After my recent rant about Rockwell Automation and their frustrating online support, I received an email from Joe Harkulich, Global Quality Leader at Rockwell Automation. The first thing he did was, helpfully, get me straightened out with my TechConnect ID. Apparently the one we were given wasn’t our real TechConnect ID, and it happened to be the ID of another company in Mexico, which caused some confusion on my end. Once that got straightened out, I could access the article I was looking for (a bit late, but better than never).
Joe then invited me to join a conference call with Esther Beris (Rockwell Knowledgebase), Jon Furniss (TechConnect), and Rob Snyder (Senior Manager for Rockwell’s remote support). I’m thankful for them taking the time to do this, as I’m really only a moderate user of Rockwell Automation products. (I really don’t think they’re very concerned about my legions of blog readers and twitter followers). I’ll relate a few of the details of the call here, and I really want to express my gratitude to everyone involved for their time.
The first item on the agenda was Joe addressing some misinformation in my previous blog post. I had made a comment about Beckhoff’s 350MB knowledge-base available for download, and I had suggested that Rockwell should do something similar. It turns out that Rockwell does offer TechConnect subscribers the ability to receive 3 DVD’s full of all their product manuals and their entire knowledge base. Joe offered to send me a copy, and I accepted. I received them yesterday and installed them on the laptop at work. This will be nice pending an on-site trip that’s scheduled next month. I’m a bit concerned that the discs are dated May of 2008. I was expecting them to be about 6 months old. We did discuss the idea of making them automatically download updates of the knowledge base, etc., so your offline copy is always up to date, but they pointed out that this would be a huge amount of information so it probably couldn’t happen, but they would take the idea into consideration. Personally I think a solution like that would have a lot of value.
We then turned our discussion towards some of the issues I had raised with Rockwell’s online support in my previous post. I certainly made it clear that I have always been impressed with Rockwell’s paid telephone support, and I really have nothing to complain about there; they are simply awesome! When it comes to the online support, we talked about these issues:
- Single sign-on
- Expiry of your account if you don’t log on for 6 months
- Access to product manuals, EDS files and support directly from the product page
- Paid vs. unpaid content
It makes no sense to me why you have to sign on separately at www.rockwellautomation.com and at their knowledgebase. Apparently it doesn’t make a lot of sense to the folks at Rockwell either, and they’re working on it. However, there’s no time-line for the resolution of it (or at least they couldn’t give me one). I think it’s one of those cases where the politics of a big organization are getting in the way of doing something really simple, and I can appreciate that. I did get the impression that the people involved do care, and it will get done, eventually.
Expiry of your account if you don’t log on for 6 months
In past years I would frequently do a lot of automation work, and then switch to PC programming for a project or two, and then switch back to automation work as I’ve recently done. I always found it a bit frustrating the first time I tried to download some EDS file and Rockwell had canceled my account because it had been longer than 6 months since I’d signed in. Apparently I’m not the only customer to complain about this, and Rockwell is in the process of changing this. Bravo!
Access to product manuals, EDS files and support directly from the product page
Let’s say I go to the ControlLogix Product Page. On a normal website when I look at a product I see exactly what that one component looks like, a link directly to the datasheet or user manual, a tab with all the specs on it, and all the information I need to buy that product. But the ControlLogix page is a brand page, not a product page. It’s almost completely useless to me as an Engineer. There is a Literature link, and that has a selection guide and something else, but then it tells me I have to go to the literature library to find all the good documentation.
When I explained this on the conference call I got some good laughs, because again, I’m not the first person to complain about this. Apparently this is being resolved, and they do have a time-line: September 2010. That’s great news and I’m really happy to hear it.
Paid vs. Unpaid Content
I’m afraid the issue of paid vs. unpaid content is still a sticking point for me. They explained to me that they chose a paid model for their support because they can provide better support. There’s no question in my mind that the quality of Rockwell’s telephone support comes through time and again, but I have to disagree with the pay-wall model they’re using for online support. I really think what’s happened is that the technical support group within Rockwell is literally scared of what could happen if they didn’t maintain a strangle-hold over the information that guys like me need to do their job.
I’ve talked before about vendor lock-in in the industrial automation industry, so I’m not going to go into that again. But this is a case where a company is selling me upwards of $10,000 of automation equipment per project and once they’ve done that, they want to charge me extra for access to the information I need to make it work the way it was supposed to work in the first place. I understand the paid telephone support model because there’s a one-to-one relationship between the amount of time I spend on the phone and the amount of time they have to pay someone to talk on the phone. But while they’re doing that, they’re already creating a knowledge-base of information. As smarter people than I have pointed out repeatedly, the marginal cost of distributing that electronic information to one more person is as close to zero as humanity has ever seen. No, you don’t have to because copyright is always on your side, but if you don’t, you open yourself up to being undercut by the following business model:
- Start an online knowledge base where the customers can build it
- Offer subtle rewards to the people who contribute (peer recognition within the knowledge community)
- Let Google index the site and drive traffic to it
…which is exactly what ControlsOverload is. Remember in my last post where I said that I took 3 minutes of my own time and posted the question and answer related to my problem at ControlsOverload? Check out what happens when you search for compactlogix type 01 code 01 fault or even compactlogix powerup fault. The first item in the search results is my question and answer. You can even go to that page and add more information, or correct inconsistencies and you don’t even need to sign-up!
Rockwell has one group that makes products and another group that charges people for support on those products. In order to protect the revenue model of the second, they put barriers in place to maintain a monopoly on information, even though every single industry that has relied on maintaining a monopoly on access to information is dying a slow miserable death. Meanwhile I wasted another hour of my time trying to get a product I’d already purchased to work, and they had the information to cut that time down to 2 minutes, but they put all these barriers in my way even though I’d already paid for support!
The price to hire a PLC programmer is anywhere from about $50 to $100 an hour in my experience. Let’s say $75. Every time Rockwell’s support barriers waste an hour of my time, the total cost of ownership of their equipment goes up by, on average, $75. On top of that, it frustrates me enough to blog about it, and there’s an opportunity cost as well. I could have been using that hour to improve the efficiency of the machine in some other way rather than fighting with Rockwell’s internet site.
Here’s my suggestion to Rockwell to fix the situation:
- Create and harness a money-free and barrier-free user generated content site, just like ControlsOverload, where customers can help other customers
- Keep the excellent telephone support, but have the support people contribute to and maintain the free site rather than the paid site
- Move all the paid support information to the free site (this doesn’t include premium content, as described below)
- Use the free site to advertise premium online content that users like me are willing to pay for
What do I mean by paid premium content? Tutorials. Training videos. Example applications. Code review services (a support person can review your automation program and offer advice). E-books. Insider news & tips. Access to beta versions of upcoming software releases. In short, something I’m willing to pay for above and beyond what I believe I’ve already paid for.
Good luck Rockwell – the next few years are going to be interesting.