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We feel your pain, and your pleasure
Is there a problem at Hewlett-Packard? Sun Microsystems forges ahead in the customer satisfaction race.
By Larry Marion

December 1998

In the 24 years I’ve been writing about technology companies, there have always been a few sacrosanct principles to guide me.

In the 1970s, the business was dominated by Snow White and the Five Dwarfs (IBM, Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, and Honeywell). Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment were second-tier computer makers, run by techies who built great products and provided excellent customer service, but they were weak on marketing. Honeywell made great thermostats and had a hell of an operating system (thanks to pioneering work by General Electric), but it didn’t have a prayer in the computer business. While some of the names have disappeared from the industry, I thought the cultures and reputations of the leading players would survive the decades.

IT managers’ changing attitudes toward current enterprise systems suppliers indicate that Sun has made huge strides while Hewlett-Packard and Unisys reputations are fading.
Source: Datamation/SG Cowen, 1998 User Survey: Networked Computing, Servers and PCs

I may have been wrong about the survival of the culture of one player, though. HP’s once top-drawer customer service may be in decline. It was disappointing to read recent survey results, as well as to hear HP customer comments in several chance encounters. The Datamation/SG Cowen Securities Corp. survey of the readers of Datamation in midsummer found a disquieting decline in the satisfaction of the customers of Hewlett-Packard’s enterprise systems. For years HP customers had voted it one of their favorites above other systems players, including Digital Equipment and Sun Microsystems. But not in 1997 or this year.

The most recent survey, which included responses from more than 400 IT shops, showed that HP’s customers have had a decided cooling of attitude, while its competitors gained share of mind. Compaq, Dell, and Sun each attracted sharply “more favorable attitude” votes this year, while HP lagged behind. Only the hapless Unisys favored worse. While 16% of the sites gave HP a more favorable attitude rating, 10% gave it a less favorable rating. By comparison, 39% of the Sun sites gave it more favorable ratings and none gave it less favorable. Dell was another big winner: 30% of sites said they had a more favorable attitude toward Dell, and only 9% said less favorable. As for Unisys, 13% gave it a more favorable rating, while a whopping 40% gave it a less favorable rating (see chart, “Sun shines while HP fades”).

Software remains primary bugaboo

While some of the rankings change from year to year, software and support are the primary reasons why Datamation readers consider switching enterprise systems vendors.

1. Software/service
2. Price
3. Sales and service organization
4. Proprietary architecture
5. New product slate
6. Networking

Source: Datamation/SG Cowen, 1998 User Survey: Networked Computing, Servers and PCs

The reasons behind the lukewarm ratings for HP focus on networking technology and a lack of improvement in customer attitudes toward its software, sales, and service organization and new product slate. IT managers typically are concerned about these qualities in all of their enterprise systems suppliers, ranking these issues as their primary reason to switch vendors since 1995 (see “Software remains primary bugaboo”). However, the lack of a clear systems migration path for the next generation of microprocessors coming from the Intel/HP joint venture may be worrying IT managers. Ironically, the one area of positive attitude change for HP is in pricing. The company’s recent efforts to become more price competitive in the PC arena have yielded fruit.

My recent conversations with IT managers indicate another weakness at HP. While anecdotal comments are not exactly a precise measure of a trend, I was surprised to hear officials from Ford Motor describe a frustrating experience with HP. While testing some new high-end servers to run a suite of enterprise resource planning applications, Ford asked HP to tune the processor to meet specific benchmarks. After four tries, I’m told the HP team couldn’t tweak enough cycles out of a processor that Ford officials told me should have been able to handle the load. For more details, go to Enterprise Insights.

Have other vendors demonstrated to you a talent for customer service, or a lack of it? Datamation is planning a major research project on customer service, and we need your ideas and examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Send me an e-mail with all the dirt and kudos to //

Larry Marion is the editor of Datamation. He has been researching and writing about manufacturing technology for more than 20 years. He can be reached at

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