BIG STICK FOR THE HARD SELL? (column) - a professional approach for PC resellers

Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 10/82 item 01 - scanned

We in this industry are often unfairly accused of being 'get rich quick' merchants. For some reason people love to generalise and if they notice that, say, ten per cent of microcomputing businesses are run by sharks then as far as they are concerned, the whole industry is infested. There is no doubt that there are a number of fast buck merchants who care little for customer satisfaction since, for them, there are always more potential customers than they can handle. Right now, if you advertised a Sinclair Spectrum game you'd probably be awash with orders whether you actually had anything to sell or not. These people will probably do very well for themselves while the boom lasts and, indeed, that's probably all the time they'll need to salt away an adequate fortune. Unfortunately, fortunes made easily often have a habit of being dissipated easily and our get-rich-quick brigade will probably have to find themselves another bandwagon to jump on. And, no doubt, another after that.

On the other hand a lot of people I know are in this industry because they find that they can make a reasonable living while providing goods and services which improve the lot of their customers. For example, my own company specialises in software products. This means that we need to operate within an ethical framework if we're to stay the course.

During the last few years I have seen a number of guidelines issued by companies, individuals and associations which declare the sort of trading ethics which should be observed. In the UK, one of the best known declarations is probably that of the Computer Retailers Association. You will find it on the wall of companies which belong to the CRA. The one that impressed me most, though, was an unwritten one given to me over lunch recently by an employee of a successful American computer company. To spare his blushes, I'll call him John.

I've known John for several years and he has gradually risen up through his company and he is now a key person in the microcomputer division. I asked him during lunch how it was that his company was so successful both financially and in terms of its 'squeaky clean' image. He replied that he wasn't entirely sure but he thought it must be something to do with the way his company focusses all its attention on both dealer and customer satisfaction. We went on to talk about how this worthy aim manifests itself in the day to day running of John's company.

For a start, the company is very careful to give correct, honest and legal information to the outside world. This not only means that product descriptions must be accurate, but also that claims made must not be excessive. The only way to ensure repeat business is to make sure that your customers are satisfied with what you provide. False claims inevitably lead to disappointment and loss of future business.

Advertising and PR material is timed to coincide with product availability in the stores. If only everyone worked that way. Of course, it's no guarantee that the customers can get the product immediately, that rather depends on demand, but at least the company makes an effort in the right direction.

On the question of computer stores, this company regards them as an extension of itself and it wants customers to regard them in the same way. It keeps the number of stores to a minimum to maximise control and encourages a 'family' feeling between them with co-operative advertising and promotions, identical trading terms and free training courses at the company's headquarters. All this costs money, but in the long term it looks as if it will pay off handsomely. To judge a computer store's success, John simply asks himself: 'Would my company president be happy with this store?'. It may sound a bit corny but it does make a lot of sense.

Dealers can confidently quote delivery times because the company bends over backwards to meet its promises to dealers. In this way the customer gets the same story from both the dealer, and John's company. The customer will normally pay the same price for the product wherever he buys it. That is to say the manufacturer recommends a retail price and 'does not encourage discounting' The customer can also get service from his dealer or from the manufacturer itself. All these things are designed to give the customer a secure feeling and to encourage an atmosphere of friendly cooperation between dealers.

To make sure that customers can actually do useful things with the machine, some software products are published by the manufacturer, others form a part of a 'reference scheme'. The latter are products which have been evaluated by the company but not tested to destruction. The user is pretty safe with them but the manufacturer, understandably, does not want to be held accountable for any bugs which may appear under unusual circumstances.

A lot of people reading this will find nothing unusual in this approach. There are plenty of firms around who adhere to similar standards. There are also plenty around who might sneer at such a professional approach. Their argument will be that it's unnecessary - a bit over the top. I happen to think that professionalism is exactly what this industry needs if we are ever going to gain the credibility and respect of the public. Perhaps the CRA or one of the other trade associations should consider widening its scope to include members from all parts of this industry. Imagine the opportunities for co-operation if manufacturers, systems houses, dealers and software publishers could all get together from time to time. The organisation could act as a focal point for foreigners seeking to make contacts in Britain. It could give members the opportunity to join forces in overseas ventures and it could represent the members' interests at a national and international level. It could also give customers a body to turn to if a member company is in breach of the declared code of practice.

So how about it CRA, BMMG or anyone else for that matter? The industry has expanded to a stage where it can finance and justify the existence of such an association. Let's do it and see if we can shake off our tacky image.