Unfortunately, this is changing, and I believe that the IBM's decision to outsource and their method of doing so is at least partly to blame:
Somewhere, in the process of outsourcing their most vital sales function, IBM's hardware division seems to have forgotten that customers (and their technology consultants) want to speak with people who are both knowledgeable about the products that they sell and who have access to the information and internal support services to complete the sale.
Let me share just one recent personal (and painful) experience:
Many weeks ago, I set out to order 2 rack-mount servers and 12 high-end ThinkPad laptops from IBM. I will spare you the almost unbelievable details, but I will simply say that it took over 100 communications with IBM over a 6-week period to complete the order for just the first two servers. Much to my amazement, no one that I could reach at IBM had the "information" (to be extremely polite) to be able to assist me in helping my client with their purchase. Calls to IBM management resulted only in e-mail from first level sales reps being sent back. After doing some research, I found out that I was not dealing with IBM, but an organization, located in a Southern state, to which IBM had outsourced operations.I cannot believe that outsourcing saved IBM any money here. At least not in my case.
Disclaimer: This is not an essay about the evils of outsourcing offshore to some group that does not speak English fluently. Nor is this a rant about the potential costs in terms of U.S. jobs lost as a result. This not a rant against any particular individual at IBM or any of its outsourced divisions. This is a rant against the experience of being a technology consultant who has to deal with an outsourced organization that apparently does not understand the products, information, and process of serving its customers. The outsourced "IBM representatives" that I dealt with were -- to their credit -- all English speaking and all very polite; and, they usually responded to my email or calls within minutes. I have come to realize that these people were doing the best that they could do with what little information (or perhaps product training?) that they had access to.
The problem appears to be a complete lack of information and knowledge to complete the sale or satisfy the customer, and the unwillingness of IBM management to get involved. The walls between the outsourced organization and IBM are apparently quite high. This reminds me of why I do not shop at a certain chain of electronics store -- well-dressed people, some excellent products, but little or no information or experience on the part of the people I have to deal with to complete the sale.
If I were trying to purchase a $19.95 floppy drive or some other generic, low-markup, computer part, I might try to convince myself that there was no need for IBM to care about what I thought about the purchasing experience of their customers. This was not the case. Just one set of purchases that could initially have reached $50,000, not to mention all of the follow-on business from this and other clients. While not a Fortune 100-sized purchase, this is still nothing to sneeze at. I'm sure that competing vendors would have been delighted to have the business.
What astonishes me is that I had previously made an almost identical purchase, apparently directly from IBM, with outstanding results. The entire process (with an IBM contact) took less than 10 days with just a few calls and emails to complete. Both the customer and I were very pleased with the transaction. In fact, it was because of the resounding success of that purchase that I did not hesitate to give the next server order to [what I thought was] IBM again.
NOTE: Long before I decided to share this experience publicly, I tried to reach anyone in management at IBM who might have sufficient interest and authority to help me resolve my customer's problem. Finally, after 6 weeks, and after threatening to cancel this and all future orders, I received a call offering some assistance. Was it really necessary for my customer or me to go through all of that?
For any of you who have bothered to read this much of my rant, thank you. It probably will not change anything at IBM, but in a therapeutic sense, I at least feel a little better for having shared it.
As far as I can tell, IBM does not appear have an Ed Brill or a Robert Scoble on the hardware side of the house. That's too bad. Both Ed and Robert (two of my favorite bloggers) write about various software and marketing issues and they have the integrity and willingness to honestly examine the goings-on of their own companies. They are not afraid to call things as they see them - even when it concerns their own companies or divisions. In fact, Ed just blogged about this. I can only hope that this blog might encourage someone on the IBM hardware side to start blogging and change my (and my customer's) perception of this experience.
Do I plan to ever purchase or recommend IBM services to my clients again? Possibly. I may try one more time. Personally, I own several IBM servers and many IBM ThinkPads. ThinkPads are my favorite laptop, and I hoped to purchase a new ThinkPad T42p soon. I even still have my first IBM PC! Many of my corporate customers are all IBM shops. IBM makes great stuff -- I just wish they made it easier for me to give them money. Customers want to deal with people who know something about the products and who have access to the information to facilitate the sales and delivery process. As an independent technology consultant, I will direct my clients to purchase from those companies that provide the best service.
I am amazed that in this economy, any company would not do cartwheels to ensure that a customer -- or even a technology consultant that heavily influences his client's purchases -- was happy and that there were no impediments to receiving business from them. Happy customers and consultants will tell a few others. Unhappy ones, well,...
I believe (at least I'm hopeful) that my current problem has now been resolved. But, I still have 12 high-end ThinkPads to purchase for my clients. I really do not want to switch to another brand of Laptop. (The T42p is an awesome machine.) So here I am, representing many IBM customers, cash in hand, trying to give IBM money, yet I'm terrified at the prospect of a repeat experience. When I told this to one sales manager that I spoke with at IBM, I was told that I would never know whether the next order experience would be better than the last unfortunate experience unless I placed the next order with them. I will stop here.
I cannot help but wonder what the move to outsource services has "cost" IBM and other companies that have made the same choice.
I know what it has cost my clients and me, and I challenge IBM and other companies to consider that the true cost of outsourcing can be best measured in terms of their customer relationships.
What do you think? Should companies measure the cost of outsourcing in terms of customer relationships? I'd like to hear from you.