Oracle support portal woes could erode users' trust

There may be lasting damage to customer relationships following a problematic support site migration, observers say

Oracle's seemingly botched migration to a new My Oracle Support portal this week has users worldwide hopping mad over what they are calling severe performance and access issues.

The problems, which one poster to the Oracle-L mailing list dubbed a "fiasco," are reportedly being fixed. But overall, the flap is a lesson learned for software companies in general, and could have some lasting impact on Oracle's business and relationship with customers, observers say.

[ Users called Oracle's new support portal a 'fiasco.' | Complaints about My Oracle Support's Flash interface led to an HTML option being added. | Discover what's new in business applications with InfoWorld's Technology: Applications newsletter and Killer Apps blog.]

"The support desk is the day-to-day face of the vendor to the customer," said Frank Scavo, managing partner of the IT consulting firm Strativa, via e-mail. "So when customers think about their Oracle relationship, the first thing that comes to mind is their experience in dealing with support."

And Oracle customers pay dearly for support, which is charged annually as a percentage of license fees. In turn, support dollars have become Oracle's lifeblood. "Software license updates and product support" constitutes about half the vendor's annual revenue and boast a profit margin of about 90 percent.

"At that rate, customers should be receiving gold-plated support, not shuffled off to a broken Web site," Scavo said. "This has got to impact the tone of the discussion when it comes time to talk about renewing Oracle maintenance agreements."

For some time, Oracle had been trying to notify users about how to handle the changeover from the former Metalink support site, particularly a new log-in procedure, Oracle senior customer support manager Chris Warticki said in a blog post late Tuesday.

"Customers need to validate their Metalink email address against Oracle's corporate single sign-on prior to conversion (the migration uses Oracle's corporate single sign-on to improve security)," Warticki wrote. "For users who may have missed this notice, there is a link to an FAQ on the landing page that will guide you through the registration process."

Many customers who knew of the planned switch sounded off against it in recent months, saying they preferred Metalink portal over MOS, partly because the latter uses Flash, which is restricted at many work sites. Oracle subsequently agreed to include an HTML interface for My Oracle Support.

But many complaints this week centered on error messages and slow performance. Those gripes persisted Wednesday, albeit in lower volumes.

Some users also expressed dismay at another blog Warticki posted this week, in which he reminded those who had "been off the grid, or totally out of the loop and completely clueless" that Metalink was being retired on Nov. 6, and exhorted that "change is here" and they should "get in front of this one."

"It is high time people like you - and there are a lot of them now in Oracle - got called on your totally unprofessional attitude and your complete lack of respect for your clients," blogged Nuno Suoto, an Oracle DBA in Sydney.

Warticki apologized in a follow-up post, saying he intended no injury with his remarks.

In the same post, Warticki said top Oracle executives are "reading, listening and responding" to customers' complaints. That sparked an outraged comment from a user identified as Carol Mull.

"Who are they responding to? Where is the communication now? Why can't a status page be put in place announcing where Oracle is on this 'migration,'" she wrote. "Who do we need to contact (and please don't tell me to call the support line) to get these issues addressed? This is a 'production' system for us. Your customers need to be informed on the status of these issues."

In response to an inquiry about the company's progress in resolving the problems, and how it will mend fences with users, an Oracle spokeswoman directed IDG News Service to Warticki's blog. She did not provide additional comment.

Oracle could have potentially avoided this degree of blowback by keeping some sort of backup system ready while it performed the portal migration, said Ray Wang, partner with the analyst firm Altimeter Group.

"The bottom line is that support portals are so critical to product companies. When these things go down, it's significant.... You want to make sure something's running in parallel before you decommission," he said.

However, it's not as if the problems provide any upside for Oracle, since self-service portals reduce customers' reliance on more expensive call centers, Wang said. "They're incentivized to resolve this."

The situation is eerily similar to one suffered by Oracle's rival, SAP, last year. After SAP bought Business Objects for nearly $7 billion, a project to migrate those customers to its own support system went awry, preventing some users from immediately accessing it.

Meanwhile, My Oracle Support is intended to provide a panoply of new benefits to customers, such as system health checks and patch suggestions.

Some users see a difficult choice ahead for Oracle.

"It is self-evident that even beyond the deficiencies of the new system, Oracle hasn't even invested in sufficient hardware to support the increased processing demands of the back end," user "getlostdave" said in a comment to Warticki's blog. "The choice for Oracle is either save an awful lot of money and improve customer perception by dumping MOS, or spend shed loads of money to make MOS almost as good as Metalink was."

The new portal is probably here to stay -- but Oracle's response to users may change once their gripes rise above the grassroots level, a user identifying himself as Hans Forbrich predicted in another comment.

"I know that we will not roll back the clock. That is not Oracle's way. Full speed ahead, and the land mines be darned," he stated. "And yes, Oracle is listening. Just like our local politicians. But it will be interesting to see Larry's response as the customer CEO complaints start rolling in."


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.