AT LARGE: Ten Rules of Business

AT LARGE: Ten Rules of Business

Before you start reading, I should apologise: I don't yet have my Ten Rules of Business finished. Although I am normally a stickler for getting things done in a timely manner, I haven't got round to this particular task. It's on the "to-do" list, and I assure you there are very good excuses for its non-completion.

In the meantime, I offer you my rule #0, a tip for aspiring entrepreneurs that is so obvious it deserves a place not merely at the top of the list, but before it. The rule is as follows: make sure it is possible to do business with you. Now, you may say this is silly. No one starts a business, then closes the shop, hobbles the Web site and refuses to answer the telephone, right? I have, however, recently attempted to conduct a transaction with a company that did just these things.

Now, I'm not going to tell you the name of the company. I will say this: it is a company that sells computers directly to the general public. Lest my credentials as a "channel champion" be called into question, I will say that the transaction I attempted was on behalf of a friend.

My friend received a notebook computer as a gift, not from me. My friend is not a computer-minded sort of person, and has often called upon me to be tech support when things go wrong (like Microsoft Word suddenly not working - thanks, registration wizard). A couple of months ago, the power supply on my friend's computer blew up. When I arrived, it was a little lump of melted plastic and there was black stuff on the carpet next to it. I elected not to ask what had happened.

My friend asked me, because I "know about these things", to obtain a replacement. Now, the company that made the computer (hint: "high-ho the dairy-o") is famous for the service it provides via its Web site. I logged on, expecting that my simple needs would not be a problem.

Problem: you can't buy a power supply via the Web site. Complete systems, yes. "Accessories", yes also. But such frivolities that none but the most demanding of customer would want, such as a replacement power supply? No way. (Rule #0.1: if you're going to sell stuff on the Web, sell everything on the Web.)OK, I thought, there's always the good old phone, right? I sat on hold for 50 minutes one afternoon before I remembered I had a life. (Rule #0.2: have enough people answering the phone). When I finally got through to what was alleged to be a person (on my third call, some days later) I was told I could not place an order over the phone either. The company would fax me an order form, and I could fax it back.

I don't have a fax machine. None of my dealings with fax machines have ever led me to believe I would like one. (Rule #0.3: many people don't own fax machines.) The company posted me an order form, which I filled out and faxed back (via the post office, at a charge of $5).

I got a call a few days later from a different alleged person saying that the fax machine had run out of toner, and my order was illegible. Could I fax it again?

Now, this company is one of the top three or four computer suppliers in the world. Last quarter, it logged some $US7 billion in revenue. I suspect it can afford to refill the fax machine before it runs out of toner. I said to the alleged customer service person, "Are you aware that via your fax machine is the only way anyone can place an order for spare parts? Does the term ‘mission-critical' mean anything to you?" Call me harsh. I didn't fax the order again. He told me what he couldn't read, and I filled in the blanks.

The power supply arrived, 15 business days later, roughly a month after the blow-up incident, during which time my friend was without a computer. Last time I required a part for one of my own computers (a much more obscure part than a power supply), I went into a shop, paid cash and walked out with it approximately one minute later. I even saw the face of the person who sold it to me.

Of course, this parable is mostly an object lesson for direct vendors, which would be roughly none of you. What can the channel take from this? How about a sense of security: if this is the "direct threat", you have nothing to worry about.

Matthew JC. Powell is contemplating a fax machine. Sales pitches can be sent to

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