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The Big Divide In Tech Support


The greater visibility--and criticism--of CEO perks in recent years has caused some in the C-suite to cut back on the benefits that tend to make their minions green with envy: a chauffeur, a steady supply of flowers, and country club dues paid by the company. But there's one perk that most executives barely acknowledge, let alone plan to forgo: white-glove tech support.

Witness a new kind of Digital Divide. As large companies increasingly outsource part or all of their information technology divisions, many employees now spend hours on the phone struggling simply to explain their tech issues, let alone get them resolved. If they're not contending with an understaffed in-house help desk, they're working with one in a faraway country to have passwords reset, remote access to servers reestablished, or lost spreadsheets retrieved.

For companies, having a top-notch help desk "is a game they can only lose," says Alton Martin, CEO of consulting firm COPC, which redesigns business processes for companies such as General Motors (GM), Verizon (VZ), and Circuit City (CC). "No complaining from employees is a win. But if [companies] get kudos for the help desk, they start thinking: 'Maybe we're spending too much."

Senior executives, meanwhile, often enjoy an in-house tech concierge service, says Jeremy Harris, treasurer at New York's Infusive Solutions Inc., a technology recruiting firm that fills "executive support" jobs for companies such as UBS (UBS), Warner Music Group (WMG), and Priceline.com (PCLN). The experience of becoming a second-class digital citizen is fomenting help-desk rage, as lower-ranking employees fume about losing productive hours. It can also create havoc for the official info-tech department: Frustrated employees try to find creative ways to get the same instant tech support, often from a friend in the next cubicle, who may not be versed in company tech policies and practices.

STUFF OF DREAMS

The kind of service that CEOs can expect from their personal tech staff is the stuff regular employees can only dream of. Elite tech squads may set up equipment at the bosses' home office on the weekend, run out and buy them new BlackBerrys if theirs malfunction, and even travel with them on helicopters or corporate jets to provide instant, on-demand help. The people Harris places in tech support roles tell him: "I spent the weekend setting up their network at their second home in the Hamptons," or "I got woken up in the middle of the night to fix some VP's BlackBerry," or "The job took six hours because I had to set up the boss's workstation and then the kids', too."

Among CEOs who enjoy elite tech squads is Robert A. Iger of Walt Disney Co. (DIS). A special techie has visited him at home in Brentwood, Calif.--for company problems. He shares this point man with a few other executives. CEOs at Whirlpool (WHR), Medtronic (MDT), and Time Warner (TWX) also have special tech teams. And Eastman Kodak (EK) CEO Antonio M. Perez and ex-Chief Financial Officer Robert H. Brust listed "personal IT support" on their Securities & Exchange Commission filings of perks they received in 2006. The company did not respond when asked what that support included.

To be sure, the head honcho's time is money--and arguably more valuable than anyone else's at the company. That was the reasoning at Medtronic Inc. for executive tech support. Regular workers have on-site support for critical problems and an outsourced help desk--an 800 number--for run-of-the mill issues.

"Executives have different needs from the rank and file," notes Kurt Potter, a research director at Gartner Research (IT). "They get the most expensive technology, and they need desk-side support so they're not kept waiting."

In certain cases, that can include creating an entirely new computer on the turn of a dime. Martin cites a recent example. He was visiting a client, a major PC maker, when one of the senior executive's computers had a meltdown. A vice-president called the plant and had them make a customized computer from scratch within the day, in order to minimize the downtime.

Non-executive road warriors may suffer most. A middle manager from a telecom company was visiting her company's office in India when her computer died. The U.S. help desk wouldn't help because she was in India; the local office wouldn't help because her laptop wasn't compatible with local hardware. "It chewed up half her day," says Martin. "The worst part was that she knew if it had been her boss, the problem would have been fixed immediately."

Road warriors who don't have a full-time traveling techie have another option: Geek Squad, owned by Best Buy Co. (BBY) CEOs of small or midsize companies often use the 24/7 company, which provides support for individuals, roving executives, and even President Bush's staff on one occasion, says Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens. His clients include rock stars; his staff has toured with Mick Jagger, Bono, and Sting. "Once you learn how to keep rock stars happy, traveling execs are a piece of cake," he says.

By Aili McConnon, with Michael Arndt in Chicago, Tom Lowry in New York, and Ronald Grover in Los Angeles


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