Outfitting the Organization
A basic guide to successful hardware shopping.
For the rest of the December 1999 issue of CRM magazine please click here

Technology for the enterprise can't be acquired in the same way that commodity products or standard supplies are. Buying CRM systems and related hardware requires a complete and current grasp of the products in question, the vendors that supply the products, and the services that those vendors should provide.

What's more, buyers need to clearly understand the abilities of their company's IT departments and the needs of end users. Without a thorough knowledge of what's out there, where to get it, who will put it all together, and how and by whom it will be used, any purchasing decision is likely to be incorrect.

Creating a Purchasing Plan
The first step in the buying process is to understand what the technology does, what key points to focus on when considering various products and vendors, and what specific products you'll need. Let's look at the criteria for buying some of the most critical components-the computer systems and servers that provide the platform for CRM.

Servers. Storing and making corporate information available to network users, a server is the central nervous system of the organization. A server vendor needs to offer an excellent price/performance ratio, true reliability, a product with sufficient disk storage capacity and speedy technical support response.

Server purchases are not the place to look for a bargain-this component, above all others, needs to be a rock-solid performer. In general, you'll want a server that utilizes industry-standard technologies instead of proprietary enhancements that can lock you into a narrow operating environment. However, if your network is already configured and functioning well and you're looking to upgrade the equipment, you may choose to adopt a server product with the specific enhancements that will complement your existing network.

Notebooks. Notebooks are your field force's interface to network information systems, and also each user's electronic brain. To withstand the rigors of a life on the road, a notebook needs to be well constructed (no gaps between the seams, no uncovered ports to get dented or dirty, no fragile anything). A corporate best buy will combine technological superiority with a comfortable price point, easy replacement of ailing or aging parts, a warranty of two years or more, and service and support options that include rapid response time and fast equipment replacement. Support and repair services should be accessible from wherever your users happen to be located that day, not just from your company's main office. And make sure the products you're considering interface well with the operating system and software that you have or plan to use.

When purchasing a fleet of notebooks there are two ways to go. One method is to buy older machines at the moment that a new model with a faster CPU is introduced. This will save a significant amount of money, as the last generation of machines will be discounted to make way for the new units. The last version of the CPU-of-the-moment is often more than adequate for most users. Using this plan you will save money and provide good machines for your users. You can expect these machines to have viable life spans of about two years, perhaps three if well maintained.

The other method is to buy big with an eye toward the future. Here you'd purchase, as needed, blazing fast and fully-loaded machines just as soon as they become available. These top-of-the-line laptops will be assigned to your highest-need users-perhaps those who do complicated multimedia presentations or key executives. The now-older machines that the new laptops are replacing will be recycled to middle-need users-those who use their machines for word processing, e-mailing and number crunching. And so on down the line.

Using this method-and assuming that the machine was solidly built in the first place and that your IT department does regular, careful maintenance and occasional refurbishment-will make it quite possible to get five years of use out of each machine.

If you are starting to equip a mobile sales force from scratch, you can use a modified version of the latter plan-purchase a few high-end machines for those who really need them and some midrange workhorses for the bulk of your users. However, do make sure that your IT department establishes a maintenance routine to keep all of the machines in top shape.

Peripherals. Items such as printers, projectors, storage devices and other sideline products need to be purchased with your organization's specific needs in mind. If your users are out in the field most of the time, then rugged portability would be high on your list. If presentations are a big part of your sales activities, then the serious money should go into devices-such as projectors-that support these activities and budgeting can be applied to products-perhaps printers-that aren't mission critical.

Choosing a Vendor
Typically, corporate purchasing decisions are weighted towards the vendor that offers the lowest price. At first glance, this looks like a great strategy, but you may ultimately get short-changed. You might be able to swing a great deal with a no-name equipment provider but if that company ceases to exist next Tuesday there will be no support or upgrade possibilities-and you're stuck with a collection of expensive gray plastic paperweights. Use a vendor that is well-known and respected, a company that has been around for a while and that caters to corporate needs. Spend a little more for some peace of mind.

