IT users eye best deal, lack loyalty

Vendors may love to 'partner' but new research shows that IT users have a roving eye and lack loyalty to any single supplier.

A survey of 2259 IT professionals by Walker Information found fewer than half of IT users are truly loyal customers who want to continue to do business with their IT suppliers.

Fear of vendor lock-in has made end users commitment shy with Sydney-based automotive distributor Inchcape Motors, which is primarily a Microsoft and IBM shop, claiming lack of choice compounds the problem.

Inchcape network systems administrator Amir Parsinejad said the company did not regard its relationship with Microsoft or IBM as "particularly heavy", but will remain "loyal" through lack of choice.

"We have a hell of a lot of an investment with them -- in the millions -- and I see us continuing to be a long-time Microsoft customer in particular, because there is no real alternative, nor could our company offer its own clients and users the level of service we provide through Office 2000 or Exchange Server 2000," Parsinejad said.

He said the customer will only be satisfied with a vendor if the vendor looks after the client's exact needs.

"A good vendor will listen to you not as a generic company but one with specific issues and a specific business to run; their ability to see this is the clincher," he said.

Fewer than half of the respondents -- 47 per cent -- indicated a desire to continue doing business with their current suppliers, while 29 per cent felt trapped in that business relationship, and 21 per cent said they plan to dump the vendor for someone else.

A former technical sales executive with CSC Australia and now an independent consultant said he was surprised by the findings.

"You only have to look at the deployment rates for big enterprise software or hardware rollouts at the moment to see that most companies do not have the money to chop and change as they please; things like large-scale migration or upgrade projects can be very expensive exercises."

However, he agreed that clients eventually faced the dilemma of vendor lock-in, saying: "Customers often find they're trapped from a practical perspective in that regardless of what their deployment cycle is, they don't want to have to redesign their standard operating environment, for example, to make room for a new vendor."

The consultant said overall customer satisfaction depends on the client's level of trust with the supplier. "People buy from people, and they want to buy from someone they're confident with."

The research did note some differences among the IT product sectors. Software vendors may have a real challenge improving relationships with their customers: their products are seen as having erected more barriers that keep users from switching vendors; also, software costs were rated most burdensome.

Networking equipment suppliers won the highest ratings for quality and value.

The former CSC executive empathised with users' uneasiness over dealings with software companies, calling Microsoft and Oracle's licensing schemes, "an absolute bitch to understand", because they were so complex.

He believes it is the "end losers" within organisations who experience such grief.

"I think all users tend to have problems with software vendors, particularly with usability issues. We're only comfortable with what we know."

Gartner analyst for IT trends Asia-Pacific region, Daniel McHugh argues that in the current climate there is no real loyalty to any particular vendor. "With the downturn, people have looked more closely at their IT spending, and if you can save money and get the same efficiency from another vendor or partner, people will switch," he said.

For commodity IT goods in particular -- hardware, network infrastructure and telecommunications -- companies have low switching costs and will move if they or their service provider wants to, he said.

"If I was EDS and was going into an account with Sun [products] but I had a better relationship with HP, then I might start putting in HP kit at a cheaper price into the clients' IT department."

"If the client has loyalty with EDS, they don't care about the hardware."

The companies evaluated included Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Dell Computer, Oracle, 3Com, Adobe Systems and Seagate Technology. Walker Information VP Marc Drizen declined to disclose a breakdown on customer satisfaction and loyalty levels for specific vendors. - - With Elizabeth Heichler

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