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November 3, 2004

IBM doesn’t want my money

There’s an old adage in business that you’ve got to ask for the sale. There’s an older adage that a man has to stand on a hillside with his mouth open for a long time before a roast duck flies into it.

I’d like to suggest that if a roast duck (or sale) is flying towards your open mouth you shouldn’t close your mouth. Nor should you require the duck to fill out lots of paperwork before you deign to eat it.

A few years ago we purchased a license to an expensive piece of software. It wasn’t hard: we read about it, checked it out on the web, and then used a credit card to order. When we wanted an upgrade we just called the company and a sales rep handled the upgrade.

Two years ago IBM bought the company that made this software. Soon after that I received a long, detailed email from them informing me (under the headline “Your Role as the Site Technical Contact”) that I am responsible for ensuring that my company’s support personnel understand how to work with IBM’s support via the web. In two months, the email continued, I would receive further instructions explaining how to register and optimize my company’s access and delegate Secondary Site Technical Contacts, as well as how to register all of my employees with IBM for direct access.

Two weeks later another email detailed imminent changes to license key management and alerted me to the upcoming Proof of Entitlement document which would arrive by mail with a very important account number. For emphasis, this email arrived again an hour later.

Months later an email FULL OF CAPITAL LETTERS warned me that unless I took action immediately, IBM would stop reading any email I sent them. Five bullets points outlined what I must do (NOW) for the privilege of having IBM continue to process my emails. (The email helpfully repeated itself in French and German.)

Since I’m not part of IBM’s secretarial pool, I declined to follow their multi-step clerical process. Or even read it all.

I’d hoped that our new incommunicado relationship would be the end of urgent emails from IBM, but despite their unwillingness to process my emails they continued to pester me with announcements for expensive conferences. (I can just imagine the paperwork and blood tests required to attend.)

Recently the need arose to use the software product again, and I realized that we’d need to upgrade to the latest version. I called the sales rep who had last sent me an upgrade quote (on paper – how quaint!) to place my order. He’d been reassigned and helpfully transferred me to the new rep.

I told him that we were ready to upgrade and that I was interested in buying a second license, too. All I needed was a price and to give him my credit card number. Not too complicated, right?

Wrong. He was unable to tell me what the upgrade would cost, though he had our account record on the screen. He’d have to email me a quote. He was also unable to give me any pricing for a new license, because he’s only able to quote maintenance licenses. A separate rep would have to be contacted in order to provide a quote for the new license.

And the credit card? Forget that – you can’t order with a credit card. You have to use a purchase order.

Now I don’t have a purchase order form. I’ve ordered everything by phone or web for years. The few times I’ve placed an order big enough (say, over $20,000) that it really needed a signature and a check the seller provided the documentation, ready to sign.

No problem, the rep assured me. I could make one up, as long as I included all the required fields, which he would email to me. (Look! I’m doing IBM’s paperwork again!)

I got the email with the quote. But my quote had no quote number, which is required to place the order. And that extra new license I wanted to buy? I was still waiting to hear from the other rep about that.


I’ll admit that I’m not the typical customer for this software. IBM would probably rather sell 200 licenses to a large corporate customer than worry about the 1-5 units I’m likely to purchase. IBM doesn’t want to pay the 1-2% credit card fee. And the bigger customers probably have purchasing agents (not to mention Site Technical Contacts and their deputized Secondary’s) who live for this kind of stuff.

On the other hand, this is a software package at around $1,000. It’s not like it’s unaffordable or unusable for a company our size. There are probably lots of small software companies that could use it.

It’s pretty comparable in price to a high-end Adobe package, and they’ll take my credit card on the web, even though they also sell to large accounts and do license management.

Dell will sell me thousands of dollars in hardware on a credit card. In fact, the cost of invoicing and collecting and paper-handling are probably in excess of the $15 IBM is saving on the credit card processing charges.

Online ordering does put me in the role of doing order entry – but at least it places the order right away, without the hassle of my having to write and print (on official company letterhead, I’m admonished) and fax my own order. Lots of companies without online ordering will at least provide a quote with a “sign here to accept” line so that I don’t have to do all the paperwork to send them money.

Why is it so hard to send IBM money? Isn’t this the company that once asked its employees to personally flog individual copies of OS/2 to their family, friends and neighbors? Why is it so hard to place a $2,000 order?

Probably because $2,000 is chump-change to IBM. All this whining is a petty waste of time because they aren’t set up for and don’t care about little customers. They’re IBM.

So why am I wasting this time?

Because I want to get the message to IBM that this type of hassling on the little stuff will put you off my list for the bigger stuff. We spent $300,000 this year on products we could have bought from IBM. Not much compared to your big customers, I know, but coming up from chump-change. And we’re just one of lots of similarly sized (and growing) customers you’re turning off.

And I hate to see bad business practices. I think they should be pointed out as warnings to others – and to myself.

I also sell a $1,000 software package, and lots of smaller ones. Are they easy to buy? Do we make it a hassle to place an order? Logos customers (or would-be-customers) – let me know! Even if you’re just tossing tiny little morsels of roast duck at us, I want to make sure the corporate mouth is open to receive them and that we’re appropriately grateful for every bit of business you send us.


The IBM reps I’ve spoken with have been pleasant and apologetic. One went to his manager on his own initiative and came back with a generous offer and a personal apology for the hassle. They’re just victims of the system, and they’re being very helpful to me, a fellow-victim of the IBM system. But good business systems shouldn’t be making victims out of anybody.

Posted by Bob Pritchett at 11:54 AM | TrackBack