The Corner

Cri De Computer, Cont’D.

Not long ago Carly Fiorina, chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, merged HP with Compaq, dramatically expanding HP’s presence in the market for computers used in homes and small businesses. At the time, I thought the move made sense: If you’re going to be in a business, you might as well grab as much of the market as you can. But after working my way through the more than five dozen emails that I received yesterday, I’m beginning to wonder why Fiorna bothered.

One email, I should immediately note, came from Rosemary Shanahan, a “customer advocate” at HP headquarters here in Northern California. Accepting her invitation to give her a call, I quickly learned that Rosemary is

a) articulate and enormously charming, just the right sort of person to place in customer relations,

b) an admirer of Ronald Reagan (she had just finished Reagan: A Life In Letters, Rosemary explained, and intended to turn next to my own book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, all of which I of course took as further evidence of point a)

c) determined to find someone at HP who can solve my problem. “We’ll bring this to a satisfactory conclusion,” Rosemary said. “That’s my promise.”

Rosemary has now assigned my problem to a case worker, from whom, she tells me, I can expect to hear tomorrow or early next week. Whereas the first person in the HP system with whom I spoke–a technician at a call center situated, to judge from the technician’s accent and the bad telephone connection, in India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh–listened to me describe what was wrong with my brand new computer for no more than two minutes before recommending that I exchange it, in Rosemary Shanahan I have found someone with enough loyalty to HP to want to fix the problem.

I’ve also learned that HP is full of such loyal employees. One sent me an email asking me to go easy on Carly Fiorina, arguing that she had inherited the company at a difficult time. Another sent emailed to apologize–apologize, mind you–for all the time I’d wasted working my way through HP’s system for customer support. (When I wrote yesterday’s posting, you may recall, I was on hold. When an HP operator finally answered, she explained that the company was overhauling its telephone lines. Then she cheerfully transferred me to a technician, whereupon, for the third time in a row, I found myself disconnected.) But why is HP in the computer business at all?

Whereas Apple designs and manufactures all its own components, I learned yesterday, HP, like Gateway and Dell, purchases its components from a variety of suppliers–my DVD-ROM drive, for example, was built by Samsung, my DVD+RW drive by Phillips. Managing this process–making certain that the dozens of components in each computer work well with each other and with the thousands of pieces of software with which they might be used–represents an enormously complicated business problem. Providing technical support for tens of thousands of customers represents a second such problem. Dell and Gateway have always been organized specifically to handle these problems. HP, a much older company, has instead had to learn how to handle these problems while continuing to handle the problems in its many other businesses. On the evidence of my inbox, HP has never even come close to succeeding.

Before I retired, one of my jobs in the Army was managing/developing/fielding a training simulation system. I was a $10mil customer of HP. And the customer service I got was no better than what you got.

I bought two [HP} Pavilions one year. They make excellent doorstops or boat anchors.

Trust me on this. I do PC support for a living and have worked on all brands of PC’s. Take the HP back to Costco. Get a full refund. Get online and order a DELL.

I am a software engineer…and my job has exposed me to a wide variety of systems….If you want to stick to a name brand PC buy Dell or Gateway or if money is burning a hole in your pocket, Sony. If you want to go cheap, buy a system put together by Fry’s…or one of those little independent computer stores. That way if something doesn’t work, you can take it over there and yell at them in person. Just stay away from HP.

Which brings us back to my original question. Although her company seems to have been doing a mediocre job at best of selling mass-market PCs, Carly Fiorina went to great lengths to increase HPs commitment to the business, merging HP with Compaq. As my brother put it, “They were doing a lousy job in a terrible business–the margins on PCs are razor thin–so Fiorina decided she wanted more?”

I’ll let you know how things go with my HP case worker. And if the delightful Rosemary Shanahan can put me in touch with someone who can make sense of HP’s business strategy, I’ll let you know that, too.