The companies you love to hate

About a year after HP bought Compaq, the company did some fairly self-congratulatory interviews that looked at how successful they’d been. In an effort to offer some balance in the story, I went looking for its weak spots, and found at least one customer who was more than willing to complain. He

has a Web site dedicated to his fight against HP, featuring a story about his problems that’s longer than anything we’ve ever run on this Web site. There was also an HP logo, until the company asked him to take it down, but he’s left a blank square where it used to be, just as a reminder.

When I brought up this customer and some of his issues with HP’s service, HP Canada president Paul Tsaparis shrugged it off. “”I think you would find that for almost any company there would be at least one of those sites, Shane,”” he said. I decided he was right, since I’d seen similar rant sites dedicated to Tim Horton’s, Future Shop and several other firms. After looking at the most recent Walker Information Loyalty Report for Information Technology, however, I’ve changed my mind. It’s not just any company that attracts these customer service fanatics: it’s the ones who managed to get them believing in their brands.

The annual Walker report surveys about 13,000 IT decision makers to gauge which firms keep clients coming back, and the winners were relatively obvious. Microsoft, IBM, Dell and EMC were on top, though other well-known names, like Apple and Intel, were on the “”laggards”” list, suggesting competitors like AMD and Gateway may have a shot after all. Many of these companies span multiple product categories, and in some cases the loyalty didn’t carry across all of them. Software users seemed more loyal across the board, while network equipment users were felt loyal to no one.

The fact that both the leaders and laggards in the Walker survey were household names (with “”household”” referring to the IT department in this case) proves that marketing awareness alone won’t get you through. And yet I’m sure each of the leaders has attracted as many hate sites as the laggards.

What prompts such rabid criticism? I think it’s a sign of successful branding and poor execution. The marketing that these firms do — and all of them do a lot — makes a promise to their customers for superior products, quality service and an implicit guarantee of customer satisfaction. When that doesn’t happen on an individual level, those that listened to the marketing feel duped. And when the believers feel betrayed, the believers start blogging.

Marketers may feel it’s not their responsibility when the service operations lets clients down, but most IT vendors are turning into service companies of some kind. As products gets commoditized, that’s all you’ve really got to market. And just as we get better at measuring customer loyalty, researchers will soon get better at capturing the online evidence of customer antipathy.

One of the Web’s advantages has been its ability to speed up customer transactions and in many cases offer self-service capabilities for a range of interactions. The flip side is that it also empowers them to anti-market as ever before. Like the adbusters and culture-jammers who tweak corporate logos as a means of spreading a message about bad business practices, customers who lose faith in a customer have considerable opportunities online to strike back at those who have put their faith to the test. Marketers used to worry about bad word of mouth. They should also start worrying about bad word of Web.

[email protected]

Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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