Certifying the Experts

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Some people might think it odd that Intel had degreed, highly experienced employees—professionals working at a worldwide support engineering center no less—running off to take a CompTIA A+ exam. Imagine what those highly experienced members of the support team thought of Intel’s request that they earn this foundation-level certification. But any initial skepticism has vanished because the study and review process for the A+ certification and other exams has helped improve service to Intel’s customers.

Before some of our organizational structure changes, our official team name was the Branded Intel Architecture Support Engineering Center for Intel boxed products. The center in Folsom, Calif., is also the location of the Region Channel Member Support for Latin America for Intel boxed products. Services include second- and third-level phone and e-mail support—troubleshooting, configuration and/or warranty. The products supported include processors, motherboards, servers, RAID cards, network adapters, wireless LAN products and print servers, as well as software support for integrated chipset graphics and storage drivers.

Intel structures its customer support for these boxed products in tiers. Intel channel members support customers who have purchased Intel boxed products. In order to ensure prompt and effective end-user support, Intel requires channel member technical support personnel to meet high standards of training and performance. Backing up the channel members are personnel at regional contact centers.

Above the geo/region contact centers, the next line of defense for especially difficult problems is the worldwide support engineering center. The staff at the worldwide support engineering center not only provides phone and e-mail escalation services, but also trains call center personnel and posts drivers, tech-notes, white papers, top technical issues, product documentation and release notes to the Intel customer support site at support.intel.com. We create technical support content in the product support knowledge base, which is also available on the Web.

Listening to Channel Members
Intel randomly surveys its channel members on the support provided and uses the data to drive improvement. Roughly two years ago, Intel received survey information indicating that some channel member technical representatives felt that Intel Customer Support members should raise their technical qualifications. We began to investigate ways of ensuring that the channel members felt that they were obtaining the best support possible from a technically savvy crew.

One issue we identified as a possible improvement area was to have team members obtain various industry certifications. The fact is that channel members were required to employ certified IT personnel, but we did not make the same requirement of our own Intel support staff. Members of our team had earned four-year or higher academic degrees where depth and breadth are emphasized. Certification, on the other hand, drives the learner down to the nitty-gritty details. These different approaches to technical expertise may have been creating a communication gap between the channel member technical representative and the Intel support team.

We felt we were on to a potential solution—have our team study for and earn certifications. This would help close any communication gap by having both groups in effect speaking the same language and looking at the problem from the same viewpoint. The questions then became:

 

 

  • Which certification or certifications should the team members earn?
  • What training materials should the team members use?
  • What training regimen should the team members use?

 

Choosing a Path
Vendor-neutral, rather than vendor-specific, certifications appealed to the implementation team because we deal with so many different products and systems. CompTIA’s A+ was at the top of our list, not only because it was vendor-neutral, but also because it focuses so heavily on hardware and the interaction of hardware with operating systems—the area for which we provide support.

Another reason we considered A+ was that the majority of the tech reps have earned this certification or have received an equivalent level of training for this certification, and we’d gain the same frame of reference.

Furthermore, CompTIA’s foundation-level certifications are for life, which means that time invested in training and the cost of the exams would be finite. We would not have to turn around every two or three years for another round, at least not with the CompTIA certifications. Intel’s membership in CompTIA would also give us access to discount exam vouchers, another plus.

For these reasons, we identified CompTIA Network+, Server+ and Linux+, along with A+, as the certifications we would urge our team to consider first. We asked people to start at A+ and continue on with other CompTIA certifications. We listed CompTIA certification as a performance goal for the upcoming year.

Certifying the Team
There was a fair amount of understandable grumbling about having to take the time to train and then earn foundation-level certifications. We have demanding jobs that require long hours, without adding study time and exam anxiety to the mix. At that point, the team doubted the wisdom of our course of action.

Preparing for exams would be the individual’s responsibility and would have to be prioritized into their already-busy schedules. Each member of the team had a year in which to meet his or her particular certification goals. Rather than purchasing courseware focused on the exam, team members told us they wanted to have reference materials they could refer to on a daily basis. The department purchased two books for each person. These were “Upgrading and Repairing PCs,” 12th edition, by Scott Mueller, and “Hardware Bible,” 5th edition , by Winn Rosch.

Since CompTIA publishes exam objectives on its Web site, the team members could easily correlate information in the books with sections of the exam. It was the study process—the journey—that began to convince the team that earning A+ and other CompTIA credentials was worthwhile. It wasn’t as if they did not know the technology—they did. Studying these and other reference books in preparation for a computer-based exam was a means of refreshing knowledge and gaining new insights.

The study process gave the team a new perspective on ways to more clearly state questions and answers for the Web. It gave them common ground for communication with call center personnel and channel member tech reps. And it taught them a thing or two. I can say this because I experienced it. As I already had an A+ and Network+, I used the time to study for and earn the Server+.

Once A+ was under our belts, Linux+ became one of the most sought-after certifications, due to the number of Linux-related questions coming in. A vendor-neutral certification was especially welcome. It saved us from having to keep up with all the different market-based flavors of this operating system.

The Results
We receive far less “we know more than you do” comments on the post-support customer satisfaction survey. We have commonality in communication with the channel members. We are doing our jobs more effectively thanks to a regimen of study and certification. Many of us are in the groove and preparing for additional certification, progressing naturally from vendor-neutral to vendor-specific certificates. Several of us now hold A+, Network+, Server+ and/or Linux+ certifications.

We’ve learned that IT professionals with academic degrees combined with industry-recognized certifications equal a highly competent support operation. And when there is choice in the marketplace, first-rate support helps satisfy customers and keep them coming

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