Outside the box

Guest blogging today is andyP, who joins us from Germany, and can be found helping customers and meting out advice in multiple forums, including Lenovo's, where he volunteers as a moderator. Today he's sharing insights on running a business that grew up with the ThinkPad in an increasingly competitive world of PC sales and service, and his recipe' for success - quality personal service.

It was in 1992 that my father gave me his old 386 PC which promptly got converted to a machine without a 5.25” floppy, but instead a Phillips 2x CD-RW (which cost me a week’s wages), a new motherboard, and a 200 MMX CPU (another week’s wages gone). I had some limited exposure to computers before, but this was the start of my hobby PC “expert” phase which with my sales and customer service experience gained over the years (in the motorcycle trade) landed me a job in a Notebook Studio in Düsseldorf towards the end of 2000. This is when I really learned about hobby PC “experts” and found out that I really knew not a lot. I was duly issued an IBM 600 as my work machine, truly introduced to the ThinkPad and, yes, I caught the “Bug”. At about this same time IBM had started a new concept: the ThinkPad Centre. A scheme which would enable business and private customers to seek out a more knowledgeable and informed partner to answer their questions regarding products and solutions, including the then evolving, to be named later, ThinkVantage Technologies. And so the shop became a ThinkPad Centre. At this time the ability for customers to order direct from IBM online was also ended. It was increasingly noticeable that more and more people were turning to Notebooks instead of PCs; they were becoming a lot more affordable and so the market was opening up to more and more potential customers. A Notebook was no longer a luxury product; they were being sold in the home electrical stores, and not to mention the ever increasing number of Internet shops. There was some uncertainty, amongst other things, about how the future looked when the IBM / Lenovo deal was first announced. The question arose as to whether or not they would be equally committed to their partners and products, as Lenovo was seen more as a consumer market orientated company than a business market. Hindsight, yes that perfect science, has shown these concerns were unfounded and I can honestly say that I don’t know on which day the deal actually happened; it seems to have gone unnoticed except for the name change on the letter head we were receiving, and the ThinkPad Centres eventually became Lenovo Stores. Although the notebook market was rapidly growing, for the specialized shop without a web-front it was shrinking. Price was becoming the major factor, the electrical stores were competing with each other and of course all the web-shops were doing the same which pushed down profit margins. Everyday we were seeing the web-shops offering more and more of the same products at our cost price, obviously working on the high turnover minimum profit principle. What I call minimalistic labour unintensive selling; let the customer make his or her choice and carry the box to, or click on, the checkout. How many of these customers have over the years purchased an unsuitable product because they basically didn’t know what they were buying and the salesperson didn’t always know what they were selling? Added to this the Notebook manufacturers were competing with their own special offer programs such as those for students and educational institutions, thus almost completely denying that portion of the market to the specialists. With hindsight (there it is again) our company didn’t take the correct fork in the road and 2 years ago closed. I decided to try and carry on the business alone with Lenovo allowing me to retain the Store status. My decision to do this was based on the fact that no matter where a system is purchased, there will always be a need for accessories and, more importantly, service and support outside the warranty. The customers who lay value on buying from a person who can advise and inform them will always be my mainstay. I have even learned to bite my tongue a bit now and then as the students and internet buyers call by and ask their questions or just want to look at what they plan to purchase elsewhere before taking the final decision, sometimes getting nervous when I start asking about making them an offer. Some more obviously have a copy of the web site offer printed out in their hand and ask your opinion about the offer. I see this as an opportunity and a challenge; I can stress the advantages of having a person, whom the buyer has got to know and trust and who is in a position to draw on his knowledge to offer advice and assistance as the first contact should service or support be required, instead of the alternative unknown voice on the other end of the telephone. As Lenovo’s market share increases, its ThinkPad product range extends with the new SL-Series and it also enters the consumer market with the Idea product range (not yet launched in Germany), there will be an increasing demand for advice, assistance and support. The consumer market they are destined for is a much faster-changing market than the ThinkPad business market. With product lifecycle being the main factor, consistency of product compatibility is important in the business market. It will be several months before a major component or feature change on ThinkPads takes place as a large portion of the market requires consistency, companies can roll out systems throughout the year without having to repeatedly update their corporate software images. This is also why it’s still possible to download ThinkPad drivers for Windows 2000. This consistency of hardware and image compatibility is not a factor in the consumer market, probably not achievable, it’s in fact entirely the opposite situation; the manufacturer who doesn’t have the latest CPU, GPU or gadget in their product is risking getting left behind and I don’t see that Lenovo, or any manufacturer come to that, can allow this to happen. Resources will be spent on hardware updates and getting it working on a specific platform rather than multiple platforms. As long as people buy whatever product they need, the need for advice, assistance and support will be ever present and I plan to be there - who knows maybe even one day, Lenovo permitting, offering the complete package as a warranty service partner.