toward the configurable business: They have an order, they fill that order, they put that corporate image on that machine, and ship it out to where it needs to go,” Jacobs said. “They do all the tracking, the asset tagging, the serial numbers. And they do a lot of the operating system tracking, which is a good value-add for us.”

Although he has not committed all his future business to Compaq, one important factor is that Compaq acquired that part of InaCom that dealt with the configuration and shipping of computers.

Knox said Compaq did that for three good reasons:

  1. They needed greater capabilities for custom configuration.
  2. They needed the backend infrastructure and systems necessary to have a direct relationship with customers.
  3. They needed to put additional pressure on HP and IBM, who were using InaCom as a major distribution arm.

“For H&R, [a relationship with Compaq] gives them accountability, intimacy, better costs, and more importantly, a single point of contact,” Knox said. “If there is a problem—availability, informational, service and support, or whatever—they can pick up the phone and contact Compaq directly. The fact that they were using InaCom makes it easier for them to make the transition.”

Jacobs also pointed to a reduction in total cost of ownership (TCO) for H&R Block. “The costs are reduced because there are specific tools we’ve either created or placed in the image for use by our support technicians,” he said. “We’re looking at other tools to add to that image to reduce the support costs while they are in the field.”

Support from afar
While a standard configuration and disk image might be convenient for most IT departments, for H&R Block it is critical for support purposes—because it has thousands of small offices scattered across the country.

Particularly during tax time, Jan. 1 through May 1, a malfunctioning computer cannot be tolerated by the company, Jacobs said. To reduce or eliminate any downtime for their computers, the IT staff uses a variety of strategies.

Support for the remote offices is handled by a call center. Every computer contains utilities, some developed in-house, to help the support staff talk users through analyzing and repairing any problems. The disks are even partitioned so that the working partition can be reformatted and Windows can be reinstalled by a utility the user can be coached through over the phone.

Just in case none of this works to correct the user’s problem, Jacobs described a hot-swap program, in which a new computer is sent overnight to the office and the malfunctioning computer is sent back to the call center.

“Because [the disk image] is the same, there’s no training or set up,” he said. “All they do is plug it in, turn it on, transfer a few files from the server, and off they go.”

One enhancement in the technology of desktop computers that is particularly appealing to Jacobs is the integration of multiple functions, previously supplied by plug-in cards, onto the motherboard.

“That’s a good thing for us from the standpoint of shipping, where the cards jiggle out. [Users] are out in the field and now the machine won’t work,” Jacobs said. “From that standpoint, the smaller form factors have a lot of the things that we use integrated onto the main board so that problem we have during shipping is almost negated.”

There is another advantage to the integrated boards, Jacobs said. One board means only one warranty to worry about, and the turnaround time for repairs is shortened because much of it can be done by support staff.

Warranties, small form factors, image transfer, asset tagging, tracking, serial number management, and a quality product—how far will Jacobs go for a good deal?

Don’t talk distance to this guy. It’s going to tax you.
Remote is a relative term, and while it may mean hundreds of miles to one IT department’s users, it may be down the hall for others. Do you have any ideas on how to make even the most remote user less remote? What was your last desktop rollover like? What kinds of added values were offered and which were important to you? What would you like to see a vendor or OEM offer in the deal? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below or sending us a note.