Hardware Vendors Want IT to Shop More Online

By Don Willmott

A recent online shopping spree for some new personal tech gear left me marveling once again at how too much information can lead to decision paralysis. If buying a sub-$1,000 laptop is this hard, then how does IT do its research to procure millions of dollars worth of equipment? Am I asking for less info or fewer choices? No, but I’m hoping for better organized info, easier access to targeted choices, and human guidance when I need it.

In the case of the laptop, I started with a pretty solid list of specs and headed to my usual first stop, PCMag.com (disclosure: a former employer of mine), where ten minutes of looking around and narrowing my search lead me to three choices. I took those to CNet to cross-reference them, and then took two semi-finalists to Amazon to read the best and worst user comments. Having settled, I went to the vendor Web site and wow – that one laptop turned out to be one of about 16 in its overall series lineup, and there were dozens of permutations and options that sucked me in for more than an hour of configuring, the price rising with each click. More than once I was tempted simply to walk away to gather my thoughts.

Shopping for a camera turned out to be even harder. There are hundreds to choose from, and at first glance they all seem to be just about the same, don’t they? It can take days to sort out the subtleties, and assuming my time is worth something, there’s only so much of it I want to spend as I seek out the right point and shoot around $250.

I’m sensitive to the challenge of collecting on-point info from hardware vendors because over the years I’ve done some consulting and writing for some of their Web sites as they’ve tried to fine-tune their online offerings. These vendors don’t just want to post a catalog; they want to build a relationship with you, and they want your loyalty. The more you spend, the more they want to embrace you, and if you’re an “enterprise-class” buyer (procuring for a company of 500 seats or more), you have a friend for life.

You’ll know where you stand simply by how easy or hard it is to get human help as you begin your online research and shopping. If you’re a big spender, it’s likely you have relationships with resellers and ISVs, but the Dells and HPs of the world want to be that for you, and they’re struggling mightily to become “solution providers” with end-to-end products and consulting. A human will happily call you and maybe even visit. The challenge is how to do that when they’ve come from a catalog model that generates the most profit when no human intervention is involved. The more they coddle you, the more it costs them, so they’re hoping you’re worth it to them as they augment their spec sheets with video tutorials, interactive product choosers, white papers, and ultimately human contact.

So there’s the challenge you – and they – face: Say you need some kind of redundant data backup and you visit one of these vendors and simply type “data backup” into the search box. Will you find useful information right away? Will you find instant answers to your most vexing “pain points?” Will you be happily led down what the vendors optimistically call “the purchase path?” The vendors certainly hope so, but it’s excruciatingly difficult for them to get this experience right for every visitor every time, as you’ve certainly noticed. Give it a try. Go to any big hardware vendor, type in a “pain point” for which you need a solution, and see how easy or hard it is to get where you need to go. The vendors hope you’ll be satisfied. I expect you’ll either be frustrated or overwhelmed. Eventually I got found camera and laptop. It may be much harder for you to find your way to the right 25 application servers.

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