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Selecting an MPLS provider: Customer support should be a priority

When selecting a provider for a managed MPLS network, enterprises must focus on more than just how the provider designs and builds the network. They should also think about the support they will get from the provider once the network is up and running.

When choosing a service provider for a managed MPLS wide area network, enterprises must not forget the "managed" aspect of the relationship. Too often, companies focus on working with their provider to design and implement the network, but they overlook how the provider's customer support organization will operate once the network goes live.

Enterprises can't just rely on a service-level agreement (SLA) to ensure that customer support for the MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) network is going to meet their requirements.

"In some cases, not all this information is in the SLA documents themselves," said Lisa Pierce, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research. "Sometimes, you're pulling it from different sources to get a more complete picture of what a provider is doing. Some comes from the contract. Some comes from the master service agreement. Some of it may come from talking to someone who is more familiar with network engineering -- about how this network will perform, how often tests are performed, how long they are performed for, and how often that information is made available to customers."

For instance, service providers interpret rules for network incident notification differently, Pierce said. One provider might send out a notification informing customers that a problem has occurred, then update customers when that problem has escalated from tier 1 to tier 2 engineering. The carrier will announce when and how the trouble has been fixed. "Whereas other vendors will say a trouble [ticket] came in and it was cleared three hours later," she said. "It's very hard [for the enterprise] to determine how likely the trouble is to occur again without understanding what the cause was and whether anything was done about it."

Forrester Research surveyed companies in the Global 2000 last spring and found that 30% are using managed MPLS services and an additional 23% are interested in it, according to Pierce. But other Forrester data has found that 40% of enterprises that have outsourced IT or network functions to a third party cite poor supplier quality as a major barrier to success. And 25% of companies that have outsourced telecommunications are dissatisfied with their network service provider.

Pierce said service providers are willing to work with enterprises to provide better customer support, but they need to be coached. "The majority of service providers, although they certainly want to serve the market, are only comfortable serving the market to a certain extent."

Price was the top consideration for Luis Wiedemann, network manager of the Orlando, Fla.-based law firm Broad and Cassel, when he recently chose Paetec to manage his company's new MPLS network. But customer support was also critical.

"We went through a bunch of different carriers, interviewing them and meeting with them, and the one big thing in this day and age was price," he said. "But another one was their customer service and how easy it was going to be to work through issues. How was their customer service center? Was it easy to get access to it? Was it simple to open tickets? What kind of response time did they guarantee us?"

"One of the biggest things I wanted to get across to [the service providers], was it was very important that their implementation teams have good communication with their support teams," Wiedemann said. "We all know they're not the same; geographically they're not even in the same location. So it's all connected through systems."

He said an IT department will work very intimately with a provider's implementation team on an MPLS network, so intimately that it will take for granted that the implementation team will successfully hand off the project to an account manager. There are so many tiny details that can be forgotten.

Wiedemann narrowed his choice of provider down to three companies before selecting Paetec, which offered his firm a better price than other the other two. But in terms of customer service, Paetec wasn't his first choice because the company provides "capacity by acquisition."

"If you look at their past history, they bought a lot of companies," he said. "What they're providing for us at a cheap cost was built upon someone else's backbone, which tells me their systems are disparate. And that's what we found. I was looking for someone who had a unified approach to how they implement and pass that baton to the support team. But we weren't able to find that for the right price."

But Paetec's capabilities are superior to those of other providers that didn't merit consideration.

"We had one support call already placed with them since we went live," Wiedemann said. "It was almost a test on my part. Instead of pushing it through the project management side, I said, let's push it through their support staff and see what exactly happens. Let's see what happens when we open a ticket and how well they work with us calling us back and transferring it through their other departments. We found that they've been very responsive. Their support is great. They understand the urgency of our needs, but I did have to explain my story a couple of times. We really did have to say the same thing over and over again."

More on MPLS

MPLS fundamentals: Migrating to MPLS

MPLS technology overview

MPLS implementation gotchas

MPLS and Cisco CCIP certification

Pierce said service providers aren't always adept at offering the customer care that many enterprises will seek, but they are motivated.

"Service providers that believe managed services are a critical part of their business going forward are willing to make these changes," Pierce said. "But without proper guidance, they'll put forward the wrong recommendations, and it's really up to procurement teams to understand what their business requirements are so they can state those technical requirements to their supplier the first time and as often as possible. Say it to them up front, and you'll soon be able to separate the good providers [from] those that just aren't going to be a good fit for you."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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