Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 11/84 item 02 - scanned

WATCHING OUT FOR THE WALLIES (column)

I just read an article by a real twerp who told the tale of his search for a micro. You'll recognise the type immediately if I tell you that he didn't really intend to look for a micro, he only wanted his typewriter fixed. One thing led to another, as they say, and within a few days he'd looked at auto-correcting typewriters, typewriters with single line displays and then, to the eternal regret of at least fifteen dealers, he discovered the microcomputer.

Our hero decided to look around and pick as many brains as possible before stuffing his money into some lucky (?) trader's mitt. He started with friends, well friends of friends actually. He pumped these anonymous and uncounted pundits for all the advice he could get. It was typical of our hero that he rejected the consensus advice which was to get an idea of his software requirement before looking at hardware. Well, actually the way it reads in the article he completely misunderstood the advice offered.

Still, with a firm sense of purpose and a budget of £2000 he set off to find his ideal system. He wanted word processing, accounts and 'educational' software.

Now for his confession. He checked his diary and discovered that his quest had taken him to 15 dealers who had provided him with 25 demonstration sessions. Later in the article he describes a two hour demonstration as being inadequately short. My heart bleeds for him. If we say he consulted five 'friends of friends' and spent, what, an hour with each of them and averaged his demonstrations at 'an inadequate' two hours each, we find he has consumed 55 hours of other people's time. If we cost their time at a modest £20 per hour, we find this cretin had 'spent' £1100 of other people's money in the search for his £2000 system. And, at this stage, he hadn't even bought anything.

I don't know whether to cry for our hero or for the dealers who got suckered in to his little game. No doubt some suppliers got his measure early on and probably sent him away with a flea in his ear. One chap announced after about three hours that he couldn't give any more time unless he agreed to buy. Our hero seemed offended by this. Yet people fell over backwards to help him. Some even offered ripped off software in order to clinch the deal. Little did they know that our impecunious friend had morals too. Either that or he derived pleasure from making dealers squirm.

By this time our friend's shopping list had grown. He decided he'd like to become 'computer literate' too. He thought that a couple of languages would do the trick. This is when he started his second round of investigations. Groan.

Okay, so a lot of the staff he encountered didn't know much about the products they were demonstrating. That was when he took to calling manufacturers or their UK agents. Not surprisingly, he found the general level of product knowledge superior to that possessed by the demonstrators. What a wally. He eventually bought a machine. Four days later he was back in the shop, moaning about something or other. The supplier offered him his money back. That was probably the soundest business decision that dealer made this year. (The unsoundest was trading with this gent in the first place.)

I don't know how many prospects for hardware and software are like our friend. My instinct tells me that a high proportion are a bit, but nowhere near as persistent and expensive as our wee chum.

It is clear that dealers simply can't afford to sell stuff properly at present prices. We either need to educate the user to buy computers like they buy cars or we need to charge sensible consultancy fees for the advisory period both before and after the sale. Alternatively, we could opt for very rigid qualification, but that means a lot of genuinely confused people won't be able to buy from professional companies. They'll end up buying from the bucket shops and get reinforcement of their negative feelings towards this industry.

The 'consumer' approach towards selling computers and software does lead to unrealistic expectations on the part of the user. We are creating rods for our own backs every time we say that a computer will solve all known problems. Perhaps we avoid telling the truth and charging modest consultancy fees because we don't want to frighten the punter away to someone who is prepared to gloss over the realities. But, frankly, I can't help concluding that honesty really is the best policy. We may lose the odd customer when presented with an unpalatable reality but in the long run it may be the only way to gain credibility and a reputation for straight dealing. It would also encourage the wallys to do their 'research' in their own time and at their own expense.