Have a look at the standard equipment warranties offered by each vendor-they are a good benchmark of how long you can expect the equipment to function trouble-free. And do work with a company that offers soup-to-nuts services for corporate customers-a vendor that can piece together a powerful combination of computers, information technology and support, all neatly sewn into a seamless piece. The vendor should also be able to assist you with planning for software upgrades, transitioning to new machines and even with the proper disposal of old units.

A vendor that can act as a single point of contact for a wide range of services is always your best bet-for an idea of what a vendor can and should provide for corporate customers look at the offerings from companies like Dell, Compaq and IBM.

And absolutely refuse to work with any vendor that does not offer a quantity-discount plan. Significant purchases deserve significant discounts-if your vendor doesn't understand this then you should find another supplier.

standardizing: Yes or No?
standardizing hardware and software purchases within your corporation is a good idea. It reduces the complexity of implementation and helps to ensure that the day-to-day workflow is uninterrupted by warring parts and programs. The idea is to have hardware, server management, client management and enterprise management components that are guaranteed to play well with each other. Standardizing also probably means a bigger purchase from a single vendor, which puts you in line for larger quantity discounts, superior service and support plans, and a plethora of other interesting options.

The problem with strict standardizing is that some companies may offer great servers while others have excellent laptops and support plans. What to do? Dig a little deeper. If your vendor of choice is getting high marks for everything but, say, its servers-find out why; are the servers actually breaking down or are they simply not quite as fully featured as the other vendor's offerings? If the issues of concern will seriously affect you, then you'll need to decide whether you want to mix and match in order to create a totally top-of-the-line system, or make some compromises somewhere in order to deal with one vendor. I'd suggest that the mix-and-match approach be adopted only by organizations with a strong and stable IT department.

Final, Crucial Details
Before you make a commitment to a vendor, you need to ensure that its products almost work as promised. And since even the best technology does break down-that's simply a fact of life-you also want to make sure that the vendor offers fast and flawless support and repair.

A great source for this type of information is Technology Business Research, Inc. (www.tbri.com), which tracks corporate end-user satisfaction with its desktop, Intel-based server and notebook systems vendors. As we went to press, TBS had just released its second-quarter study based on 362 interviews with IT managers at large U.S. corporations. Participants were queried on out-of-box quality, total cost of ownership, delivery time, replacement parts availability and configuration/set-up.

The results show Dell continuing to hold its top-level position all across the board, though Compaq scored higher than Dell in servers. Dell takes a hit for server management features "viewed as poorly integrated into the enterprise environment and/or lacking substantial features."

Dell leads the pack in notebooks, while Compaq's rating improved tremendously "although there still tends to be a greater number of DOA problems than among its competitors." IBM suffers from "delivery time and product availability" issues despite "substantially higher ratings for product design, out-of-box quality and overall hardware reliability versus the competition." Hewlett-Packard is slammed by its customers for its unwillingness to negotiate discounts, as is Gateway. Toshiba took a big hit with respondents criticizing "delivery time, product availability*, overly complex (too feature-rich) product design, slow technical support response, poor availability of replacement parts, difficulty of set-up and poor value relative to the market."

Technology Business Research's Web site provides complete and in-depth information on each survey and, along with other firms such as Andersen, PricewaterhouseCoopers and myriad smaller firms, will also work with a company to research specific products and purchasing plans. (See www.consultingcentral.com for more information on consultants.)

Since it may be difficult for Purchasing to understand why the best price is not always the best deal, and equally hard for the technology people to understand why Purchasing cannot approve huge expenditures for "absolutely essential upgrades," you might consider hiring a consultant. A consultant will act as your ally in dealings with vendors. He or she can push hard for discounts and deals allowing the enterprise's direct representative to maintain a friendly-or at least civil-relationship with the vendor. However, make sure that you've educated yourself sufficiently to work side-by-side with your expert because no one knows your business and your users as well as you do.

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