This summer, I wrote a post from Disneyworld called "Customer service in H-E-double-hockey-sticks" in which I discussed just how much value we give to our users with solid customer service, even when scarce resources prevent us from giving them all of the technology they want or need. Of course, the same also applies to us as buyers of educational technology products. When it comes down to it, I don't have much money to spend, but I'd much rather spend it with folks who are nice to me. Seems silly, but given the choice and equivalent products, customer service is going to win out.
Obviously, smiles and "thank you, sir"'s aren't going to save me thousands and I'm accountable for a bottom line (and in my district, that line is pretty low). However, now that most computing equipment is pretty cheap, most vendors can be remarkably competitive. Similarly, state-level contracts negotiated with a variety of 1st-tier vendors take much of guesswork out of pricing and bidding, leaving customer service as a deciding factor in our purchases.
As most of you know, we just purchased a lot of computers by Athol standards. Although agreessive state contract pricing meant that I didn't need to go out to bid, I did solicit proposals from Dell, HP, and CDW. While I can't go into details, what I will say is that HP made an outstanding choice by outsourcing their technical sales to dedicated third parties. My sales team included software and hardware engineers as well as a project manager. This team put together a rock solid proposal, prepared all necessary documents, and followed up every step of the way, even before I had made a decision on vendor. Better yet, their price came in lowest, which made the decision a real no-brainer. However, had the price been a bit higher, I would have had no problem justifying a moderate extra expense, given the outstanding customer service.
Dell put together a perfectly nice solution with very aggressive pricing on a new line of servers they were pushing, but the system lacked the overall robustness of HP's proposal. CDW barely bothered. In the end, the system from HP could have survived on its own merits, but my sales rep and engineers were so good that I was very happy to jump onboard. Message to vendors: guess where I just ordered two laptops and two desktops, even though the department chair for whom I placed the order had a fancy Dell flyer on her desk and was convinced that we should "get a Dell"? That's right, I went right to my HP rep, got a competitive quote, and placed the order.
Same goes for our new student information system. There are lots of vendors out there peddling some pretty nice systems. Some are priced better than others, some are more feature-rich. The companies that made it to the last round of our selection process had, in addition to great products, really great customer service. In fact, the company we chose sent the most knowledgable sales rep I've ever met for the initial presentation. No "I'll get back to you on that" or "I'll have to talk to our tech people about that." Instead, she spends time every month on tech support hotlines and had an in-depth understanding of the product. Oddly enough, the first time I've heard from our current SIS vendor was after the last blog I posted on our move to a new system. Darn, I still need to return that phone call.
We are the customers after all. There was a time when the customer was always right. I'd like to believe that time still exists and even our generally small purchases in ed tech are worth the best service vendors can provide, whether they're Dell or Billy Bob's Whiteboxes down the street.