Taking IBM to School

Customer focus is critical to the company's future.

In the corner of the conference room adjacent to Steve Mills office is what may be the last remaining cardboard cutout of IBMs Hyperman. Hyperman, the main character in IBMs attempted early-1990s foray into educational cartoons, "The Adventures of Hyperman," is a visual reminder of what happens when you get off focus in your business.

"For some reason, they [the IBM multimedia team] wandered into the game space; dont ask me why. They were somewhat untethered," said Mills, explaining how IBMs multimedia team ended up developing a Saturday morning kids cartoon show. "Everything connects to everything, so its not hard to justify why if no one is watching you," said Mills, the senior vice president and group executive running IBMs $13 billion middleware business.

In the opposite corner of the conference room stands a full-size Codernaut mannequin in an astronaut outfit from the companys recent advertising campaign. That effort tried to translate the world of software development and software integration to the television viewer. Im not sure if the average couch potato connected with the idea of using IBMs middleware to tie a data dipper to a DB2 database, but the contrast of Codernaut versus Hyperman does show the value of focus. The middleware focus has provided IBM with a tool set that is helpful to its services business, allows it to be a champion of open software and keeps it on good terms with partners developing applications. The focus on Hyperman was something that was cool at the time, part of the then- multimedia wave and ultimately an expensive diversion from IBMs core mission.

With the goal of keeping IBMs focus on customers and avoiding Hyperman detours, I asked some members of the eWEEK Corporate Partner advisory board to provide some advice to IBM—not broad, someday advice but tangible advice. I told them they could stay anonymous if they wanted.

"Work on your Web site," said one Corporate Partner. "It used to be among the best, but lately, a lot of the great features, especially personalization, have disappeared. It is bad when you have to use Google to find things on the IBM Web site. Even worse is when I click on a link on your site and it tells me I must have put in a bad URL because theres no such page. Using the Web site for support functions, configuring potential new systems, etc., is absolutely critical to my continuing to use IBM."

Web sites are one area where the technology has continued to move faster than the ability of users to find what they want. I know this is not only a fault of IBM. Because Web sites by their nature span the business they are supposed to represent, too often Web sites look as if they are designed by committee. My advice on Web sites is the same as for customer service. Pretend you are a customer trying to do something as simple as finding an upgraded driver or documentation for a product no longer widely available. Youll be surprised at how difficult a task that can be.

"In a recent meeting with some IBM folks, they were bragging that 53 percent of their profits were now coming from consulting services. As a user of their hardware and software, that concerned me as to their future focus. I dont think they even picked up on this concern or why I might have some worries," said another Corporate Partner.

Companies, including IBM, that talk about how much revenue and profit they are getting from their consulting business are a constant source of irritation to customers. The numbers that please Wall Street analysts are often the same numbers that make customers feel they have been taken. There is nothing wrong with charging a fair price for system integration and development. But few vendors are willing to break down exactly how they will spend your money. That should change.

"Concentrate on customer satisfaction, not only in the buying experience but also in follow-on activities including support, billing, inventory and understanding resources available to me," was another piece of advice offered up by a Corporate Partner to IBM.

Paying attention to such simple, solid suggestions can help Mills from having to find space in his conference room for Son of Hyperman.

Eric Lundquist can be reached at eric_lundquist@ziffdavis.com.