Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Importance of Partners

No matter how good your technical staff might be, supportive partners are critical to the success of a Tablet PC program. I have long thought that "partner" is an overused term as every salesman or manufacturer wants to "partner" with you, when too often all they really want to do is sell you stuff and then forget about you until your next order. What I mean by partner is someone who goes out of their way to make sure that you have what you need, that it works as expected, and is proactive in getting it made right when it doesn't work as expected. Sometimes these people will even go so far as to tell you that what they have isn't what you need.

I prefer to do business with people like this. I will even pay a somewhat higher price for products if it means I can work with someone I know I can count on to work for me and with whom I can develop a trusting relationship. (I understand that we deal with organizations, but it is the individuals that make or break the working relationship, though I do think institutional policies are critical in consistently getting the right people.)

In our Tablet program, we have several organizations that have worked with us to make this program a success. Two outstanding examples are The Top Floor, the vendor through whom we are buying our Tablets, and HP itself, the manufacturer of the Vermont Slate, better known as the TC1100.

Marcus, our rep at The Top Floor, has been the main force behind the exceptional pricing we've been able to get for our students, as well as the one who bird dogs our orders and shipments for us. He has gotten us demos even when he was aware up front that we likely might not end up purchasing the products we demo and even when the product was a hot commodity and hard to get.

HP has been outstanding in all of our dealings with them, as well. Their delivery times have been prompt (though they could be a bit more informative about ETAs). Their warranty support (handled locally by PC Connection, another important partner in this project) has been excellent with no hassles. Driver updates are appropriately frequent. Online support is decent-- as long as you know where to look.

We recently had an incident that tested these two companies and proved their value to us as business partners, reaffirming to me that we made good choices in choosing to work with them.

During the last year, we ordered several batches of TC1100s. Some earlier models of this computer were plagued with a fairly serious problem that would crop up from time to time. A large percentage of our systems had this problem and it was one for which we sent out a number of machines for repair, as it was not serviceable by end users. After tracking this, we realized that close to 40% of certain batches exhibited this problem.

I took my concerns about this problem first to Marcus. We had a spreadsheet showing the warranty repairs (as opposed to all repairs, which included the accidental damage covered work) which showed pretty clearly the prevalence of this one problem. Marcus took it from there, communicating with HP, setting up conference calls, and once again dogging this problem admirably. He sacrificed a lot of time on this issue, with no direct remuneration.

HP, while understandably initially reluctant to agree to my initial request (demand might be a better term) for satisfaction, kept a healthy dialogue going on it until we reached an agreeable solution. My request was that they come on site and replace all of the potentially defective parts on all of our machines, whether they had exhibited this problem or not. I knew that the program could not brook such a high failure rate and I was unwilling to risk another year with it. Especially not at this point, as we are now putting machines in the hands of all faculty, many of whom are much more tentative about this whole Tablet PC business than the students are.

I say that HP's initial reaction is understandable, because this is costing them a lot of money. So far, in any given day, a tech has been able to deal with about 7 machines. We have around 80. This is 11 days of a technician, sitting at our site doing nothing else. Each machine has expensive components to be replaced. HP is eating all of these costs. Not many companies would willingly bear all these costs, especially since we aren't ever going to be buying thousands of computers. At peak, we'll probably have slightly more than 300 at any given time.

But this has served to affirm for me that they stand behind their products and that they are committed to the Tablet PC. (In fact, I have enough confidence in them as a company that we are going to replace our Dell servers with HP.)

These are the kind of partners that I want to do business with. They work with and for me, even when they don't always stand to profit in a given instance. By these actions, they will be contributing to the success of our program in real, tangible ways.

As a last aside, some might argue that a problem affecting so many machines should make us look elsewhere, but I don't agree. The TC1100 is a bold and innovative design, unique among Tablet PCs. As if manufacturing problems didn't happen often enough anyway, this model had some new issues to worry about because of its unique design. The machines have been rock-solid otherwise. This particular problem has been fixed in newer systems and I am confident that we won't see issues like that again this year.

1 comment:

  1. Mark, I couldn't agree with you more. Having a vendor who can be considered a partner at least makes your life easier and can certainly be a factor in the success of any one-to-one computing program.

    At Dwight-Englewood School where we are also embarking on a one-to-one tablet program, we have also found this in our hardware reseller, MindShift. Our contact there, John, has helped us throughout the entire process of getting our program going. He facilitated getting demo models to us for significant periods of time so we could put various manufactures' tablets actually in the hands of students for feedback toward selecting our model.

    Also, John has worked with us to make sure that we will have a technician from MindShift on-site on a regular basis to handle warranty and non-warranty repairs, which we are covering with insurance on student machines.

    While the real test will be this coming year when we've deployed five times as many tablets as we did last year (with a majority to students now as opposed to mostly faculty), I think this repair arrangement will be essential to keeping the tablets useful tools for our students and faculty. In fact, this partner relationship was so important to us that we made it pretty clear when we were talking with the tablet manufacture that it was very important that our partner MindShift be authorized to repair the machines.

    While we will may consider different tablet models and manufactures each year to get the best tablets available for our budget and needs, I suspect we will keep working with the same reseller/partner as long as the relation continues to work so well.