Visiting the home team

Today, when hardware and software vendors are no longer suppliers but business partners, more and more customers are finding it advantageous to meet with their new colleagues on their partners’ home turf.

To that end vendor demonstration centres are playing a more important role in the IT purchasing process, especially since studies, including one performed by the Association of Briefing Program Managers, show that a visit to a demo centre reduces the amount of time taken to make a purchasing decision and increases the dollar amount of the purchase.

Mike Visschedyk, manager of communication information systems at steel-maker Dofasco Inc. in Hamilton, Ont., acknowledged that business relationships are changing in the IT world, and that travelling to visit vendors is part of that.

“It’s part of that softer, having them get to know you approach that seems to be the situation in the supplier world,” he said.

Roxanne McCreery, executive director of the Association of Briefing Program Managers, an international association headquartered in Dallas, agreed the rapidly changing nature of the IT industry is now requiring the development of stronger relationships between suppliers and customers, and that briefing centres help strengthen those ties.

“From the minute you walk into the lobby, you get a representation of the corporate culture and capability.”

McCreery also noted it is important for visitors to use the opportunity to meet as many of the key executives, developers and researchers as possible, which is something that Halifax-based Monty Sharma, chief technology officer of MT&T, tries to do.

Sharma, who has twice travelled down to Menlo Park, Calif., to visit Sun Microsystems Inc.’s briefing centre, appreciates the access to key players.

“The ability to connect with large numbers of staff in one place gives us a better sense of where their company and their senior staff are going [with the technology]. “

Sharma also said that access to Scott McNealy is beneficial to a Sun customer. “It has a lot of value in terms of putting the comfort level there [about the company].”

Rose Good, Sun’s operations manager, Customer Briefing Center, said Sun thinks so highly of giving customers access to corporate officials, the company has created an executive drop-in centre, so that whenever McNealy and his cohorts have free time they can pop in and visit with Sun’s guests. When McNealy stops by, she said the customers move quickly from being impressed and surprised by his appearance to being “pretty candid” about the company and its technology.

The 30,000 square foot Sun demo centre, which cost about US$30 million and comes with five demonstration rooms, an enterprise gallery, eight conference rooms, a theatre and a luggage room, is located in the American south, complete with its hospitable weather, interesting locale and high American dollar.

For Sharma, who usually travels with three or four colleagues, that means spending $10,000 to $15,000 per visit, a cost which is prohibitive when just buying a server, but a perfectly justifiable expense when trying to put together a deal in the tens of millions of dollars range.

Dofasco’s Visschedyk didn’t have to spend quite so much for his company’s visit to the Nortel Networks briefing centre in the company’s Brampton, Ont.-based world headquarters. Dofasco was looking to do a PBX upgrade, but since this was “a fairly big project” and because of concerns “about the direction PBX was taking – whether it would be around for the next five to seven to nine years,” Visschedyk felt it necessary to make a visit. Talking with key executives there and video teleconferencing with others off-site shed a lot of light on PBX.

But Visschedyk said demo centres are beneficial only under certain circumstances. “Where we’ve seen the value is where the situation is uncertain, and where it is a large decision or a large project. With those two conditions in place, that’s where it help. When it is cut and dried, going is not an issue,” Visschedyk said.

Still, he questions whether he would even spend the time if he were not so close. “I think there was definitely value in going, but I live in the greater Hamilton area. I don’t know if I lived in Montreal if I’d want to take the trouble to come.”

Leslie Dube, Nortel’s senior manager, North American Customer Presentation Centre, said that visits range from half a day, for the Southern Ontario locals, to two to three days for the international visitors, but many make the trip more than once, and Nortel Brampton hosts about 6,000 people per year.

“We see people coming back many times. We give lots of future direction presentations, as well as presentations geared to budgeting and planning for business purposes. Some people may not be making a purchase for years, but need something today, to be able to know what’s going to be new in the future.”

Dube said the other advantage to coming to the Nortel facility is customers are often paired off with employees who are actually using the technology being investigated.

NCR (Canada) Ltd. is just getting its feet wet in this area. The company is in the final construction phase of its new Solution Centre. NCR’s theme is “Mission Impossible to Mission Critical,” and will incorporate interactive displays, kiosks, video conferencing facilities and hands-on technology.

Lucy Fusaro, marketing manager for the national accounts solutions group in Toronto, said that beyond being an NCR showcase, the centre will also operate as a Microsoft client centre.

“It will showcase integrated solutions, such an Exchange/LifeKeeper recovery. Somebody will be able to pull a switch, watch the machines go blank, and then watch them come back up again. Customers will be able to see a SQL Server datamart with regional data tap into a Teradata on NT installation running at the Columbus, Ohio plant.”

Fusaro also said the centre will focus on the increasingly popular field of one-to-one marketing and on NCR’s key vertical markets.

Like her peers at the other vendors, Fusaro stressed the centre will allow IT people to get together in the same room as the business users, the accountants and the senior business executives, and experience the technology.

“It becomes like a brainstorming session where the business solution and the technology solution come together.”