Keeping the Customer Happy

WASHINGTON (07/24/2000) - Shopping is a necessary activity, but it's one that can result in nearly indescribable frustration, especially around the holidays.

The federal government's equivalent of holiday shopping - the last quarter of its fiscal year, when agencies must use or lose budget dollars - is now fast approaching. And information technology vendors are trying to reduce the stress level by shifting more and more business online.

One key to doing that, companies have discovered, is to make online shopping easier. A handful of companies now offer customized World Wide Web pages - sites tailored to meet the requirements of specific agencies.

Reseller GTSI has joined the ranks of computer manufacturers Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. in making the customized Web page a key tool in its online dealings with federal agencies.

Last month, GTSI began to put up subsites for government agencies and manufacturers. The subsites include pre-selected contracts with pre-negotiated terms for government agencies, as well as features that automatically pull numbers from GTSI's quoting system so that prices are constantly updated.

GTSI had experimented with several ways of identifying their online customers and providing them with information about contracts from which they could shop.

But customers were not happy with those arrangements, said Betty Greene, director of gtsi.com, the company's online unit.

"This year, with the subsite strategy, we built a lot of different areas, and the [government customers] can do what they want," she said. "It all gets back to the customer relationship management model."

GTSI has more than 40 subsites for both agencies and manufacturers and plans to roll out more in the upcoming weeks. The sites are free for government customers, but manufacturers must pay a modest fee "because it's also advertising space for them," Greene said.

GTSI has already set up subsites for the Air Force Randolph 12th Contracting Squadron in San Antonio, the 8th Army installation in Korea, the Defense Logistics Agency and more.

The Randolph site, which GTSI started working on last year, was one of the company's first. "We had the beginnings of Randolph last year, but we didn't have the infrastructure in place at GTSI to support it," Greene said. "It was finished in June, and it automatically filters from contracts and product lines that they want to see."

Anyone can access the main Randolph subsite at www.gtsi.com/randolph, but a user name and password are needed to browse specifics or make purchases. So far, the site hasn't borne much fruit, but that will change, said Kathy Williams, an Air Force acquisition officer.

"We wanted our customers to have ready access to only those contracts that we have pre-screened and approved for our use," Williams said in a statement. "We were able to do this and maintain the preferential pricing, geographic scope and terms that these [governmentwide acquisition] and DOD contracts provide."

Dell, Compaq Also Customizing

Dell, the top IT vendor on the General Services Administration schedule, offers similar customized services to federal agencies through its Premier Pages program, which was launched in 1996 and continues to attract new customers.

Premier Pages, available free of charge, provide customers with customized pricing information and purchase history reports for the past 14 months, including what was bought, installed and how much they paid. The pages also provide invoice reporting "that we normally mail to them, but can now be gotten online and paid for [online]," said Elizabeth Price, an online analyst at Dell.

Customers' Premier Pages, which are password-protected, also include online order tracking, as well as Dell's HelpTech service, which includes a complete history of the technical service provided by Dell and the number of days left on equipment warranties.

Compaq has also developed a series of customized sites for federal clients - including the Army, Navy, Air Force, departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Postal Service - providing products and payment information tailored to their requirements.

"They can generate quotes, place and track orders, and have workflow capabilities set up where people in the field [can] place orders, which are automatically forwarded to the central purchasing authority at that agency for approval," according to Curtis Parmer, manager of Internet and e-commerce for government, education and medicine at Compaq.

The Compaq sites are free for the government and can take anywhere from a week to a month to establish, depending on the amount of negotiated products and pricing with an agency.

The proliferation of customized procurement sites for federal agencies from myriad vendors proves how powerful the Web is in streamlining government purchases, especially of IT products, said Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

The only downside is managing a large number of specialized sites, but that problem can be overcome. "The overwhelming majority of my members prefer maintaining this type of Web site themselves [rather than] uploading information in a specialized format to GSA Advantage," Allen said.

GSA Advantage, the online site for the General Services Administration's schedule contracts, often lags behind current pricing and means extra work for companies, Allen said. "On their own sites, the contractor can make sure the information is current, accurate and updated," he said. "And these sites are something [vendors] are already doing for other customers, so they're just replicating a learning curve that they've already undertaken. It's not completely different."

Any agency that would like to see similar efforts from more private businesses need only ask. "The first Web site we ever put up was in response to customer requests," GTSI's Greene said. "The technology gives them more support than some of the sales folks who might not have all the answers or the time. This automation technique performs better, at a better cost point, for everyone."

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