December 15, 1999 3:55 PM PST

Dell signs another computer services partner

Dell Computer's tepid enthusiasm for the computer service market emerged again today when the company revealed an investment in PC support start-up All.com.

All.com will specialize in providing Web-based technical support services to small and medium-sized businesses. While Dell would not disclose the extent of its financial commitment, sources close to the company said that it is the major backer behind All.com, which will start to offer its services next month.

Service and support have always presented a quandary for the Round Rock, Texas-based direct PC maker in its plans. The company has historically stressed providing customers with top-notch technical support, an emphasis that has paid off in relatively consistent high marks for service in polls of corporate IT (information technology) executives.

High-tech services will also likely be a growth area for the company, chief executive Michael Dell said earlier this year.

At the same time, the company has been reluctant to build a large in-house support organization, similar to those at IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer. Instead, Dell has outsourced service functions to companies such as Unisys and taken a percentage of any revenues.

The investment in All.com seems to fall into this wide middle ground. Although Dell backs All.com and will be providing the start-up with technical assistance, it actually won't sell its services just yet. For now, it's an enthusiastic investment.

"E-support's time has come," said Dell senior vice president Carl Everett, who added that his company had set the standard for PC technical support. The time is right to "expand this level of support beyond Dell users," he said.

Five former employees of Motive Communications founded All.com, which will license Motive's e-support technology. Compaq, Dell and Gateway all use Motive's software to provide consumers with technical support over the Web.

While Dell has no immediate plans to sell All.com services to its customers, it does work with Motive. Dell will rely on Motive's technology, introduced this month, for the enhanced help that comes with its WebPC. By pushing a large button on the WebPC, users get immediately to support sites that can advise users on potential problems. The service also simplifies the process of getting a technician on the line so that troubleshooting can begin.

Compaq offers a similar online interactive helper, Al the technician, with Presario PCs.

Technology Business Research analyst Lindy Lesperance said not to read too much into Dell's not initially using All.com's support services.

"Dell is...providing service to its customers and wants to extend that beyond its customer base," Lesperance said. "I wonder if this is as much an investment strategy on the part of Dell as ... [it is] a move into more services."

All.com founder and chief operating officer Scott Abel explained Dell's commitment as follows: "Dell's perspective was they brought some unique support to the table, they're a trusted brand which reinforces the quality of our technical advisors on the network and it was a significant investment for them."

Dell will certify All.com's independent network of "techAdvisors" to the same standard as the PC maker's support staff, the companies said. Basic support will be available through interactive online screens with techAdvisors providing more advanced technical support.

All.com will provide three basic levels of service.

If All.com delivers as promised, Dell could garner additional PC sales, Lesperance said. "Consumers have come to know Dell's name associated with good service and support. This will help get their brand name out there more and to non-Dell customers."

All.com's initial focus will be the largely untapped SOHO (small office, home office) and small business markets, which tend to use Internet message boards and chats for support, Abel said. Since this group already goes online for support, All.com's services could be a viable alternative.

"If you look at other e-businesses that have emerged in the last 24 months--from Amazon to eBay to others--the winners provide not only as good but a better quality experience on the Web than you get in the physical world," Abel said.

 

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