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Loyalty study zeroes in on tech stalwarts

Report suggests many giants of the industry have been able to capture lasting feelings of customer loyalty.

New research indicates that many household names of the IT industry, including Dell and Microsoft, have been able to capture lasting feelings of customer loyalty.

According to Walker Information's annual Loyalty Report for Information Technology, released Sunday, those that have the most devoted customers are Cisco Systems, Dell, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Network Appliance, Oracle and SAP. The research company, which is based in Indianapolis, garnered its findings via surveys filled out by roughly 13,000 corporate IT decision makers, ranging from chief information officers to systems maintenance personnel.

Not all well-known IT companies fared well. Among the vendors Walker ranked in its "loyalty limbo and laggards" grouping were some big-name providers, including 3Com, Apple Computer, Computer Associates, EDS, Intel, McAfee, Nortel Networks, Novell, PeopleSoft, Symantec and Sun Microsystems. It's worth pointing out that HP's services group put the company on the leaders' list in that market segment, one of five that Walker looked at, but the company got lesser rankings in each of the other areas. Conversely, IBM's computer software efforts fell short, but it excelled in all other areas.

Besides computer software and professional services, the study also looked at networking equipment, servers and workstations, and storage devices. The computer software market produced the highest number of loyal customers. Networking equipment makers had the lowest percentage of devoted fans.

Walker arrives at its rankings through detailed interviews that charted buyers' feelings on everything from product quality to customer service and post-sales support. Of all the IT buyers interviewed for the report, only 44 percent said they feel loyal to a majority of their suppliers, 30 percent feel "trapped" by at least some of their vendors, and almost 25 percent are actively looking to swap their IT providers for somebody different.

At first glance, the idea that profitable companies have dedicated customers may seem elementary, but Phillip Bounsall, executive vice president at Walker, argues that his company's study debunks the notion that the correlation is a given.

"Just because a customer is buying your products, that doesn't make them truly loyal," Bounsall said. "Some customers may buy only because they feel there's nothing better available, or because their budgets only allow them certain options. The truth is that only a handful of IT vendors have created that feeling of real devotion."

According to Bounsall, marketing efforts and financial viability also played a significant role in weighting respondents' emotions regarding their vendors, but in the end the companies who achieved the highest praise were those who have employed the most customer-oriented business processes.

"Brand is a significant driver, and people do subscribe somewhat to the 'safety in choice' mentality of going with market leaders in some cases," he said. "But the more you look at the companies with the most loyal customers, you see how these are the vendors that have literally put customers at the center of their business models."