Buying a computer is simple. You go into a dealership or superstore, say what you want and make your purchase. Nothing could be easier - in principle. Except life is never like that. What a customer believes is a relatively simple requirement could turn out to be unachievable, so you have to offer consultancy as well. That's fine for the dealer as it is an opportunity to add value, but it can seem to the buyer like just another chance to have their money taken away.
The problem is easy to describe but difficult to solve. Too much consultancy is little more than a sales pitch for a vendor with which the reseller has some sort of trading relationship. But even in retail, it is not unusual to be browsing around new curtains and get approached by someone whose badge says 'consultant' but who is obviously primed to push one particular line in favour of all the others.
The question customers can be forgiven for asking is pretty simple - is there such a thing as genuine impartial advice, and if so, where can they get it?
One firm that is addressing this problem is accountancy software consultancy Tate Bramald. It issues a series of papers consisting solely of users' comments on a selection of the top accounting software programs. It stratifies the market into low-end, mid-range and high-end, and the editorial input is kept to a minimum.
At first glance this is the natural solution to a very old problem. The reports, which cost #55 each, make general points such as criticising Tas Books for not having a Windows version yet. It rates products according to user satisfaction, user support services and related issues.
Jyoti Banerjee, managing director of the consultancy side of Tate Bramald, succinctly sums up the need for such a set of documents: 'People we talk to know everything they need to know about accounting but not necessarily about the technology.' For the non-technical customer, or indeed specialist in another field, computing is still a minefield.
It is worth thinking about this sort of customer in some depth. Even the people who flock to the superstores at weekends normally have some sort of background in what they want. This might be drawn exclusively from magazine reviews, but it is a starting point. Specialists such as accountants do not have that luxury and have every reason to be bewildered when a possible solution to a problem is suggested by someone who later turns out to be tied to the solution provider in some way.
It is apparent that the accounting software industry is no different from any other IT sector in its inability to deliver what it claims. Accounting personnel are therefore as likely as anyone to become impatient when a company tells them it has a new and enhanced version of a system when what it means is that it now has a version that works.
Getting the right people to comment in such research is important, and Tate Bramald head of research Wendy Kane was keen to talk to as many users as possible. The reports are compiled from comments taken from 6,000 businesses and for the moment cover 18 different suppliers.
'We only focused on products that had a significant proportion of the business,' says Kane. It is here that the notion of independence starts to fade away; although the research was conducted independently of any vendor, it was selective from the outset.
But the aim was to develop a set of impartial, balanced documents. The fact that the reports are well-balanced is illustrated by the fact that no one has actually won. The product that gained the most plaudits from its users - Tas Books - also comes in for stick because of technical limitations.
Sun Systems and Systems Union perform well in the mid-range, and SAP and JD Edwards came out well at the higher end. But each has drawbacks which are made clear.
But there are two sides to every story. It is unfortunate, but true, that user comments can be based on misconceptions and misunderstandings about how a system works, and putting these into print can be dubious to say the least. Tate Bramald is unlikely to make mistakes like that in a field in which it specialises, but if it caught on as a trend the scope for naive mistakes is embarrassingly large.
There is also the issue of how independent a prospective customer wants a consultant to be. Several players have found that their customers don't really appreciate what inevitably becomes a nebulous 'try this and see' approach.
'I don't think there is anything wrong with the consultant also supplying the kit,' says consultant Chris Hicks. 'I like the idea of being able to ring the consultant and say: "We need another PC to add to our network, and we also want a fast modem in it. Can you get one, test it for a couple of days and install it in a few weeks?"'
This does not hold true for everyone. Another consultant, James Murphy, is suspicious of consultants which advertise themselves as independent advisers and then are mysteriously able to supply computer products on tap. On the other hand, he acknowledges that if a client picks up the telephone and wants to order some kit, he's not doing his job if he can't supply it.
The difference between a consultant and a dealer becomes blurred in instances such as this, and indeed there are dealers which offer consultancy as a result. Bill Williams, proprietor of consultancy Datahighways, believes he has found the middle ground, whereby if he cannot supply a product at a realistic margin he'll happily sends customers to another supplier.
Even so, he remains tied to particular suppliers.
'I started off intending to be fully independent, but found that my clients wanted to buy through me,' he says. 'They trust me to be fair.'
Consultancy as such is far from the pure science some people imagine it to be, and does not always carry the expectation of independence. David Linton, director of SAP Var MX Business Systems, is perfectly comfortable tying the business to SAP and offering consultancy as well. On occasion, the company is asked to evaluate a client's needs and tell them if MX cannot supply a product that will help. 'We make sure they are fully aware of our situation as an SAP Var,' he says. There is then no conflict of interests when SAP comes up as a likely solution.
Hicks goes as far as to suggest that the issue is not about independence or the consultant's relationship with a manufacturer, but that it is about the consultant's relationship with the customer. 'I give good advice and it is rarely acted on,' he says.
He quotes an example of a client that wanted to computerise its payroll because a skilled member of staff was taking a couple of hours a week to do it manually. His suggestion was to get an old 286 for #100 or so and to regard it as a typewriter that did the payroll and nothing else, expecting it to pay for itself within a few weeks. The client spent #1,500 on a Pentium with Windows 95 and an Internet pack. Why? Because it had Intel inside, the client said. The system is now used simply for payroll.
The example highlights the question of what use any advice is if it is likely to be ignored, and therefore what mileage there is in seeking genuine independent consultancy?
A nasty thought about true independence is the baggage of expectations it carries with it. Customers expect consultants to know everything about every product that is out there.
This is quite a responsibility, and not one to which many dealers will feel equal. It is a built-in weakness of the Tate Bramald model, admitted by the company: only suppliers which are already at the top, will get in. Granted, the supplier that has demonstrated some staying power has a lot more in its favour than a fly-by-night, but start-ups can't be written off completely.
This introduces a sticky issue for anyone trying to do any genuinely independent reporting on products for a paying customer - the abstract notion that there is no such thing as wholly independent advice. Indeed, there cannot be: immediately someone has decided that there is a cut-off point, whether based on market share or revenue, below which suppliers may not expect to see their products covered, it must perforce be true that the picture is distorted by the omission of certain players. Whereas Tate Bramald co-founder John Tate is swift to point out that several small new companies will exaggerate their customer base to justify their inclusion, thus weeding them out becomes essential, it is equally true that by excluding anyone the company can only present a view of what it considers to be important, rather than objective facts.
But people continue to want advice they perceive to be independent, which is why the shelves of the newsagents are sagging under a welter of computer publications. At least using the Tate Bramald model it is possible to pick something up that is written by people in the same field as the customer.
They will also have used the product in anger, rather than it being an evaluation by a journalist who may have no interest or experience in larger systems other than in reviewing their performance - which is a different matter from running a mission-critical application on them.
The idea is likely to work well in niche markets such as accounting.
But given the breadth of applications and uses for computers in the mainstream, it is likely to remain a vertical market approach.
Tate Bramald is evaluating how often it should update its reports. It will be interesting to see whether the documents end up competing with consultants or adding to the literature at their disposal.
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